A Survival Guide for "Mercury in Retrograde" (and Every Other Time, Too)
1. Remember the Transparency Illusion
Most of us assume that our intentions are clear, and that other people understand what we're trying to express. Most of us, it turns out, are wrong, says the social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD. In her new book, No One Understands You and What to Do About It, she cites a study from the University of Manitoba which showed that listeners correctly guessed others' intentions only 26 percent of the time, which is "just barely better than chance," says Halvorson. Speakers wrongly assumed their intentions were clear 60 percent of the time. What explains this gap? "There's a tendency for people to feel like they said more than they actually did," Halvorson explains, "[It's] the whole illusion of transparency."
To avoid foul-ups: If you email a boss about a snag you've hit on a report, or tell a friend that the timing is awkward for a lunch you'd planned, the boss won't understand that you intend to file late and your friend won't know that you intend to cancel. You need to spell out the problem—and your intentions—explicitly. "Think of it like this," Halvorson says. "Whomever you're talking to is trying to detect a signal through a whole lot of noise. Your job is to make your signal as strong as possible."
2. Beware the Cognitive Miser (aka You)
Listeners are as flawed as the people who are trying to get through to them. Multi-tasking humans are "motivated tacticians," Halvorson writes, "strategically choosing ease and speed, or effort and accuracy, depending on our motivation." We instinctively screen out much of what we perceive, and we pay attention only to what we consider relevant. She cites research by the psychologists Susan Fiske, PhD, and Shelley Taylor, PhD, pioneers in the field of social cognition, who coined the phrase "cognitive miser" to describe this phenomenon. Their work at Harvard University demonstrated that in social situations, people ration their attention. (In addition, listeners too often hear what they expect you to say, not what you've actually said; psychologists call this reflex "correspondence bias.")
To avoid foul-ups: Listening is actually interpreting, Halvorson says. The simple solution to avoiding mistranslations is to be more present in the conversation, and to double-check, well, pretty much everything. She recommends direct confirmation questions, such as, "So, what's really important to you here is _________. Is that right?" or "I want to make sure I'm really getting you, so let me repeat back the gist of it and tell me if I'm right." Halvorson knows it's hard not to feel self-conscious doing this, but as she points out: "The idea that we look stupid when we ask questions is completely wrong. Research shows that, actually, people who ask questions and admit what they don't know are evaluated as more intelligent than people who say, 'Yeah, I know, got it.'"
3. Polish Your Most Important Lens
If, despite best efforts, things are still going pear-shaped, don't blame the planets. Halvorson's research has identified three lenses that distort our perception: Trust, Ego and Power. Anytime you communicate with others, those others are subconsciously assessing whether they can rely on you (Trust); whether you are a threat to their self-esteem (Ego); and, whether you are useful to them (Power). The most important lens? Trust, because anybody who doesn't trust you is not going to hear what you're saying.
To avoid foul-ups: To generate trust, Halvorson explains, project warmth—through" smiling, body language, asking questions, all of those things that show good intentions to others." The effort will pay off: A request made with empathy produced positive results five times more often than a straightforward request in a study conducted by Harvard Business School and Wharton in 2013.
4. Sidestep the Email Fails
In March, Internet entrepreneur Drew D'Agostino launched an app called Crystal that helps users craft emails that won't inadvertently alienate their recipients. "Essentially, Crystal is a translator that lets you speak effectively to a person who communicates differently than you do," D'Agostino says. By mining public data on social media and filtering it through a personality profile algorithm called DiSC, the app plots individuals' emotional makeup according to their propensity to Dominance (confidence, bluntness, being results-oriented); Influence (enthusiasm, talkativeness, collaboration); Steadiness (calm, beingmethodical, being understated); and, Conscientiousness (perfectionist, independent, objective). "[The app] is not 100 percent correct, but we have about an 80 percent rate of people saying their profiles are very accurate."
The technology was developed for the professional sphere, but from the start, users applied it to romantic relationships, too. "Usually, the first person they look up is their spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend. People think, 'oh—that makes sense! That's why they write me big, long emails' or 'that's why this person responds to my long emails in just one sentence.' The other person isn't being rude or passive-aggressive, it's just their communication style." Through an email plug-in, Crystal suggests changes based on whom you're emailing. The top three most common corrections, says D'Agostino, are adding greetings and closings (i.e., "Hi, Bill,") for chatty recipients; cutting "friendly but unnecessary" sentences in emails to people who dislike wordiness; and, sharpening vague requests (changing a comment like "It would be great if you could come tomorrow at some point" into a question: "Can you come tomorrow at 5 p.m.?")
To avoid foul-ups: "So far, the data that has surprised me most is that CEOs and other executives don't necessarily fit the stereotypical aggressive, direct personality profile you'd normally expect," D'Agostino says. It turns out that 35 percent of these bosses have a primary "I" (expressive, casual) email style, 24 percent have a primary "C" (logical, structured, formal) style and 18 percent have a primary "S" (warm, friendly, thoughtful) style. So, before you jettison your cheery greetings when you interact with your boss (or friend or partner) this month, pause to assess their temperaments and priorities; and, remember, that each one of them is a fallible individual...just like you.