Messy Minds and Mangled Communication

Mangled Communication: How and Why It Occurs

“You know, that guy in that movie we saw last month! I can’t think of the actor’s name. I know you know it. Please tell me,” pleads her husband. “What are you talking about?” replies his spouse. “You know, that guy, in that movie…” “Honey, I have absolutely no idea what you mean,” she repeats. And on it goes.

Why is the husband convinced that his wife knows the actor’s name or, more broadly, what he’s talking about? The reason is the quiet communication killer, the illusion of transparency. This illusion refers to the mistaken belief that others can easily grasp our ideas, thoughts, and emotions.

More specifically, “When individuals attempt to determine how apparent their internal states are to others, they begin the process of judgment from their own subjective experience. The adjustments they make from this anchor—adjustments that stem from the recognition that others are not as privy to their internal states as they are themselves—tend to be insufficient.”*

In other words, we realize that others can’t read our minds and make a genuine effort to adjust our spoken and written communication accordingly. Even with this effort, however, we tend to fall short by assuming that others know what we know and share our perspective.

If we struggle to communicate with our spouse, how likely are we to communicate effectively with clients and colleagues? Not likely, it seems. Outside In authors Manning and Bodine make the point when they describe a telecommunications company that was flooded with complaints about inaccurate bills. A thorough investigation revealed that the bills were, in fact, correct. The problem was customer confusion about which plans they had purchased. The phone bills did not align with customers’ expectations giving the false impression that the bills were erroneous.

Next, three steps to better communication.


*The Illusion of Transparency: Biased Assessments of Others’ Ability to Read One’s Emotional States by Thomas Gilovich, Victoria Husted Medvec, Kenneth Savitsky Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1998, Vol. 75, No. 2, 332-346.

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