March 4, 2020
“You’re not listening!” “Let me finish!” “That’s not what I said!” After “I love you,” these are among the most common refrains in close relationships, according to Kate Murphy—who is, not so coincidentally, the author of You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters. released by Celadon Books in January.
The Houston-based journalist recently wrote an article for The New York Times, noting that, “During my two years researching a book on listening, I learned something incredibly ironic about interpersonal communication: The closer we feel toward someone, the less likely we are to listen carefully to them. It’s called the closeness-communication bias and, over time, it can strain, and even end, relationships.”
Indeed, Murphy has found that, once you know a person well enough to feel you hae a close relationship, there’s an unconscious tendency to tune them out because you think you already know what they are going to say. It’s kind of like when you’ve traveled a certain route several times and no longer notice signposts and scenery.
But that’s a fallacy, because the sum of each person’s daily interactions and activities continually shapes his or her beliefs and perceptions, so none of us is the “same” as we were last month, last week—or even yesterday.
Social science researchers have repeatedly demonstrated the closeness-communication bias in experimental setups where they paired subjects first with friends or spouses and then with strangers. In each scenario, the researchers asked subjects to interpret what their partners were saying. While the subjects predicted they would more accurately understand, and be understood by, those with whom they had close relationships, they often understood them no better than strangers— and often worse.
“Accurately understanding another person often requires a second thought, to think, ‘Wait a minute, is this really what this person meant?’ and to check it,” said Nicholas Epley, a professor of Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, who talked to Murphy for her story in the Times. “We just don’t do that as much with those we are close to because we assume we know what they are saying and that they know what we are saying.”
A prime example, he said, was when he gave his wife what he thought was the perfect gift: a behind-the-scenes tour of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, during which she would get to feed the dolphins, beluga whales, and penguins. He thought she’d love it because she’d once expressed interest in swimming with dolphins. But she didn’t love it. At all. She was annoyed because she was pregnant at the time and suffering from morning sickness. Just the thought of touching a … fish made her want to vomit.
Indeed, the Times article notes, the closeness-communication bias not only keeps us from listening to those we love; it also can keep us from allowing our loved ones to listen to us. It may explain why people in close relationships sometimes withhold information or keep secrets from one another.
You’ve probably experienced this phenomenon when someone close to you revealed something that you didn’t know while the two of you were talking to someone else. You might have even said, “I didn’t know that!”
The revelation most likely occurred because the additional person was listening differently than you previously had. Maybe that person showed more interest, asked the right questions, was less judgmental, or was less apt to interrupt. Again, it’s not that people in close relationships are purposefully neglectful or inattentive, it’s simply human nature to become complacent about what we know.
But what is love if not a willingness to listen to and be a part of another person’s evolving story? It turns out. Murphy says, that the best way for us to really understand those closest to us is to spend time with them, put down our phones. and actually listen to what they have to say.
Research contact: @nytimes