What Is the Transparency Illusion and How Does It Lead to Misunderstanding?

What Is the Transparency Illusion and How Does It Lead to Misunderstanding? | Jennifer Spoelma

You know that feeling when you’re with a group of people and you feel like a stranger? Maybe you feel like no one really knows you or understands you. Or maybe, you have something weighing on your chest, but feel like there’s no one you can talk to who will understand. I’ve been there a lot.

As someone who has their hands in many pots, I often feel misunderstood in social situations. Whether it’s at work, with friends, entrepreneurial circles or family, I find have found it difficult to integrate the other aspects of my life in a way that makes me feel ‘whole’.

That struggle has led to lots of situations in which I felt misunderstood, which then lead to loneliness and isolation.

Other times, when misunderstanding has been a pattern in specific relationships, I’ve found bitterness and resentment start to take root.

I’m guessing that you can relate to these experiences. No one likes to be misunderstood.

In fact, the realization that the pain I was feeling from being misunderstood was so common is what motivated me to research the topic. I thought, “If I could help make misunderstanding less common, that would make the world a more compassionate, connected place.”

Why the transparency illusion makes us feel isolated and misunderstood

So, to better understand misunderstanding, let’s start by uncovering a psychological experience researchers have found to be a major contributor to misunderstanding.

It’s called the transparency illusion.

Which is, the belief that what we think, feel, desire, and intend is obvious to others. We feel like we’re expressing more than we truly are, so we don’t make as much effort to communicate as clearly as we should.

Transparency illusion often takes place when we feel uncomfortable, insecure or vulnerable. In our experience, everyone can see through us and recognizes our anxiety or uncertainty, for example. When in fact, most of that is just going on inside our minds.

For example:

“Of course they can tell I’m anxious. Why don’t they stop talking to me about the presentation?”

“She knew perfectly well what I meant by my reply. Why is she explaining it that way to him?”

“Why did he think I was mad at him? I was listening with my best “I’m interested” expression!”

“If he really loved me, he would just know what I need”

We tend to assume that our internal state is “leaking out” for all to witness.

We tend to assume that other people know how we feel and what we think, because we know how we feel and what we think. But we forget that other people don’t have nearly as much insight into our inner worlds.

Misunderstanding often happens because we don’t communicate clearly, not because others aren’t listening

There’s a logical reason for why we do this:

As people, our inner worlds are extremely complex. Your thoughts, feelings, knowledge and memories are guiding you through every communication experience you have. And the person, or people, you are communicating with have the same level of complexity in their inner world.

We are internally processing so much when we dialogue. But how we filter information and come to conclusions often isn’t shared with others. This creates a common scenario in which you can make a statement that means one thing to you, but something very different for me.

For example, ‘I have such a long commute to work’. To me, a long commute is anything over 30 minutes, but to my sister who lives in a big city, it could mean two hours on a bad day.

When more serious misunderstandings happen, you may think to yourself: “I can see everything so clearly... why can’t they see what I see? It’s so obvious!”

It takes work to bridge the gap between our inner worlds, but the potential reward is worth the effort.

In order to accomplish this, true vulnerability is essential in our communication. We need to be able to discern the difference between real, honest communication and the illusion of transparency that keeps us isolated and detached from those we’re trying to connect with.

How can this knowledge of transparency illusion help us become better communicators and be understood better?

Ditch the “mind reading” game

Don’t expect people to understand what you need or want unless you communicate it clearly. This also means making an effort to explain why you want or need something. We need to make our motivations understood just as much as our actual desires for true, connected communication.

The expectation that our loved ones should be able to anticipate our needs before expressing them has slowly killed many relationships.

At first you may feel as if you need to “spell out your needs” to excess, but remember, the only way someone can access your inner world is if you invite them.

Actively listening to discover the needs of another person

Feeling “heard” and as if someone “gets us” is one of the best gifts you can give another person. It is a very rare gift to receive, so if you can offer it to someone else they will treasure it!

With this, be careful to level your expectations of the attentiveness you’ll receive in return. While I hope you have many people in your life that listen with empathy, remember it is a skill not many posses.

Keep your insecurities and self-consciousness in check

When you notice that your self-consciousness is limiting you, remind yourself that people aren’t watching you as intently as it feels they are. This can be quite liberating! It gives you the freedom to focus on your message as well as creating personal connection.

Do you recognize any patterns of misunderstanding in your life? Might the transparency illusion be the culprit in these patterns?