Sometimes couples know each other so well they can communicate with single words or phrases that impart an entire message. Other couples can’t seem to understand each other no matter how many times the two individuals repeat what they are trying to get across. In the first case, the couple can rely on their partner picking up their meaning even when they haven’t provided a full sentence. In the second case, the partners are likely frustrated and confused, unable to understand why their other person can get what they are saying.

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They are aware their communication is lacking. But there are still other couples, the majority of couples in fact, who fail to communicate effectively with each other but assume that since they are together and know each other well that this is not possible. So they convince themselves their communication patterns are successful while in reality they never seem to know what is going on with each other. In the research report, The closeness-communication bias: Increased egocentrism among friends (Savitsky, Keysar, Epley, Carter, & Swanson, 2011) the authors hypothesis that that most people in relationships think they communicate better than they really do is explored. This paper will discuss the study findings, review other literature that supports the article’s premise and provide recommendations based on the research for improving communication.

Effective communication requires communicators to understand that the perspectives other people have are not the same as their own and that other people may not always understand what the person communicating with them means. The authors argue that egocentric biases occur when taking short cuts in communicating such that the person believes that others who are close to them should know what they mean without explanation. Such biases are less likely to occur with strangers since friends and relatives are more like the person and thus the person relaxes perspective taking which they don’t do around strangers.

In one study conducted by these authors, egocentrism was examined as it related to one person instructing another person to rearrange objects some of which both could see and some of which only the addressee could see. Results showed that the addressee was more accurate in following instructions when directed by a stranger than a friend. In a related study, speakers were evaluated on how well they estimated the success of their communication with friends and strangers when trying to communicate a direction with an ambiguous phrase. Speakers were found to overestimate the degree to which the effectively communicated ambiguous meanings to friends compared to strangers.

Epley, Keysar, Van Boven, & Gilovich (2004), added to the previously described results by showing that people come to adopt the perspectives of other’s who are close to them by making small adjustments from their own. Subjects were shown to be slower in indicating that other’s perspective was different from than instead of similar to their own perspective. Egocentric biases leading to misjudgments increased under time pressures, and when a plausible explanation had been reached and decreased when provided with incentives.

These two studies provide implications for improving relationships with those who are close to us. First, it is important to make sure we remain aware that even with those who are close to use we may not always understand their meaning. Instead of assuming that we do, when communication is ambiguous, we should clarify the meaning before getting frustrated because based on our perception the phrase would have meant something different than the other person is implying. Secondly, it’s good advice that when we do misperceive someone else’s communication or they misperceive ours, that we should keep our emotions in check with self-talk and take the opportunity to learn something about the way we communicate with or receive communication from those who are close in our lives. Finally, be particularly careful when there are time pressures occurring during attempts to communicate and don’t forget to offer incentives for accurate perspective taking in the form of verbal or non-verbal reinforcement to ensure it continues in the future.

    References
  • Epley, N., Keysar, B., Van Boven, L., & Gilovich, T. (2004). Perspective taking as egocentric anchoring and adjustment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87, 327−339
  • Savitsky, K., Keysar, B., Epley, N., Carter, T., & Swanson, A. (2011). The closeness-communication bias: Increased egocentrism among friends versus strangers. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(1), 269-273.