The Dangers of Closeness-Communication Bias

The Dangers of Closeness-Communication Bias

Earlier this week, I came across a theory called closeness-communication bias. The basic premise is that people tend to overestimate the effectiveness of their communication when they’re engaging with someone they consider close, whether it’s a romantic partner, a friend or a colleague.

This study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests that we assume people who are close to us will easily know what we mean; whereas, we explain or listen more precisely when communicating with strangers.

Sure, closeness can lead to many benefits in communication. Who doesn’t love the feeling of giving someone a certain look and knowing they understand exactly what you’re thinking? However, this same closeness can lead to communication breakdowns with the people you’re most familiar with.

Why Your Communication is Breaking Down

According to the psychologists who led the study, if your communication is collapsing with those you are closest to you may be:

  • relaxing your perspective-taking efforts and making assumptions instead of gathering information
  • overestimating your shared perspective and assuming a common frame of reference
  • romanticizing how well you actually communicate together

Nicholas Epley, professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and co-author of the study, said in a Consumer Affairs interview, “Getting close to someone appears to create the illusion of understanding more than actual understanding.”

How to Address Closeness-Communication Bias – Start With Awareness

The good news is that once you’re aware of closeness-communication bias there are strategies you can explore to avoid its downfalls. Start by asking yourself the following questions:

  1. What are you assuming? Are you expecting the person on the other end of your communication to understand what you mean or respond in a certain way? Have you given them enough context? Do they have all the information you do? Or at the very least all the information they need to effectively receive and respond?
  2. Are you entering the communication with an open mind? Or, are you expecting a certain response based on an illusion of understanding your co-communicator? What judgements or expectations are you bringing to the table?
  3. Are you being too vague? If there are gaps, people will fill them in with their own assumptions. Make sure you pause and look for ambiguity in your communication.
  4. Do you have unrealistic expectations that someone can read your mind? Or that you can read theirs? While being close to someone often means they “just get us” — it’s important not to take this closeness for granted.

At some point we will all suffer from closeness-communication bias. Chances are it will reoccur from time to time in both our professional and personal lives. By being aware of it we can continue to improve communication with those closest to us.

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