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By Steven G. Mehta

Did you know that a complete stranger may understand the true intent of your spouse’s messages as much as you? If you are anything like me, having been married for close to 20 years, I sometimes feel that I should be able to understand the intent of my wife’s potentially ambiguous clues as to her wishes.  However, research has reaffirmed what most married men jokingly know – spouses don’t have a clue as to what their spouses are saying.  So on Valentine’s day, talking about marital miscommunications seems like a good idea — before we get into a “miscommunication.”

Let me explain before I get shot by my wife for miscommunicating about our marital communications.  Researchers have found that although married people may think they communicate well with their partners, they don’t always convey messages to their loved ones as well as they think.  In fact, in some cases, the spouses communicate no better than complete strangers.  According to the study, the same problem holds true for close friends.

“People commonly believe that they communicate better with close friends than with strangers. That closeness can lead people to overestimate how well they communicate, a phenomenon we term the ‘closeness-communication bias,'” said Boaz Keysar, a professor in psychology at the University of Chicago and a leading expert on communications.

“Although speakers expected their spouse to understand them better than strangers, accuracy rates for spouses and strangers were statistically identical. This result is striking because speakers were more confident that they were understood by their spouse,” Savitsky said.

“Some couples may indeed be on the same wavelength, but maybe not as much as they think. You get rushed and preoccupied, and you stop taking the perspective of the other person, precisely because the two of you are so close,” he said.

This concept applies to mediation also.  Communication problems arise when a people assume that a another is on the same wavelength, removing the need for a long explanation.  When people meet a stranger, they automatically provide more information because they don’t have a “closeness bias” in that encounter.

The study found that when partners were asked to take action with regards to an  ambiguous statement, they would hesitate longer when the speaker was a friend. But when the speaker was a stranger, the partner would be faster to focus the subject of the conversation.  “Our problem in communicating with friends and spouses is that we have an illusion of insight. Getting close to someone appears to create the illusion of understanding more than actual understanding,” said co-author Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

“The understanding, ‘What I know is different from what you know’ is essential for effective communication to occur,” Savitsky said. “It is necessary for giving directions, for teaching a class or just for having an ordinary conversation. But that insight can be elusive when the ‘you’ in question is a close friend or spouse.”

Mediation is full of “ambiguous speak.” The parties are telling the mediator one thing – but not explicitly; the mediator is communicating the other side’s message so as to not create conflict while at the same time accurately identifying the other side’s concerns.  Each time the conversation goes forward, there is ambiguity.

As such, parties, attorneys, and mediators should be aware of the “closeness-communication bias.” The closer you are to the other side, the more you may assume.  Moreover, the closer the parties were, the more that such closeness may have contributed to the breakdown in communications.

In addition, many parties ignore the indirect messages being sent by each other.  It is important to confirm your understanding with the other side when you are communicating as much.

A recent case in point.  The plaintiff indirectly told the defendant about a major liability issue in a case – but did not explicitly point out the glaring problem in the defendant’s case to the defense attorney.  The defense attorney, in turn, who had good relations with the plaintiff’s attorney assumed that if he had not been told directly, then the plaintiff did not feel strongly about their case.  Had plaintiff assumed that defendant would not get its subtle or not so subtle clues, it would have communicated the details in further detail.  Moreover, had the defendant not assumed that since no direct statement was made, that no issue existed, and inquired further into the clues being presented, it would have obtained the information necessary to help the mediation.  Ultimately, the parties were frustrated because of the miscommunication.

Research Source:

  1. Kenneth Savitsky, Boaz Keysar, Nicholas Epley, Travis Carter, Ashley Swanson. The closeness-communication bias: Increased egocentrism among friends versus strangersJournal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2011; 47 (1): 269 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2010.09.005

University of Chicago (2011, January 19). Couples sometimes communicate no better than strangers. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 6, 2011, from­ /releases/2011/01/110120090954.htm


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