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Communication Challenges with Family and Friends

Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D. Updated: Mar 19th 2007

Most of us assume that because we have spent a lot of time with a spouse, other family members, or close friends, our communication with them should be relatively easy and effortless. Our thinking probably goes something like this: "my spouse/parent/sibling/best friend knows me very well, so he or she should know what I am thinking and feeling, as well as what I mean." We are often surprised and annoyed when people who are close to us misunderstand what we are talking about. Although it's tempting to blame the other person, the problem also begins with us.

Dr. Boaz Keysar, of the University of Chicago, has spent a career studying interpersonal communication, and has found that communicating with people we know very well is actually more difficult than communicating with people we hardly know at all. His research suggests that problems communicating with our loved ones and friends come from several different factors.

First, most people seriously overestimate their ability to communicate effectively. Keysar's studies suggest that nearly 50% of the time when we think we are understood, we are actually wrong. Because we assume we are being understood, we don't take the time to check whether our family and friends receive the correct message. Because we communicate with our friends and family frequently, there are multiple opportunities for being misunderstood.

Second, we tend to think that our knowledge is transparent, or known by other people. Because of the mental effort that speaking requires, it is often difficult to take another person's perspective while we are talking. We forget that people, even those who spend a lot of time with us, might not know what we are discussing. For example, you might think that your spouse knows many of the same things as you do (because you have shared many similar experiences) and will therefore automatically follow your conversation. How many times have you said to your spouse, "I thought I told you this already?"

Third, because we communicate with family and friends frequently, there are times when our intended message is subtle (e.g., messages that are ambiguous, sarcastic, or meant to convey emotion). Unfortunately, conveying subtle messages is usually difficult. The more subtle the message, the more likely we are to miscommunicate. Worse, the more subtle the message, the less likely we are catch a miscommunication that occurs. For example, if your best friend apologizes for being busy, and you respond "It's hard to be a good friend", you could mean anything from "You are not being a good friend", to "I understand that you have a lot going on right now". Or, if you tell your spouse "I am happy to take care of it", you could be serious or sarcastic, depending on your intended message.

If you combine the above factors, the most challenging situations involve communicating new, subtle information to our loved ones and friends. In these situations, we often use short, ambiguous messages suggesting that the other person already knows what we are talking about.

According to Dr. Keysar, it may be difficult to completely eliminate these communication "bad habits", but being aware of our behavior can help. He recommends that we err on the side of assuming that messages we are sending are complicated and likely to be misunderstood. Particularly in an argument or an emotional discussion, check frequently with the other person to make sure that she or he is actually receiving the message that you are intending to send.




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