The Science of Success

How we can all achieve our goals

The One Simple Fix for Miscommunication

It's easier to be misunderstood by a relative than a stranger. Here's why.

I'm sure he understood what I meant.

It was obvious to her how I felt.

It goes without saying...

The most common source of miscommunication in any relationship is a very simple one: We routinely fail to realize how little we are actually communicating. In other words, we think we've said a lot more than we actually have.

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Psychologists call this the signal amplification bias (though calling it the "I'm Sure It Was Obvious" Effect would be much more to the point). Studies show that the vast majority of us tend to believe that our behavior is much more expressive than it actually is, and this phenomenon occurs across a variety of situations. 

For instance, we often think people can tell when we're lying—that our discomfort with deception is obvious—but they rarely have any idea. We also assume that others understand our goals and what we're trying to accomplish, when in fact they often don't have a clue. The reality is that most of what we say and do every day is open to multiple interpretations, and when other people try to figure out what we really mean, they're apt to guess wrong.

Worse, we're even more likely to be sure our communications are obvious when dealing with people we know well—when it comes to friends, family members, and romantic partners, we assume our thoughts and behaviors are especially transparent, when they are far from it.

Ironically, the risk of miscommunication is greater with your spouse than it is with a stranger.

When we assume that other people know what we're thinking, and what we expect of them, we do them a real disservice. Assuming that we've been clear about what we wanted, we blame them when things don't go the way we expected, or when we feel that our needs are going unmet.

In short, assuming that your feelings of love and caring for the important people in your life "go without saying" is a great way to leave those people feeling unloved and uncared for.

So the next time you catch yourself thinking, "I didn't expressly say that to him, but it should be obvious..." stop.  Nothing is ever obvious unless you make it obvious by spelling it out. 

Just remove the phrase "It goes without saying" from your mental lexicon, because it is rubbish. If something is important, then it must go with saying. Make a point of saying exactly what you mean or feel, and asking for exactly what you need, and you'll be pleasantly surprised by how often you get it.



My new book, Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals is available wherever books are sold.  Follow me on Twitter @hghalvorson

Having a problem reaching a goal, and not sure where you're going wrong?  Try the Goal Troubleshooter Quiz!

Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals.


Subscribe to The Science of Success

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?