The Ten Barriers to Effective Communication – Physical, Language, Etc.

What are the Barriers of Communication?

Barriers to effective communication are aplenty. In fact, I am surprised that there aren’t more barriers of communication! Especially in this knowledge age.

Man (Or woman!) started speaking about 50,000 years ago, yet it is now that we need it more than ever. With the advent of business being done across so many different formats, languages, and cultures and all at speed. We might be forgiven for not getting more ‘wires crossed’.
When we fail to communicate effectively conflict normally arises. Then our communication follows the fight or flight principles or the passive-aggressive, or the Thomas-Kilmann conflict model. Obviously, getting it ‘right first time’, as my old supply chain colleagues used to say, is the key. Not easy, but the key.

If this were yet another ‘Communication’ article it would teach you to suck eggs about having an objective, etc. It’s not. I’ll try to keep it real, share some stories, and see if we can help you in overcoming barriers to effective communication. After all, if you don’t make any changes to your behaviour I have failed to make it stick, and you have lived the phrase, ‘Information without application is just entertainment!’.

Effective Communication – I’m Not Sure We’d Recognise It!

The scientists say that “You know that communication is good when people know what they’re doing and why it’s important.” Says Professor Phillips. Or Dr Lynda Shaw says, “People are not mind readers; a good communicator will spend some time explaining the whole story”.
May I be contentious?

It’s all well and good and makes sense, but to you and I isn’t it knowing the right information at the right time in the right amount and in the right format? That’s easy to say! Hard to do…

Poor, or ineffective communication, is then when one of these elements is missing or has been executed badly.

  • 1 – Right information.
  • 2 – Right time.
  • 3 – Right amount.
  • 4 – Right format.

The 4 Rights of Communication. Below, we will take a look at some of the different barriers of communication.

#1 – What Are Physical Barriers to Effective Communication?

Let’s take those pesky conference calls/webinars/WebEx, or whatever you want to call them. When they get stuck or distorted, or the tech just doesn’t work, it makes the whole thing 10x worse.

‘My door is always open’. My old boss used to say. He was right, it was. But the barrier was that you had to get up and go see him and put on your ‘Speaking to the boss’ head. It was never just a chat. More, I’m going to see the boss.

People Managers of today may not have offices. Thus, creating significant physical barriers to effective communication. The open-plan office is the way forward, though it does make it harder for an informal confidential chat. I remember that the Sainsbury’s Head Office at Stamford Street had a separate canteen for Senior Managers. Now there was a physical barrier! The offices were almost ‘rabbit warrens’. Screens around each desk making corridors. The debate on open plan carries on.

Though the open-plan office debate may be superseded by home working. As we embrace home working and companies embrace the savings, personal effective communication will become harder.

#2 – Communication’s Biggest Physical Barrier – Email!

The first one was sent in 1971. Now we send 125 billion per day. Who would have thought that it would become our main form of business place communication, and look how bad we are at it. No-one ever taught us. They just said here’s your logon and go.
According to Albert Mehrabian, we communicate by:

  • Words 7%.
  • The tone of voice 38%.
  • Body language 55%.

There’s a lot of confusion about Mehrabian’s research. In essence, if you take away the words, which is 7%, and someone ‘communicates’ you should still get 93% of the message. Rubbish! He was more talking about congruency. Meaning that when you asked your Mum if she was still annoyed, and she said ‘No’, you knew she was by her tone and body language.

For email, this means that we are missing the tone and the body language, and it’s guesswork as to whether they are annoyed, or they just typed it in a hurry. Lack of clarity becomes a significant barrier to effective communication. The advantage of the passive-aggressive is that they can hide and be ‘Keyboard Warriors’.

In our paid webinar ‘21 Mistakes You Make When Writing Emails – How to Write Emails That Get You What You Want’ we talk about how much we use email badly. For example:

Mistake #3 is ‘Poor use of the Subject Heading’. This is what will grab their attention, or not when the email shows on their screen. Use it like a newspaper headline to get their attention.

Mail mascot point to an email mistake

Barriers to effective communication


Email Mistake Explained

Email Mistake: Poor Use of the Subject Heading

#3 – Our Perceptions Tailor Our Communication

Wife texts husband on a cold winter morning – ‘Windows frozen.’
Husband texts back – ‘Pour some lukewarm water over it.’
Wife texts back – ‘Computer now completely screwed.’

As we communicate with someone we have to make assumptions. Yes, I know, I was told that if you make assumptions, you make an ass out of you and me: ‘ass – u -me’. If we didn’t make assumptions we’d just process too much data and fall over. The key is what we process automatically.
Stephen Covey, the author of ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ tells a wonderfully jaw-dropping story about a Dad and his two sons. The Dad and the two sons get onto a packed underground car. The kids are playing-up, running up and down the car. Annoying everyone. Passengers are tutting, staring, wondering why the Dad doesn’t discipline the kids. An elderly passenger leans over to the Dad, seeing that the Dad was far away, and quietly said, ‘Are you ok Sir?’. The Dad looks up, coming out of his haze, and replies, ‘Oh yeah, sorry about the kids. We’ve just buried their Mum’.

Granted. Not an uplifting story but it does highlight what we have assumed about people.

#4 – Trust Either Makes Effective Communication Happen Easily or Not At All

Trust is made up of 4 components; Credibility, Reliability, Intimacy and Self Orientation. This formula shows how they first together. To trust someone you need to believe what they say on a topic is correct – Credibility. Know that when they say they will do it, they do – Reliability. Share some stuff about each other to each other – Intimacy.

Graph showing trust = credibility + reliability + intimacy divided by self orientation

Trust = credibility + reliability + intimacy divided by self orientation

Reminds me of the scene between Katniss and Peeta at the back of the train where he says that being friends is sharing the deep stuff, like what’s your favourite colour!? These 3 components can be undone if the person’s self-orientation is too high.

To be effective in your communication trust will really help. By ticking all 4 parts of the trust equation you will open up to a colleague and share more than if they are new and unknown to you, or if you do not trust them. Effective communication with people you trust is more effective because the assumptions you make about each other when you speak, read, or listen to them, is that they are genuine.

When you listen to politicians on the radio you will probably do so with a healthy distrust.

#5 – Cultural Barriers to Communication

Different cultures are a barrier to effective communication. People like people like themselves. We are tribal. To belong. Wanting similarity and familiarity. Working with other cultures is tough because it adds a whole other dimension on top of those that already exist.

Different cultures have ways of being that they don’t know exist. Here are a few we have grabbed from ‘The 23 strangest habits you’ll pick up after living in 23 different countries‘.

  • Japan: Examine a business card or hand over money as if it were about to explode.
  • Brazil: Ask people if they want to have a shower way too often.
  • India: Haggle all the time, and without ever even saying a price.
  • Germany: Tell the truth so much it hurts.

#6 – Disengaged from Your Place of Work

I once worked as a chicken plucker. Yes, you heard that right. Cold. Disgusting. Poor pay. I was not engaged. I also worked as a ready meals buyer. Loved it. I was very engaged. In both jobs, I still did what I had to. The difference is that I had a cold in the turkey job, I didn’t go to work. As a Buyer I did. As someone that was engaged, I kicked down barriers, saw opportunities, and was motivated to make stuff happen. That was not the case in the freezing cold shed with 50 other people.

Does engagement affect communication? A resounding Yes, yes, yes, because ‘there is none so deaf as those that don’t want to listen’. Disengaged employees will find a problem for every solution. They will not see the best in people, or their job. Fully engaged employees can be communicated much more effectively.

#7 – We are All Individuals and Think Differently

No surprise there! I understood that people are different. Of course, I did. I didn’t fully appreciate it until I became a practitioner of HBDI. The Herrman Brain dominance Instrument. A similar psychometric profile to Myers-Briggs, Disc, and others you may have heard about. HBDI measures how you prefer to think.

Some have a preference to think in Facts, others in Form, some in Future, and the remainder in Feelings.

  • Facts People: Think of someone that loves excel and works to 3 decimal places. Know one of them? They make good engineers.
  • Form People: They like structure. They talk about ‘Steps’ and ‘Actions’ a lot. Gantt charts are their thing. Good Project Managers.
  • Future People: Buzzing with ideas. Maybe their head is in the clouds. They make great entrepreneurs because they aren’t afraid to take risks.
  • Feeling People: You know that person that touches your arm when they talk. That’s them. In touch with their feelings. Make great teachers or nurses.

Having different thinking preferences is a barrier to effective communication. I’ll explain why.

A guy wants to buy a laptop in the Apple store. He’s a red. Relationships are important, even brief ones. And the feel of the laptop is imperative. He asks the Apple assistant to tell him more about this large laptop here. The assistant says, ‘A good choice because it has a 3ghz processor, 512 RAM, a 1Tb hard drive, and comes with a finance deal of 4 years at only 12.9% APR’.

Which thinking preference does our assistant have?

Yep – Facts.

How does the guy being the laptop feel?

As though he is talking in a foreign language!

#8 – Language Barriers to Communication

Is it just an urban myth that when an American goes to another country and the local person doesn’t understand them, they shout?!
Just to mention that some phone cameras can now translate the written word. Fabulous!

Person holding a phone camera to translate a chinese text to english

Language: barrier to effective communication

#9 – People Sometimes Use Jargon to Exclude Others Or They Don’t Know that They Are

On our Category Management training course, we talk about terminology. We have it as a session because of the importance of the Category Managers realising the significance. If someone in the industry uses terminology it is normally a sign that they are making up for a weakness in the category.

For example, there is a cooked meat product that the suppliers and retailers refer to as ‘4 x 4’ because it is four inches by four inches. The consumer would never use this term. What would they call it? ‘Sandwich ham’. The people in the industry use this terminology to differentiate this SKU (product) form other similar products. Might this be masking the problem that they are too many similar products in the category?

People use jargon because they didn’t realise they were. We also can use jargon to continue the mystery of our job because if we removed the mystery people might find that it’s not that hard.

#10 – Emotional Barriers Stop Us Communicating

Ever been so angry in an argument that you cannot speak? We are emotional creatures. It’s what drives us to do what we do because we are passionate. It also means that our emotions can take over. ‘Emotional Intelligence’ is on-trend at the moment.

What is emotional intelligence explanation

What is Emotional Intelligence

Often we struggle to communicate because our emotions are taking over. We’re worried. Confused. Annoyed. We’re under pressure. We’re stressed. And many more.

Emotions can be a barrier to effective communication. They can also drive us to be inspiring in our communication. Or passionate, or motivated.

A Summary of the Barriers Effective Communication

#1 – What Are Physical Barriers to Effective Communication?

#2 – Communication’s Biggest Physical Barrier – Email!

#3 – Our Perceptions Tailor Our Communication

#4 – Trust Either Makes Effective Communication Happen Easily or Not At All

#5 – Cultural Barriers to Communication

#6 – Disengaged from Your Place of Work

#7 – We are All Individuals and Think Differently

#8 – Language Barriers to Communication

#9 – People Sometimes Use Jargon to Exclude Others Or They Don’t Know that They Are

#10 – Emotional Barriers Stop Us Communicating 

For further tips and information, you can take a look at our Ultimate Guide to Communication Skills and our Communication Skills YouTube Channel. Also, check out our award-winning blog to see more Communication Skills tips and articles.

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