Barriers to Communication

By | July 1, 2013

In the earlier article “What is Communication?”, we looked at components of and steps involved in the communication process.  Those components included a range of things from intent through to the listener and their responses.  We said then that when we broke the communication process down, we could get insight into the number of variables involved.  Each of these variables, in turn, could translate into a barrier to communication.  Let’s take a look at what some of those barriers to communication might be.  Then, rather than just leave you with the barrier, we’ll provide a hint or hints on how to overcome it. In part one, we focus on the barriers to communication on the part of the sender. Next time, we’ll focus on the barriers to communication on the part of the receiver.

Barriers to Communication

Barriers to Communication on the Part of the Sender

A missing intention, or one that is unclear

Often we speak, write or act without knowing what it is we are trying to do and what we are trying to say.  We just get a message out there, which is very imprecise at best! This is a barrier to communicating effectively.

Hint: Take a moment and think about what you want to accomplish with your message (remember this could be the spoken or written word, a symbol, a piece of art, a diagram…). What are the barriers to clear communication? What do you want from the receiver? What is it you want to have happen, change, understood…?

Encoding into a language uncommon to the listener

One of the more obvious barriers to communication is the language barrier. In this multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-discipline world, we mostly take language to mean the lingua franca of the speaker or the listener.  Language also includes jargon. Jargon is usually identified and judged negatively by those who don’t speak it.  In most cases, jargon consists of a set of distinctions within a specific context.  Most disciplines, sports and even hobbies have their own jargon.  Language differences are often subtle and include body language, symbols, colloquialisms and any form of language for which the listener is missing a frame and context.

Hint: What is the language of the receiver or receivers?  Take a moment to identify and explain jargon, acronyms, and structure of diagrams, elements of a symbol or piece of art.  Invite questions, make it safe for the receiver to “not get it” and be able to ask for clarification, point out their confusion or uncertainty.

Lack of a shared context for the intention and message

Related to the above, a message may not make much sense, thus becoming non-sense, if we don’t share the context of the message.  A message about strategy can sound like non-sense in an operational environment and may in fact be non-sense in that environment.

Hint: Take a moment to examine and understand the context of the receiver.  Does your message need to be adjusted for context to remove the barriers to communication?  If for example, you want to explain strategy in an operational context or environment, take some time to identify real and concrete examples of how a strategy element would translate into the day to day.  (If this isn’t possible, you might question whether to give the message in this context!)  Another hint is to simply ask the receiver or receivers of the message what would be helpful or clearer to them. This removes the barrier to communication.

No time for the listener to absorb the message

We seldom give our listeners time to absorb our messages (especially when speaking). When you realise this is a potential pitfall, you can quickly realise that this is one of the more straightforward barriers to communication that we need to overcome. Remember, as a listener we need to decode, interpret and make meaning as well as respond (internally).  While brains are very quick, we assume far too much of our listeners.  The use of the “pause” in business speaking is very rare, yet very effective.  Think of going through an art gallery and passing each work of art in a few seconds.  It doesn’t work very well because we want to absorb and take in what we see, what the artist might be trying to tell us.

Hint: Pause between different elements of your message. We generally speak much too fast for the listener to really absorb, and this forms a barrier to communication.  If pausing is uncomfortable, ask an open question (one that can’t be answered with a yes or no such as “Did everyone understand this?”) to test understanding and to help the listeners think through what has just been given to them.  If sending out a message in writing, end the written message with a few open questions to help the reader in absorbing the message.  The same goes for pictures, diagrams, symbols etc.

Too much noise interfering with the transmission of the message

Having a good, meaningful conversation in a noisy, frenetic restaurant or bar is quite a challenge.  Noise can be metaphorical as well as real.  Trying to get a message across about performance or even development, when the noise in the system is all about head count, can be challenging.  Similarly a message on quality when the noise is all about meeting production targets can drown out the intent of that message.  We often think we can simply speak above the noise barrier. The result is one more person shouting, adding to the noise. This is a barrier to communication.

Hint: If the noise is physical and real, attend to it.  It’s a sign of care and respect not only for the listener, but also for the message.  Simply asking, respectfully, “What can we do about this noise?” can bring out a burst of knowing, capability or creativity.  Secondly, choose your setting, consistent with the message to be given.  If the noise is in the hearts and minds of the receivers, address the noise.  If talking about development, when head count conversations are raging…point out the dissonance, with a clear message about the intent of development in any circumstance.  We often avoid the “background conversations” that are in people’s minds, thus making them increase in amplitude!  By addressing the barriers to communication, we can put them, for the moment, at rest.

Hopefully this helps you to see how you can begin to remove some of the barriers that stand between you and delivery of your message. In a subsequent blog post, we will address barriers to effective communication on the part of the receiver.

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