How to Be Your Own Worst Enemy

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One of the most damaging cognitive biases, especially for the successful, is the illusion of control. It’s the tendency for people to overestimate their ability to control events. It occurs when someone feels a sense of control over outcomes that they demonstrably do not influence. The illusion of control is a
confusion between skill and chance situations. So, it’s seen in issues as disparate as gambling behavior and belief in the paranormal. Another place it operates—very much out of sight–is in business conversations.

In a fascinating study Boaz Keysar and Anne Henley, psychologists at the University of Chicago, studied 40 pairs of listeners and speakers.  The talkers believed that their intended meaning was understood “most of the time.”  But that belief, like a lot of other so-called “soft skill” beliefs, won’t stand up to the scrutiny of research.

Instead, the research showed that nearly half the time that speakers thought they were understood, they were actually wrong.  In 46% of the cases there was a breakdown–the listeners didn’t get it.  What’s most surprising is …

that the speakers were warned that the information they were to communicate was ambiguous.  “Even then, even though they were warned,” the researcher said, “they still thought they managed to convey their intention with intonation.” Some of the brightest students in the country were stumbling over a deadly bias.

Keysar suggested that this overestimation of communication effectiveness is indicative of the “illusion of control.” Not quirky research, Keyser and Henley’s study adds to a pile of similar studies demonstrating that nearly 50% of our conversations are flawed by misunderstandings.

So how can you limit the impact of this bias? The answer is simple, but takes a while to learn: ANTICIPATE MISUNDERSTANDINGS! To anticipate successfully means we need to think on two tracks whenever we converse. Let’s call Track One what’s actually said out loud. And Track Two what’s going on in the invisible subtexts.

Admittedly, if Track One is complex, this is a difficult task. But one thing you can do in such conversations take notes. After the conversing is over, analyze your notes. Assess the potential Track Two information. Track Two information is very important because upwards of 90% of information is invisible and under the surface.  Though initially I too felt vulnerable double-checking, I’ve been grown very comfortable going back to the message sender and questioning him or her a day or even several weeks later.

I’ve concluded that feelings of vulnerability are way overdone. Indeed, my experience reveals that most clients and workers are intrigued by my questioning. They know that I’m taking the conversation very seriously. And as you know, people respond very positively to being taken seriously.

I’ve had hilarious experience returning to check on Track Two information. One of my major clients, Kevin Sullivan, the managing partner of a leading architectural firm woud smile and sometimes laugh out loud at my Track Two questioning behavior. And then he’d ask “how much is this going to cost me?” Usually the answer was nothing. But other times, it resulted in a big check. He knew I’d been mulling over the previous conversation and he trusted me until I got it straight. He knew full well that I wouldn’t waste his time going back to previous conversations unless I saw value in it for him. Double-checking doesn’t always add to your bank account. But it can pay off in a very solid relationship.

You can deal with the illusion of control. Double-check the conversation, ignore the feelings of vulnerability and stop being your own worst enemy.

Originally Posted on http://danerwin.typepad.com/my_weblog/.


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