We were sitting on an airplane when Les said, “Listen to this.” He pulled down the fold-down tray from the back of the seat in front of him and, with wide-eyes full of expectancy looking at me, began tapping on it with his index finger.
I listened for a moment, obviously puzzled.
He just kept tapping and looking at me.
“Have you lost your mind?” I asked as I put my magazine down.
“I’m tapping a song. Can you guess what it is?” Les kept tapping as I only half-heartedly played along.
“Come on, you can get this,” he said.
That’s when a curious passenger next to me, who had been completely quiet up to this point of the trip, piped up: “Is it Morse Code?” Les, suddenly self-conscious, terminated his tapping.
“Seriously, what’s that all about?” I asked. Les insisted it was a song and revealed that he’d been reading about a research project at Stanford University that compelled him to try the experiment on me.
The study was unusually simple. Elizabeth Newton, a doctoral student, assigned people to one of two roles: “tappers” or “listeners.” Tappers received a list of a couple dozen well-known songs, such as “Happy Birthday to You,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Then, after selecting one of the songs, their task was to tap out the rhythm to a listener by knocking on a table. The listener’s job was to decipher the rhythm being tapped and guess the song.
Pretty simple, right? Well, as it turns out, the listener’s job is actually quite difficult – as the curious plane passenger and I soon discovered. Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only 2.5 percent of the songs. That’s just 3 correct guesses out of 120!
Are You Making a Big Mistake?
So what’s this atypical doctoral dissertation have to do with you becoming a better catch? Plenty. Here’s what makes the results of Elizabeth Newton’s study worthy of an advanced degree. Before the listeners guessed the name of the song, Newton asked the tapers to predict the odds that their listeners would guess correctly. The tappers predicted that their listeners would be right 50 percent of the time. In other words, tappers thought they were getting their message across 1 time in 2. But, in fact, their message was only getting across 1 time in 40!
Wow! Are you seeing the implications here? Are you making the same mistake in your interactions with your date? Are you “tapping” your message and then feeling too often misunderstood? Well, the problem may not be with your date. It may be–dare we say–with how you’re communicating.
You see, when a tapper taps, she is hearing the song in her head. The tapping seems obvious to her. She can’t help but to hear it as she taps and she therefore believes the listener has a very good chance of deciphering her tune. Try it yourself. Tap “Happy Birthday to You.” It’s impossible to avoid hearing the tune as you do so. And when your listener guesses “Marry Had a Little Lamb,” you wonder: How could you be so stupid?
Of course, the listener is not stupid. Not knowing what the tune is, he only hears a bunch of disconnected taps that resemble chicken pecks more than a musical number. But to the informed tapper, he comes off as dim-witted.
The same thing happens in our relationships. When we “tap out” our message – whether it’s with words, our inflection, or our body language – we believe it should be relatively obvious to our “listening” partner. But it’s not. Sometimes a seemingly evident message isn’t evident at all. It’s far from obvious if you’re not in the know.
Increasing Your Odds
You can instantly become a better catch. How? By improving your pattern of communication. After all, every expert will tell you that communication is the lifeblood of your relationship. Your love life will sink or swim by how well you communicate. So here are four practical steps for keeping your conversations on track and increasing your odds for becoming a better catch:
1. Listen with a third ear. This means listening for the emotional subtext of whatever your partner is saying. Pay attention not only to the words, but to the emotions that flow underneath them.
2. Reflect feeling. You not only need to listen for feelings, you need to identify them and hand them back to your partner by saying, “It sounds like you might be feeling ….” This small act will open up your partner’s spirit more than you might imagine.
3. Clarify content. Did you know that for the words we most often use in the English language there are more than 3.5 meaning per word? This means that there is lots of room for misunderstanding and false assumptions.
4. Trade places. This means putting yourself in your partner’s shoes. Imagine what it would be like to be in his or her skin. This kind of empathy is a rarity and people are instantly drawn to it.
The bottom line for increasing your odds of becoming a good catch is to on understanding and much as you are focused on being understood. Once you hone this empathic ability of trading places, you will “tap” differently. What’s more, you’ll “listen” differently. In fact, when you harness the power of trading places in your relationship, you’ll enjoy a connection with each other like you never have before.
 L. Newton, “Overconfidence in the Communication of Intent: Heard and Unheard Melodies, ” Ph.D. diss., Stanford University, 1990.