Overcoming communication barriers

This article is part of a series from Good Practice, offered to ICAS members as part of the ICAS mentoring programme.


Attitude, Feedback and Listening, Language and Channel as well as Noise and Physical Barriers can all act as major obstacles in the communication process. The below sections provide examples of these barriers as well as solutions for overcoming them; important for both the mentor and mentee.

Attitude

The attitude of both the sender and the receiver can act as a major obstacle in the communication process. However it is not always possible to be aware of all of these influences as they are heavily reliant on personal characteristics. Some of the principal barriers here include:

  • relationship between communicators
  • personal belief and perception
  • culture
  • status
  • emotionality

Relationships

Messages are more easily understood when both the sender and receiver can empathise with each other, as well as with what is being said. Personal attributes can be involved here, some of which cannot be altered, such as gender, race or physique; but all can influence behaviour, and reactions to the behaviour of others. Attitudes can also create barriers – people have a tendency not to listen to others who have a different viewpoint from their own.

The ability to empathise with someone else may not be easy and the relationship between the people involved in any communication process may form a barrier to the effectiveness of communication. If the relationship is good, communication is more likely to succeed.

Personal belief and perception

The biases that people have developed during their lifetimes may distort the messages they receive. People are affected by previous experiences, attitudes, values and feelings and all of these can influence the messages being communicated. It is human nature to evaluate others based on these personal attitudes, but this can have a negative effect on communication and cause some aspects of the message to become lost in the transmission. Stereotyping is a significant barrier to communication. It typifies people so that they are dealt with quickly, without any effort as they are regarded as part of a homogenous group with identical traits. Stereotyping is dangerous because it causes people to act as though they already know the message that is coming from the sender. Judgements are made about who is communicating the message, rather than the message itself and the receiver automatically becomes less objective.

Culture

Culture and geography can create obstacles to effective communication. Very often, words or phrases from different parts of the world, or even different parts of the same country, can have different meanings. Non-verbal communication such as body language or gestures can also have different meanings. An example of these variances can be seen in the different interpretations of head shaking. In western societies this means no, while head nodding means yes. To many traditional Greeks and Middle Easterners, an upward head nod means no.

Status

If the person communicating is regarded as an authority on a particular subject, understanding is increased as more credence is attached to what is being communicated. More attention tends to be paid if the person communicating the message is in a position of superiority, e.g. if someone is listening to a speaker, attention will automatically be greater if the listener has admiration and respect for that speaker.

Emotionality

When the sender displays high levels of emotion, the receiver can become distracted. If too much attention is paid to the emotional message being conveyed, important information such as factual information may not be understood. On the other hand, the receiver may completely ignore the emotional message and concentrate on the factual information instead. In both cases, the message is distorted because the entire message is not being absorbed.

Overcoming mental barriers

How to develop empathy with the person you are communicating with:

  • Put yourself in their place and try to see yourself through their eyes to understand their point of view.
  • Listen actively and objectively to the message, not the person communicating the message.
  • Take time to learn about various cultures and become more familiar with the cultures of people you are regularly communicating with.
  • Realise that a person's status can affect the message you perceive. Just because they are in a position of authority, it does not necessarily follow that what they are communicating is correct.
  • Be aware that a person's emotional state when either sending or receiving messages can unconsciously affect how the messages are transmitted, and can affect how others interpret the message sent.

It may not always be possible to completely control mental barriers, but even awareness of their existence by the sender or the receiver can help to ensure the smooth flow of communication.

Feedback and listening

Feedback regulates, reinforces and stimulates the communication process. Without it, the message sender cannot know whether the receiver has accepted the message or understood it. Listening is closely linked to feedback, as it is impossible to have effective feedback without having listened to the message.

Feedback

Feedback is key to the communication process, since it can help to minimise misinterpretation and errors. It is effectively the mirror of communication, and can be used to check what has been communicated. It is a straightforward process: the sender will transmit the message; the receiver gets the message, decodes it and provides feedback in response to the message they have received.

There is no feedback in one-way communication. This usually involves a chain of command, passing ideas or information on without asking for any response or checking to see if anything has happened as a result of the information. However, for communication to be effective, there must be a two-way process. Feedback is not necessarily always verbal. A nod or shake of the head, a puzzled look or a frown are all subtle methods of feedback. The sender constantly adjusts transmission of the message in response to the feedback received to ensure that the right message is getting through. Feedback also alerts the sender to any noise that may be hindering reception of the message.

Feedback controls, strengthens and encourages the communication process by forcing a two-way process.

Listening

Effective listening can be very difficult. A lot of the time listener barriers are a combination of a number of factors. These can be related to the mindset of the receiver, and other influences such as noise or the physical environment. Some of the major influences on listening are outlined below:

  • The clarity, fluency and audibility of the speaker. It can be hard to listen to someone with a strong accent or someone who has a speech impediment.
  • Inattentiveness – the average rate of speech is about 125 words per minute, while the average listener can receive 400-600 words per minute. A lot of 'free' listening time can sidetrack the listener and detract them from hearing the whole message.
  • The lack of a coherent message structure can act as a barrier to listening.
  • A low level of education or linguistic ability can mean that a listener does not fully understand the message being conveyed.
  • Simultaneous listening can occur when people attempt to understand information from two or more information sources at the same time. In doing so, all messages being conveyed are unlikely to be received accurately.

Listening is a search for meaning in a message. Active listening can help to increase the amount of information that can be picked up from a message and needs total concentration.

Overcoming barriers to feedback and listening

  • Ensure that feedback is helpful, not hurtful.
  • Try to give feedback promptly.
  • Be specific.
  • Approach it as a problem in perception of the message rather than a problem with discovering the facts.
  • The sender should ask if there are any questions to ensure that the message has been understood.
  • The receiver should ask questions and repeat key points.
  • Be prepared to listen and be receptive to what the other person is saying.
  • Keep an upright posture and look alert. Maintain attention using non-verbal communication such as nodding, eye contact or appropriate facial expressions.
  • Try not to plan what you are going to say next, while the other person is still speaking, as this will detract from receipt of the full message.
  • Tune out thoughts about other problems or people and try not to daydream, especially during long speeches. This can be countered by interrupting the speaker to seek clarification or making notes.
  • Withhold evaluation and judgement until the other person has completed their message. Evaluation made too early will reduce the chances of hearing the message accurately.
  • Search for meaning in the message.

Language and channel

The language and channel chosen for the transmission of any message should be most suited to the receiver(s). In any given situation one medium may work better than another. Similarly, simple language is sometimes more suitable than complex or academic language.

Language

Words are the most frequently used communication tool. They facilitate communication, but if they are used carelessly or improperly, they can create a significant communication barrier. Words can have different meanings across different countries or even regions within the same country. They can sometimes derive new meanings as a result of the development of new technology or industry and become professional jargon.

Language is not reality. Language is a system of signals, symbols, sounds or gestures belonging to a specific culture or group of people. The meaning of words as communicated by the sender depends upon the perception of those words by the receiver. This in turn depends upon the experience and attitude of the receiver. For example, sometimes the language used can be academic or complicated, which may be easily understood by someone with a high level of education, but will not be grasped by someone with a lower linguistic ability. If this is the case, the language has automatically created a barrier to communication.

In addition, the tone of the language used can add to, or detract from, the message. The pitch, intonation and volume of the voice can influence how receivers understand the message. However, those nuances are not generally available in writing, so the words must be chosen carefully in order to get the whole message across.

Effective use of language depends on: what is being communicated; who it is directed at; who is sending it; the relationship between the communicators; and how it is being communicated, i.e. what communication channel is being used.

Communication channels

A communication channel is the means by which communication takes place. There are numerous channels of communication – verbal, non-verbal and written. A skilled communicator will select and maximise the use of the channel most appropriate to the message. Some examples of these channels are:

  • face-to-face
  • formal or informal meetings
  • lectures and presentations
  • telephone
  • email
  • letters, memos, faxes
  • reports
  • newsletters or leaflets
  • diagrams, pictures and graphs
  • radio and television
  • websites
  • social media

Communication channels can be external or internal, formal or informal. The communication channel should be most appropriate to the situation. It should ensure the flow of information to all who need to receive it. If the message is unclear or is lacking a coherent structure, it can be hard to understand it. In both written and oral communication, if the sender is being vague, evasive or lengthy, this can confuse, mislead or distract the receiver.

Overcoming barriers to language and media

  • Think about who the message is directed at and how formal or informal it needs to be.
  • Ensure the language chosen meets the needs and level of the audience.
  • Think about how much information is being communicated. If there is a lot of information, break it down and provide a summary.
  • Avoid jargon or slang.
  • Think about whether documentation or proof is needed. If it is, then use a written channel.
  • If the communication is confidential, use sealed/private written channels.
  • If an instant response to communication is required, use face-to-face or verbal communication, e.g. a telephone call.
  • Consider how many people need to receive the message. If it is a great number, use a written format which can be copied, or call a meeting, or use a combination of channels.
  • Think about how urgent the message is. If speed is not a consideration, written communication channels may be adequate. If an urgent response is required, a phone call or email may be most appropriate.

To communicate effectively, the language and channel must be selected to match the situation. In any situation, the more effective and frequent the flow of information, the fewer problems will exist. The more open the communication channels are, the fewer barriers there are to communication. The simpler and more direct the language used, the greater chance there is that the message will be completely understood by the receiver. The fundamental rule is: write what needs to be written and say what needs to be said. Reinforce what has been spoken by direct, simple written communication. By evaluating the strengths and limitations of language and media, a well-chosen combination can be a powerful communication tool.

Noise and physical barriers

Noise is one of the most common barriers in communication. It is any persistent or random disturbance which reduces, obscures or confuses the clarity of a message. Physical barriers are closely related to noise as they can obstruct the communication transmission process.

Types of noise

There are many forms of noise barriers which can occur during the communication process. Some examples are:

  • physical interruptions by people
  • interruption by technology, e.g. ringing telephone, new email, fax
  • external noise e.g. distracting activities going on nearby such as traffic noise outside the building or conversations taking place in or near the room
  • distortions of sound leading to delivery of incomplete messages, e.g. not hearing full words or phrases
  • internal noise – physiological (e.g. blocked up ears), or psychological (e.g. distracting thoughts)
  • the inclusion (in written communication) of irrelevant material or unsystematic approach to the subject matter

Noise creates distortions of the message and prevents it from being understood the way it was intended. Comprehension usually deteriorates when there is loud, intrusive noise which interferes with the communication assimilation process. The level of noise is very important. Generally, quiet background noise can easily be filtered out, whereas loud or intrusive noise cannot.

Dealing with noise

To overcome the noise barrier, the source of the noise must first be established. This may not be easy as the noise may be coming from a conversation in an adjacent room, or from traffic passing by the window. Once the source has been identified, steps can be taken to overcome it.

Anywhere along the process, noise can drown out the message. In written work, ensure that there is no superfluous material and that the subject is dealt with in a systematic and logical way. In the physical environment, try to eliminate as many possible distractions. This can include removing telephones and other technology from rooms, particularly those being used for presentation purposes. Make sure any technology that is being used works properly. For example, ensure microphones have no static or feedback which can distort the message; that any visual presentations are clearly visible; and that windows and doors are closed.

Overcoming noise barriers

  • identify the source of the noise
  • remove physical sources of distraction such as telephones or objects within the room
  • close windows and doors
  • ensure all technology works effectively
  • omit irrelevant or wordy material from written documents

Noise can come from many sources. Environmental noise such as ringing telephones, honking horns, and messy, chaotic surroundings can prevent the message from being received clearly. Communicators who want their messages to be received clearly and accurately will remove as much environmental noise as possible. They try to present their message in a calm, distraction-free environment at a time when the receiver can devote his or her full attention to the message.

Physical barriers

Physical communication barriers usually relate to environmental factors which affect the communication process. With regard to the sender and the receiver, these barriers are neutral.

Environmental or physical barriers almost always occur at the beginning of the communication process. They are generally very obvious and, because they are neutral, pose no risk of offending either the message sender or receiver.

Types of physical barrier

Common examples of physical communication barriers are:

  • ventilation and temperature
  • seating and layout of furniture
  • danger nearby
  • lighting
  • time and space

The size and shape of the room, the colour of the room, the lighting and heating can all impact upon behaviour in ways which are not necessarily immediately obvious. For example, harsh lighting can lead to eye strain, which can cause fatigue. This can make people feel unsettled and irritable and will be less open to communication. Similarly, listening is impaired when a room is either unpleasantly hot or cold.

Overcoming physical barriers

  • Ensure that the room is well lit but not too bright. Make sure that if the sun is coming through the windows, there are no shadows or reflections on any overhead presentations and that it is not blinding the audience.
  • If someone is expected to listen for a prolonged period of time, suitable seating and seating arrangements are important. Compact seating is more effective for groups and chairs should be comfortable.
  • The room should have adequate ventilation. Optimum listening occurs when the room temperature is maintained at a comfortable level.
  • Make sure the room is safe and there are no obstacles which may be dangerous to the audience.
  • Wherever possible, avoid having physical barriers such as lecterns or tables between the sender and receiver. Removal of these barriers can give the impression of more open and personal communication.
  • Email, fax, telephone, and videoconferencing can help to lessen the effects of time and space barriers, particularly for people who are communicating on a global scale.

It may not always be possible to control the barrier (particularly in physical terms of time and space; or physiological and psychological noise), but even awareness of its existence by the sender or the receiver can go a long way to improving the flow of communication.

Topics

  • Career mentoring resources

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