Maybe this will be familiar to you.

I’m watching the news, deeply engrossed in some story about the latest outrage in Washington D.C. and pondering what I might post about it.

Gradually, I become vaguely aware of this familiar sound coming from my left.

Wait, is that … It could be … Yes, I think it is …

My sweet husband Frank, attempting to have a conversation with me.

And eventually, I tune in to his voice, turn down the TV, and listen to what he has to say. To do that, I have to override the closeness communication bias.

We like to think of ourselves as listening most to the people we care most about. In fact, the research shows the exact opposite. The closer we feel to someone, the less likely we are to listen carefully to what they say.

We allow our attention to drift because we think we already know what they’re going to say before they say it. And whatever it is, we’re pretty sure we’ve heard it before—maybe many times.

You can imagine … or maybe you know first-hand … the impact that has on relationships.

  • Couples who’ve raised a family together suddenly discover they barely know each other.
  • Parents of perfect kids are shocked to find out what their children are really up to.
  • Longtime friends figure out they don’t have much in common anymore; they never saw that coming.

We’re surprised by those realizations because we’ve missed the signs along the way. And we missed the signs because we felt so close to the person that we tuned them out.

How does the closeness communication bias play out in business?

  • A colleague stuns the team—they’re resigning. And joining a competitor!
  • Someone we trust elbows us out of the way to get the promotion we thought was ours.
  • Our best client ends our agreement and chooses to work with someone else.

That kind of thing goes on all day long for big companies, independent professionals, and everyone in between. We tune out the ones we communicate with most frequently. We miss important information that we should have heard. And our relationships deteriorate, often unnoticed.

It happens because somebody wasn’t really listening. And those somebodies are by no means alone.

In You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters, Kate Murphy points to a survey of 20,000 Americans. Almost half said they did not have a meaningful in-person social interaction, like an extended conversation with a friend, every day.

Our ever-present devices don’t help, of course. Notice all those couples in restaurants, each of them on their mobile phone. Or the kids acting out while their parents busily text or tweet.

And in business meetings? Oy. Everybody has their phone beside them on the conference table. Unless they’re surreptitiously checking the phone they’re holding below the table. Who do they think they’re fooling, anyway?

Aside from technology, part of our problem is what Murphy calls a culture of “aggressive personal marketing.”

“To be silent is to fall behind,” she says. “To listen is to miss an opportunity  to advance your brand and make your mark … Listening is often regarded as talking’s meek counterpart. Value is placed on what you project, not what you absorb.”

Or, as I often observe, there’s a demand for my workshops about how to speak better. Not so much for sessions about how to listen better.

Of course, listening is more than just hearing what people say.

“It’s also paying attention to how they say it and what they do while they are saying it, in what context, and how what they say resonates within you. It’s not about simply holding your peace while someone else holds forth … Done well and with deliberation, listening can transform your understanding of the people and the world around you, which inevitably enriches and elevates your experience and existence. It is how you develop wisdom and form meaningful relationships.”

Fortunately, we can overcome the closeness communication bias, if we’re willing to make the effort. Here are a few ways to do that.

  • Set an intention to listen to your partner (in business or at home). Just decide that what they say is valuable and it deserves your attention.
  • I always find it helps to look at the person who’s talking. I mean really look at them, not just out of the corner of your eye. You pick up all kinds of cues that way, plus it helps you stay tuned in.
  • Forget about multi-tasking. It’s a myth anyway. Listen or don’t, but don’t imagine you can listen well while reading your email or sending a text. (Or watching the news!)
  • Imagine for a moment that you’re listening to this person for the very first time. Yes, he’s sat in the next cubicle for years now, you’ve heard everything he has to say and then some. Set all that aside and pretend this is a brand-new relationship. Can you take it in differently without the filter of everything he’s said before?
  • Ask better questions. You’ll have a richer conversation with “Why” or “How” questions … they encourage the person to go deeper, to really explore the subject.
  • And for the love of everything holy, put down your device!

Maybe you’ve run smack into the closeness communication bias in your work?

We’re close enough that you can tell us about it, right?

Just post a comment below.