Nutshell: Tearing down the walls – how to recognise and overcome communication barriers

Written by
Future Talent Learning

03 Feb 2020

03 Feb 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

Being mindful of what hinders communication helps us to break down those barriers.  

When we actually stop and think about the sheer number of variables involved in communication, it’s perhaps surprising that our messages get through at all – let alone hit the mark of shared understanding and meaning. And that’s before we take into account the biases and prejudice we all bring with us every time we approach our keyboard, open our mouths or stride grumpily across the office floor. 

Anything that gets in the way of communication is a communication barrier. These barriers can be anything that prevents us from receiving and understanding others’ information, ideas and thoughts. And, of course, they can also interfere with or block the messages we want to send too. They can relate to the context in which the message is sent, the ‘noise’ that surrounds it, problems with the language we use or our own attitudes and prejudices. It stands to reason that understanding some of the most common barriers, how they get in the way and knowing how to anticipate and remove them is a sure-fire way to improve how we communicate. 

Here are some potential barriers we all need to bear in mind when communicating at work.

Noise and physical barriers

Technically, the word ‘noise’ in this context relates to any interference that interrupts or distorts the message as it moves from the sender to the receiver, meaning that the communication is compromised. It can take many forms: a written report that’s badly structured or has too much irrelevant information, distractions and interruptions, or, more literally, a ringing telephone, the building work down the block or the colleague who always forgets to mute himself on Zoom calls.  

Physical distractions are the physical things that can get in the way of communication. They can be environmental; it’s hard, for example, to give our full attention to a presentation if the room is freezing or the chairs uncomfortable. Poorly designed office space with harsh lighting and poor ventilation can also be a factor. And noise is not just about the presence of sound; counter-intuitively, open-plan offices can be eerily silent places, where people feel inhibited about making phone calls or talking to their colleagues; one study credits them with a 70% drop off in face-to-face interaction. Hardly a recipe for communication success. 

If we want our messages to be clearly and accurately received, we need to cut down as many problematic environmental factors as possible. 

Language and channel barriers

It may seem tautologous to say that words matter in communication, but we only have to think of that meeting where a department head spoke almost entirely in incomprehensible jargon and acronyms to understand that not everyone has taken this on board. Used carelessly or inappropriately, the very building blocks of verbal and written communication stop making sense and become barriers themselves. It’s all too easy for language to miss the mark, and not just in the more obvious cross-cultural situations. Using it effectively means taking into account: what the message is; its audience; the relationship between the communicators (will they get those acronyms?) and, crucially, how the message is being communicated – the channel being used. 

Failing to match a message with the correct channel for its delivery is a significant barrier builder. No one needs to see a formal, 10-page written report when a quick catch-up meeting would suffice. Is email really the best way to give that tricky feedback? Just because some people might feel it’s appropriate to use Twitter for major announcements, we don’t need to follow suit. We need to think purposefully about: our audience; how formal we need to be; the words we use; the response we want or need; urgency and timing. 

To communicate effectively, we need our language to be fit for purpose and the channel suitable for the situation. 

Feedback and listening barriers

In a basic communication loop, feedback indicates that the message has been received by the recipient. Without this reaction, we can’t know that our message has got through. It can be as informal as an automated ‘message received’ email or a nod of acknowledgement, but it’s essential for clarifying unclear messages and helping the sender to adjust their transmission to improve the chances of the message hitting home. In short, feedback reinforces the communication process by making it inherently two-way. 

If the feedback stage is missing, opportunities for misunderstandings and miscommunication are amplified. This is important even for the simplest of messages, but becomes crucial when the stakes are higher and when the feedback needs to provide course correction or support behavioural change.

To provide this kind of helpful and constructive feedback, we have to learn to listen actively, giving people our full attention and searching for the meaning in what’s being said (and what’s not being said). It also means withholding our evaluation and judgement of the message until the message has been delivered. 

Psychotherapist Esther Perel sees an inability to listen, without preparing to leap in with our response, as the foundation of the polarising conversations that lead to conflict. For her, speaking is entirely dictated by the quality of the listening that’s being reflected back to us. Rather than leading to a meeting of minds, our failure to reflect properly on what we’re hearing leads to entrenched positions and expectations, creating a filter which colours communications and relationships. Her solution is to reflect back properly what’s being said, acknowledging it, validating it and empathising, even if we disagree. It’s only when we have this true ‘depth of conversation’ that we can create proper understanding and connection. 

Non-verbal barriers

Words are not the only tools at our disposal when we’re communicating. Non-verbal signals, such as gestures, facial expressions, posture and eye contact can often say more than even the best-crafted sentence. And, of course, non-verbal communication can be just as important and valid: reinforcing what we’re saying, highlighting key messages, or even substituting for verbal communication entirely. 

But non-verbal cues can also become a problem if they’re used ambiguously, tending to contradict what’s being said (that may sound like praise, but that’s not what his fixed grin suggests), reinforcing perceptions and stereotypes or even causing offence (beware, for example, the use of gestures which may be culturally sensitive to others). 

Just as we need to use language with care, those non-verbal cues can be our enemies as well as our friends. And because they’re often unconscious, we have to be even more on our mettle when acknowledging and deploying them appropriately. 

Psychological barriers

Every day, we bring to work one of the most potentially significant barriers to communication: our own assumptions, biases and perceptions. The attitudes of both the sender and receiver can create significant road blocks. Like so much at work, trust and positive relationships can help to break down communication barriers. But to create the right, safe conditions for free-flowing communication, we also need to understand that how we interact with the world might be getting in the way. 

Listening to understand

Back in 1952, Carl R Rogers and F J Roethlisberger published a seminal and, at the time, controversial article in Harvard Business Review. The authors were some of the first researchers to promote the importance of listening and empathy in the workplace, even in the strict workplace hierarchies that were the norm at the time. They identified that “the greatest barrier to effective communication is the tendency to evaluate what another person is saying and therefore to misunderstand or to not really ‘hear’”.

Imagine, for example, how we might respond to someone commenting on what someone else has just said, such as: “I didn’t like what that person said”. Our response will invariably be either approval or disapproval of the attitude expressed: that is, our first reaction is to evaluate it from our own point of view without further thought or engagement. Worse, our tendency to evaluate is only heightened in situations when feelings and emotions are involved: the stronger we feel about something, the less likely it is that there will be a mutual element in any communication. Instead, there will just be “two ideas, two feelings, or two judgments missing each other in psychological space”. And that, unsurprisingly, gets in the way of effective communication.

The antidote, for Rogers and Roethlisberger, is to learn to check our natural impulse to judge and “listen with understanding”. That means really hearing what’s being said from the other person’s point of view, sensing how it feels to that person (a much better indicator than words alone) and thinking about their frame of reference for the subject being discussed.

To test this out, the authors suggest that, when we find ourselves in a heated discussion, we try to restate the previous speaker’s ideas and feelings – to their satisfaction – before we make our own points. This Esther Perel-type reflecting back, acknowledging and validating what someone has said, even if we don’t agree with it, is the key to meaningful conversations. It forces us to consider the other person’s point of view and is also likely to take some of the emotion out of the situation, bringing a better chance that we’ll be able to achieve mutual communication to create the understanding and connection we need.

If that sounds simple, we might, then, ask why listening with understanding still seems relatively rare. That’s because it’s not as easy as it may first appear. Listening with understanding takes courage because it means taking a risk. If we really understand another person’s world view without rushing to judgment, we run the risk of our own attitudes and personality being challenged, even influenced or changed by that understanding. The willingness to be vulnerable to this kind of mental or psychological transformation is, for conversational theorist Theodore Zeldin, the entire point of ‘real’ conversation. But sticking with evaluation as an approach can far too often seem easier and much less like hard work.

The fact remains, though, that communication is much more likely to succeed if we are able and willing to see and accept points of view that are different from our own. Contrast, for example, the outcomes of these two simple conversations:  

Listening to evaluate

Colleague A: As part of our new product launch, I think we should start using Tik Tok as one of our social channels.

Colleague B: I don’t think that’s a good idea. Isn’t it just a flash in the pan? And I’m not sure it’s the right platform for us at all. Let’s stick to what we know.

Colleague A (thinks, irritated): That’s what’s so frustrating about working here; no-one is willing to take a risk on new ideas.

Listening to understand

Colleague A:  As part of our new product launch, I think we should start using Tik Tok as one of our social channels.

Colleague B: So you think Tik Tok is the way to go. But isn’t that just a flash in the pan? And is it really the right fit for our brand?

Colleague A: Well, not our traditional lines perhaps, but it’s spot on for the target market for our new stuff.

Colleague B: OK, but can we really take on another channel? I mean, we’re pretty maxed out as it is.

Colleague A: Olivia has already done some work on how we might make it work; she’d be a brilliant lead on it for us.

Colleague B: I see. Why doesn’t she put together a short proposal for us to take look at?

Colleague A: That’s great. Thanks!

The better we try to understand the person we’re communicating with, to practice listening with understanding to what they’re saying, the fewer barriers that communication will face.

Cognitive bias

Cognitive biases are those mental shortcuts (heuristics) that boil down our experiences and preferences into beliefs that affect the way we process information and make decisions, sometimes even in the face of conflicting evidence or information. If anything can create a barrier to communication, our wide and diverse ranges of biases must be pretty near the top. 

Take the fundamental attribution error. Just like Perel’s communicators, creating conflictual relationships which reinforce each’s negative feelings about the other, the fundamental attribution error explains why we often judge people harshly while holding ourselves to a different standard. We assume that another person's actions depend on what kind of person they are rather than on the social and environmental forces that influence them. In Perel’s words: “I essentialise you and I contextualise me”.

Consider, for example, a colleague who is late for a meeting. Our tendency is often to attribute all sorts of personal characteristics to explain that behaviour: they may be lazy, disorganised, disrespectful. But on the occasions that we ourselves ship up late for a work event, we’re much more likely to attribute situational or contextual factors to explain our misdemeanour: a previous meeting running over; being called in by the boss; bad traffic on the way to the office. 

The fundamental attribution error makes us ignore for others those situational factors that may have contributed to a behaviour, while rationalising our own behaviour more sympathetically; in short, our bias cuts us some slack that we find hard to extend to our colleagues. It’s easy to see how, in communication terms, it can be the basis of misunderstandings and misinterpretation. 

What underpins this particularly potent bias is the fact that, while we at least have some idea about our own character, motivations, and situational factors that affect us day-to-day, it’s much harder to know everything that's going on with someone else. When we’re attributing all sorts of personal defects to that late team member, we never quite see the whole picture. While it would be nice to give them the benefit of the doubt, our brains tend to take the shortcut route, using only limited information to form a judgement. Neuroscience suggests that, when we try to understand other people’s intentions, we engage in mentalising by spontaneously processing the other’s person’s mental state. 

The likelihood that we’ll display the fundamental attribution error is also increased when we’re not on top form ourselves, perhaps under stress or not having the best day, when a mental shortcut might give us some blessed relief. There’s also the danger that, once we’ve characterised our colleague as lazy, disorganised and disrespectful, those impressions tend to stick. It’s hard to move on from them, even though there may be all sorts of good reasons why he’s behaving in that way that have nothing to do with his fundamental character. Unless we make the effort to get to know that person better, we will always tend to view them in a negative light. 

Tackling the fundamental attribution error

As with so many behaviours and biases, simply being aware of how the fundamental attribution error works – and its consequences – can help reduce it to some degree. 

Past experience is also a useful benchmark. We know from personal experience that being late for a meeting can be influenced by all sorts of situational factors. Try to remember this when judging others’ behaviour and consider a range of possible explanation rather than simply jumping to conclusions. 

This involves slowing down our reasoning process, and also trying to consider what’s happening from the other person’s perspective. When we assess people’s actions, we might also bear in mind the principle of Hanlon’s razor, which encourages us not to assume that people act out of a desire to cause harm provided there is a reasonable alternative explanation.

In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to misconstrue what people are saying or doing and to attribute to them motivations that just aren’t there. Reframing these unhelpful and distracting thoughts by assuming positive intent – rather than the worst – helps us to focus on what’s really going on and to understand better the other person’s behaviour. It’s a bit like focussing on the solution rather than the problem.

Taking the time to get to know our colleagues, listening rather than judging and taking a more situational approach will make us more empathetic and able to connect. And that helps to open up, rather than close down, communication. Instead of relying on our instincts – that mentalising – we should consciously seek to understand the mental states of others, what psychologist, William Ickes, calls empathic accuracy or “everyday mind reading". We need to have the mental control to stop, reflect and question our initial, knee-jerk reactions. 

“Communication,” according to leadership guru John Adair, “is the sister of leadership,” . In which case, perhaps communication barriers are the fairy tale stepmothers who threaten to derail even the sweetest relationships. Learning to anticipate the multiplicity of factors that can interrupt communication – whatever form they take – will make better communicators of us all. 


 Test your understanding

  • Outline what ‘noise’ is in communication terms and why it can get in the way.
  • Identify two examples of a mismatch between message and channel.
  • Explain what Rogers and Roethlisberger mean by “listening with understanding”.

What does it mean for you?

  • Consider how understanding the difference between listening to evaluate and listening to understand might improve your own communication.  Can you think of a recent conversation where you might have rushed to judgement? How might you avoid this pitfall in future?


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