Is Communication Bias Holding You Back?

Why is it that when you are speaking with people you know well, (like your partner, your best friend or a co-worker), they often misunderstand part of your message?

You are not alone. Studies show that our understanding often decreases when we share with people we know. The working theory is called ‘communication bias’ and it suggests we often pay less attention when we are speaking to and listening to people we know. When we are:

  • Speaking or writing, we don’t share all the details because we believe the details are obvious to the people we know.
  • Listening or reading, we don’t pay close attention because we believe we know what they mean.

Yup, communication bias is a 2-way street. The impact of communication bias is that even during difficult conversations, errors and assumptions are made by everyone – the senders of the message and the receivers of the message.

The alternative is that when we communicate with people we don’t know, we often pay closer attention. As a result, when we communicate with strangers, we may also show them more empathy and compassion.

Simple Communication Flow

I wrote a blog post a while ago that maps out the encoding and decoding process involved in communication between two or more people. The communication bias theory fits into that process nicely.

Truth is, employee training should include how to successfully communicate between two or more people. Productive workspaces depend on each person recognizing that their knowledge, experiences and expectations will be different and that these differences have the potential to bias communication. To overcome this bias takes effort, patience and understanding.

This Can’t Be True, My Dad Only Needed “The Look”

You may challenge this by pointing out that all your parent ever needed was a certain look, and that from that look you knew instantly if:

  • They were thrilled
  • They were annoyed
  • You should keep up the good work
  • You should run!

I am sure this is true, but it’s not the same. In a highly structured environment where individuals have lots of experience with each other, it is natural that a simple glance might express what is needed. This is especially true in the military where routine and predictable behaviour/needs are critical. But, in a flexible and/or new environment, careful attention to a message is imperative.

Our Expectations Want To Rule Our Business Etiquette

All of this ties into our emotional expectations as well. For example, if you expect me to be an impatient jerk and I close off my email by writing, “If there is anything else you need, let me know.” When you read my email, your assumption will likely confirm that I am a condescending jerk. However, you will hear a very different message if you expect me to be:

  • Kind
  • Helpful
  • Concerned
  • Sympathetic

In each of these cases our emotional expectations impact our business etiquette and our relationships. One short, innocent sentence can have a very different meaning depending on… the listener/reader.

Communication Bias Conclusion

People generally relax their effort and communication skills with people they know well or when they are in familiar situations. The impact is that they are more likely to interpret messages incorrectly… and this can lead to frustration and / or costly mistakes.

The solution is during employee training; help everyone to be aware of the potential of communication bias. It’s important employees recognize behaviours that will unknowingly compromise their business etiquette. Help them be aware of their surroundings and ensure they consider their audiences’ knowledge, experiences, perceptions and expectations.

Happy communicating.

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About Bruce Mayhew
Bruce Mayhew is a Leadership Coach, Keynote Speaker and Corporate Trainer who builds strong client and co-worker relationships that give clients a competitive advantage. Our training and development programs include: ■Generational Differences ■Effective Business Email Writing ■Email Etiquette ■Phone Etiquette ■Behaviour Event Interviewing (BEI) ■Mindfulness ■Using Linkedin to Build Client Relationships ■Objective Setting Made Easy

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