Rick Charlie

Communication Breakdown



(Me, looking at the kitchen table full of papers, boxes, and various other accoutrements that don’t belong), “Dinner will be completely done in 5 minutes dear.”  There is a distinct silence as my sweets looks up from her phone and at me.  “Would you like me to clear off the table now?”, she responds.  Pleased that she understood, I nod merrily, and turn my attention back to the culinary masterpiece I am preparing.


We feel very comfortable in our communications with those that we are closest to.  Sharon knew exactly what I wanted her to do without me actually coming out and asking her to clear the table.  It feels kinda special when we can have that type of connection!  The problem though is, we are likely TOO comfortable in communicating with our dear ones.  It turns out, we actually communicate better with complete strangers than we do with those we consider our inner circle.


Psychologist Kenneth Savitsky calls this “The closeness-communication bias.  In his study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Savitsky postulates that when we communicate with strangers or acquaintances we monitor our divergent differences between us because we have to, but that we “let down our guard” with those we are closer to and rely more on our own perspective.

Another example from this weekend.  Sharon and I live in two different towns, and after six years one might think I have a clue as to street names in her town.  And for major streets I do.  But when it came to me asking what was the best way to go around the festival (on the main street downtown) her response of, “just take Evergreen and then turn on Bridge” did not help me as much as she would think.  In her perspective that knowledge of what and where those roads actually are, is second nature to her.  For me, that was not as clear.  And while you might give those same directions to a stranger, you would also probably pick up on their potential confusion a little more, and be more astute to the need for clarification.


Of course friends and loved ones share similar perspectives (Duh, it’s one of the reasons we like each other) and often that CAN lead to effective communication.  But, too often, we rely on that sameness, and over estimate the equity of each others perspective, and therefore soften our communications, expecting the other to understand.  In so doing, we also tend to relax our own natural senses, and may fail to see the confusion our friend has in our communications.


One would think that with the close relationship, they would be more comfortable in asking for clarification.  This DOES happen, however, this at times is not the case as the communicator is  comfortable in their view that you have received the message.  This can create the “Duh, I must be the idiot for not understanding that” thoughts, and a whole mess of confusion sets in.  Not only are you confused about the original message, but now lost in thought about how you must obviously be mistaken for some reason that you didn’t understand it.


When I was a teenager, my mom would look out at the yard and say, “boy, the grass is getting long.”  She would variably get upset the more time that passed and the lawn was not cut.  Our perspectives were not in tune (eventually I figured it out).

The examples I have given are small and much less consequential than when deep feelings are communicated.  When one is hurt, or even when one is communicating joy, relying on a mutual perspective is even more dangerous.  Deep seeded feelings from past relationships, especially one’s that the other has not experienced first hand, can lead to assumptions that just are not there.  Roles that others played in one’s life (parents for example) often have assumptions behind them.  My parents allowed us to screw up and make mistakes and learn from those mistakes (or sometimes NOT learn), while my partners may have been much more strict in what they allowed.  In close relationships we often assume that our experiences are the same, and emotionally, that can lead to some real difficulties.


Of course the answer to this conundrum is awareness and mindfulness in our communications.  This can be a tough practice when there are dual careers, tight budgets, busy children, and many other obligations tearing us in too many directions.  I am finding, however, that actually taking the time in my day to stop, and have short meditations as an actual daily practice, I become more mindful of my own communication.  Another simple change, listening to NPR in the car as opposed to music.  I swear they train those people to have the most calming voices in the world!

Are you practicing any mindfulness in your life?  I don’t always, as a matter of fact I can certainly lose it at times (I kinda blew off a couple of school related questions from my kids while writing this, I should get back to them on those).  But, I am improving, and really making a regimen of small meditations a daily habit, and not just an occasional thing.  So far, I’m pretty happy with it.  How about you?


is the observing of things as they are,

…without laying or adding any of our projections

or expectations onto what is happening.

~ Frank Jude Boccio

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4 thoughts on “Communication Breakdown

  1. Tom Stieghorst

    that grass thing – Mom’s way of avoiding a position where she had to say she needed something from you (me). Now, why would she do that? It seems like a little innocent misdirection. Is it? How do you feel about it? To this day it bugs the crap out of me.

    1. RickCharlie Post author

      Well, in context of what is written here, I think was mom’s way of avoiding the conflict. If you look at her familial past, I’m sure you will see – conflict avoidance was probably in her necessary top 3 skills learned. She tells us to cut the grass, she feels she’s going to get a whiny reaction that she just does not want to deal with. Right or wrong, it is easier for her to hint.

      That being said, it was also her perspective getting in the way. Close with her children, she believed that we would understand. Eventually, I think we probably did from a chore perspective, however, this did carry into many other things with her (I think mostly for reasons above), and we did NOT get the hint. I’ll have more on all this soon. Thanks for reading! I appreciate it!

      P.S. My personal feelings about it when it was going on, honestly it did not phase me, not until I understood what it was. It took a while, but I think we got to an understanding by the time I was in late HS that it was better to schedule those things with me than to hint all day on the day she wanted it done. I guess there was time it angered me too.

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