We’re So Close I Can’t Hear You

Do you truly know your best friend? What about your wife, or your closest colleague? If you are like most people, you probably emphatically nodded yes. We feel like the people with whom we are closest are also the ones we understand the best. But it’s a funny human idiosyncrasy that, although we spend time with, care about, even love those individuals, we likely do not know them as well as we think.

This isn’t a function of the philosophical precept that it may be impossible ever truly to know another individual — although that may be so. Instead, it’s because the better we know someone, and the more time we spend with them, the less well we listen to what they actually tell us.

It’s Not Your Fault

It is because of an unconscious failing known as the closeness communication bias. There are several explanations for it. But before we look at the psychological research, let’s just reflect on our own experiences. For example, when you listen to mother, your spouse, or your boss, it may feel very much as though you could finish their sentences. In fact, some people have that very habit, completing the sentences of other people. When we have that feeling that we know how this sentence will end, we consider it as evidence for how well we understand our friend. After all, you have spent your whole life listening to and learning about your dad. So of course, you know how he feels about the election, the chatty neighbor with the barking dog, or the price of gas.

But, if you have ever been on the receiving end of that behavior, you realize that when someone finishes your sentence it does not feel as though they understand you. Rather, it feels like you have been spoken over and unheard. And most of us have people in our lives or work who we know have stopped really listening to us.

You’re Special, But Human

As it happens, the data suggests that this trait is widespread. And any divorce lawyer, marriage counselor or aggrieved wife’s best friend will confirm it. People in long relationships very often feel least well-known by those with whom they are closest. That is why we find it so charming when, in novels or romantic movies, the lover receives the most incredibly perfect gift from his partner. It’s a symbol of how well she knows him and how keenly she has listened to his every word. It is rare and precious to be listened to that well.

Not surprisingly, given this inclination, one in four Americans feel as though no one really knows or understands them. That is an astonishingly high number. It may also explain why so many people will find themselves telling very intimate details of their lives or feelings to relative strangers. They do it on airplanes with the person in the next seat, at the checkout counter or to the telemarketer who interrupted dinner.

So, why do we get it wrong so often with our own friends and colleagues?  It is kind of virtuous cycle gone wrong. Initially, when you get to know someone, and they are still a true mystery, you listen keenly, learning their speech and thought patterns. You discover their personalities. This was and is beneficial to our survival. The best way to create safety with a newcomer is to find out who they are and whether they are friend or foe. That knowledge adds to our safety and comfort.

Blame Evolution

Once we feel secure — whether professionally or personally — we no longer need to gather additional data to relieve our well-deserved anxiety. That is when ego takes over. We have encountered an unknown person and converted them into a known person. But, that very confidence in our intimacy and knowledge about them becomes an obstacle. Instead of listening curiously to discover more of who they are or what they think, we transpose our belief about who they are onto our experience of who they are. But what we are really doing is endowing them with thoughts, feelings and beliefs that belong to us, not to them.

This has been confirmed in laboratory research, For example, when study subjects communicated something that included lots of ambiguous terms, they over-estimated how well understood they had been when speaking to a close friend. They were far more accurate when they said the same phrase to a perfect stranger and estimated if they were properly understood.

This has important consequences for organizations. Coworkers often spend a great deal of time together. If they are to be innovative and collaborate successfully, they just remain vigilant about how they listen. It’s incredibly easy and automatic to shut off our listening halfway through a paragraph or presentation. This happens more when we are familiar with the subject or the speaker. It forecloses the very real likelihood of people surprising us.

Catch Yourself In The Act

We are surprised only if we interrupt our sense of “knowing” what they are about to say. To accomplish that we have to train ourselves to listen as though they are strangers. Then, we will discover their newest ideas and opinions. Otherwise, it all sounds a bit like the adults in a Peanuts cartoon. “Wa wa wa wa….”.

Whether you’re a manager, executive or have simply worked with someone for ages, take note of how certain you are about them and who they are. Let go of that certainty and instead, try to hear what they’re saying with virgin ears. If we practice this over and over, we can gain greater skill at overriding our egos.

The odds are that none of us really knows what anyone else is thinking. The greatest repository of uncertainty is in other people’s thoughts. It’s true of our moms, our colleagues, our spouses and our friends. Consider them all to be mysteries who you can never fully discover, because they are. That change in perspective can offer dividends in richer friendships, more cohesive organizations and more loving families.


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