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A couple talking atop a hill

Think of traveling a well-known road: As the route becomes familiar, you may no longer register street names or scenery. You may even let your mind wander.

Something similar takes place in our relationships.

While researching her latest book, You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters, journalist Kate Murphy noticed a surprising, counterintuitive quirk: We tend to listen less carefully to the people closest to us because we think we already know what they’re going to say.

To investigate what has become known as the “closeness-communications bias,” University of Chicago and Williams College researchers designed an experiment resembling a parlor game. Two couples sat in a circle facing away from each other and took turns reading ambiguous everyday phrases, such as, “What have you been up to?”

When asked what the speaker was trying to say, listeners might guess whether the phrase conveyed interest in someone’s well-being, irritation at a person’s late arrival, or suspicion of romantic infidelity.

Though spouses believed they would easily pass this test, researchers found the couples understood each other no better than strangers — and sometimes worse. Similar results occurred when the experiment was replicated with friends.

Study leader Kenneth Savitsky, PhD, a Williams College psychology professor, says some people in close relationships may indeed be on the same wavelength — just not as much as they might think. “You get rushed and preoccupied, and you stop taking the perspective of the other person, precisely because the two of you are so close.”

Like the oft-traveled road, familiarity in relationships can breed inattentiveness. But unlike that road, the people in our lives constantly change. If we rely on the past to understand someone in the present, we might overlook the person he or she has become.

Become a Better Listener

To hone your listening skills, Kate Murphy offers the following advice:

  1. Listen to learn. When you leave a conversation, ask yourself, What did I learn about that person? How did that person feel about what we were talking about?
  2. Stay curious. By asking questions of those you know well, and then listening carefully, you demonstrate that they retain your interest and concern as they inevitably evolve.
  3. Truly tune in. Rather than focusing on your own thoughts, try to pick up on the subtext of what someone is saying and notice the subtle nonverbal details.
  4. Don’t rush to reply. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know what to say.” You honor what the other person has said by taking time to think about it.
  5. Listen to opposing views. Learning how other people arrived at their conclusions can inform your own. And listening may, in turn, encourage others to listen to you.

This originally appeared as “You’re Not Listening!” in the July-August 2020 print issue of Experience Life.

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