Here’s a question for you: How would you rate yourself as a driver – below average, average, or above average? How about your IQ (intelligence)? And finally, how about as a tennis player?
Research by psychologists tells us that most people overestimate their driving ability and intelligence compared to others, while they will be much more accurate about their tennis ability.
One reason why is that we can easily obtain objective feedback about our tennis performance – just play a game (or remember the last game we played) – the score is pretty black and white even though some of us might blame the racket, the condition of the court or the sun in our eyes for our embarrassing performance.
Feedback on our driving ability, however, is not so objective. The absence of an accident or penalties on our driving record can just as easily be due to the fact that we rarely drive, or drive very timidly, than we possess any exceptional ability. Yet most of us will point to these factors to justify our belief that we are in fact a better-than-average driver.
Similarly, with IQ. In one famous study, 94% of university professors rated themselves above average compared to their peers*. They can’t all be right – by definition, around half have to be at or below average.
Psychologists call this effect ‘Illusionary Superiority’ and it shows up in areas where the feedback is non-specific or absent like job performance, charitable giving, virtuous behaviour, parenting and driving.
In a strange twist of irony, those who are most incompetent are also the most likely to overestimate their ability, while those who are objectively superior tend to under-rate their ability.
So, with that background, here’s the real test: How would you rate yourself when it comes to communication?
Most of us, without the benefit of the lesson in ‘illusionary superiority’, tend to see ourselves as better-than-average communicators. This happens, for two reasons.
The first is that we tend to attribute any failed communication to the other party. In our personal bubble, we know what we want to communicate, and we know we said it clearly because it made perfect sense to us.
If there was a misunderstanding it obviously had to be the result of faulty interpretation by the other! And if we misunderstand someone else’s message, clearly it was their inadequate articulation rather than our faulty interpretation.
In the absence of objective feedback, it’s easy, and perhaps natural, to conclude that inadequacies in the other’s communication skills account for any miscommunication.
The second reason is that most of our communication is simple and thus easily accomplished. Like driving the car to church – it’s a short route, we know it well, we do it every week. The fact that we don’t have an accident on the way to church doesn’t prove that we are a good driver, because we weren’t really testing the limits of our ability. The real test of one’s driving capability arises in different circumstances.
Likewise, if we gave a group of adults a grade two mathematics test, they’d probably all get 100%. Again, that doesn’t prove that they are all exemplary mathematicians. To determine that, we’d need to give them a more challenging examination.
The same effect happens with our daily communication experience. Most of our communication is straight forward and happens around simple topics that aren’t emotionally loaded.
The message is given, and the message is accurately received. Mission accomplished. Asking our spouse to pick up some milk on the way home is hardly a complex test of our communication skills.
However, put us into a situation where the message is complex, or the situation is emotionally loaded – or both – and suddenly our communication skills may not be as robust as we thought.
We think of the conversations we had with doctors last year when Francine was diagnosed with a papillary carcinoma in her thyroid. Intense emotions made it very difficult for her to hear and remember the information from the doctor. It led us to adopt a strategy of always having a second person present and making written notes of our questions and the doctor’s answers.
A similar dynamic can happen in our marriage when we are upset with each other. We think we are communicating effectively, but our emotional state makes it hard for us to be self-reflective and calm in our messaging and distracted in our listening.
When a disagreement between us escalates to an argument, both of us want to have our say but neither of us really wants to hear the other. With two speakers and no listener, there’s nowhere for the message to go, even a well-articulated one.
Virtues for Good Communicators
Good communication is less about learning techniques or skills, though these can certainly help, and more about adopting the virtues from which we approach our communication. Good communication relies on four important virtues:
- Self-awareness – so that we can better understand and articulate our interior experience and communicate more clearly what we truly need. Without this self-knowledge, our communication will be superficial especially in intimate conversations. For we cannot share with the other what we do not know about ourselves.
- Vulnerability – so that we can be open and honest with each other. We need self-awareness, but we also need to be prepared to share our interior lives openly. Without vulnerability communication between us as a married couple might be efficient, but it will, by definition, be superficial.
- Self-restraint – so that we can manage our intense emotions and discipline ourselves to listen before speaking and then to speak clearly, honestly and compassionately. Self-restraint allows us to be disciplined in what we say, how we say it and when we say it. It also creates the environment for us to listen more receptively. Telling the other ‘like it is’ with the full force of our anger may temporarily make us feel better, but it is almost always destructive to our intimacy.
- Other-centredness – so that we communicate from an awareness of the other’s needs, making it easier for the other to express themselves and thus easier for them to hear us. This virtue invites us to approach the conversation with deep respect for the other rather than the typical entitlement mentality that dominates and destroys so many intimate relationships. When we feel heard we are more prepared to listen to the other. This environment of mutual reverence for each other’s experience, enables us to be more vulnerable and real with each other.
Good communicators don’t just arise from a vacuum. They emerge from a virtue-driven mentality that approaches every person – including themselves – as a God’s creation and worthy of honour and respect.
It’s a sobering reminder we are often more respectful of our work colleagues when it comes to communication than we are of each other. That can’t be good!
If we want to be a better-than-average communicator, we need to develop these four virtues to transform our delusions of superiority into genuine communication excellence.