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Barriers to communication

Part of the authentic leadership series.

By Ken Ideus


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. 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 each barrier.

Barriers on the Part of the Sender

A missing intention, or one that is unclear

Awareness of our role in any barrier can help us address it.

Ken Ideus

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!

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 do you want from the receiver? What is it you want to have happen, change, understood…?

Encoding into a language uncommon to the listener

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, or point out their confusion or uncertainty.

Lack of a shared context for the intention and message

A message may not make sense,
thus becoming non-sense,
if we don't share the context of the 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? 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.

No time for the listener to absorb the message

We seldom give our listener's time to absorb our messages (especially when speaking).

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. 

Pause between different elements of your message.

Hint:  Pause between different elements of your message, we generally speak much too fast for the listener to really absorb. 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.

We often avoid the "background conversations" that are in peoples minds, thus making them increase in amplitude!  By addressing them, we can put them, for the moment, at rest.

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. 

Barriers on the Part of the Receiver

Failure to focus and attend to the message coming our way

We can't expect others to capture our attention.

We need to capture our own attention first.

Now lets move into the recipient's territory. Going about expecting everyone to "capture" our attention can be a fruitless endeavor and certainly doesn't give us much control. We need to capture it ourselves. Our attention can be a slippery thing to hold. The best, clearest, most intentional message can still be lost in competition with the recipient's smartphone, laptop, pre-occupations and/or lack of discipline.

Hint:  Consciously remove any distractions (yes, phones, iPads, laptops, notes or memos you still need to read etc. Focus on what the speaker has to say. Write down questions that come to mind, or make them come to mind: Where would you like clarification, what did the speaker mean by … what is their primary intention? Ask these questions where possible. The more actively you are engaged in the communication process, the more it will hold your attention.

Assuming we understand the meaning before clarifying the message 

Assuming often means we stop listening.

We often listen by association. In other words, we look internally for something similar or familiar in our existing experience or sets of knowledge that relates to what we are hearing or seeing. Much of the time, this is a useful process and allows us to function without treating each word as a new experience. However, when we overuse this capability in our fast driving, do it now world, it can become a barrier. Why does it become a barrier?  It causes us to stop listening, or attending to what is still coming at us, replacing it with listening to the voice in our own heads.  As a result, we assume we know what is being said by listening to ourselves! Old school communications courses taught a step called "checking understanding" which simply meant verbalizing what we understood the message to be about or mean, just to test that we got it right. Remember all those variables the sender has to deal with.

Hint:  Catch yourself making quick conclusions, interpretations and STOP it. You will be surprise and how, when you pay attention, you can notice yourself doing this. When you notice it, you can stop it. As you are listening, prepare things, assumptions for example you wish to test, and then test these with the speaker.  That old school stuff really does work!  Another hint is to listen for what is new and different to your experience…there is always something as no two experiences or ideas can be exactly the same.  When listening for differences you will find yourself listening more acutely and making fewer assumptions and conclusions.  Again, even if this happens, you can always test with the sender or other colleagues, friends, observers.


Ego can simply filter out what doesn't fit with our own worldview.

This one shows up in a variety of ways. 

If we feel at all attacked, we stop listening, if we disagree with the message, we stop listening. Ego often keeps us from being fully open and receptive to what we hear, see and experience. At a subtle level, ego can simply filter out what doesn't fit with our own worldview. Defensive behavior is one of the major barriers not only to communication, but also to learning itself.

Hint:  Defensive behavior comes from feeling personally at risk or attacked. This often happens when we can't separate ourselves from the content of a message. One way of dealing with this is to focus on the content, exploring it further, getting more information. The more we focus on content and exploration, the less we will be focused on ourselves and our feelings, emotions and reactions. Exploring content engages the cerebral cortex that actually helps regulate emotion. A second hint, though a tough one, is to simply be aware that our ego is involved. Any defensive feeling tells you it is. Your feelings always know. When you sense this, let go and get going with exploring. This is tough and leads not only to listening but learning.

Being driven by our own response, assuming we were accurate in our interpretation

When our emotions are triggered and we let the energy of that emotion drive our internal and external response, we will likely be out of listening mode altogether. We may wind up thinking of what we will say or do well before the sender is finished with the message and well before we've checked that we even understood it correctly. While thinking about our response, our listening has stopped. 

We often stop listening while we think about our response.

Have you ever notice people starting to speak or even interrupting before you have finished a statement or comment? If so, you know exactly what we are talking about. You know their listening has stopped and they will have likely misinterpreted what you have said…setting up a new dynamic – dealing with their misperception.

Hint:  When you notice yourself wanting to respond, wanting to say or do something before the sender is finished with their message, write it down, and then keep listening. Stay aware. A second hint, ask the speaker to pause and ask a question for clarification or to test an assumption…if you have to do something, asking a true and open question, or testing an assumption will aid, not hinder good communication.

Summary of Barriers to Communication and Hints for Addressing Them

  • Barriers to communication can take place anywhere or at any step in the communication process.
  • A barrier can be created or generated by either the sender or the receiver of a message.
  • Awareness of our role in any barrier can help us address it.
  • Barriers not only affect communication but learning itself.

Ken Ideus

This series on authentic leadership is written by Ken Ideus who is well known globally for his work on "The Leaders Voice". Ken has worked for the last 30 years with multi-national corporates in over 30 countries, doing both consulting and senior leadership development in the USA, Europe and Africa. You can read more about his articles and tools, and about The Leaders Voice.

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