Barriers to Effective Communication & How to Overcome Them

An illustration of a red traffic cone that has two white stripes on it. A traffic cone, like this, often acts as a warning signal, which it is being used as the header image for a blog on Barriers to Effective Communication & How to Overcome Them.
An illustration of a red traffic cone that has two white stripes on it. A traffic cone, like this, often acts as a warning signal, which it is being used as the header image for a blog on Barriers to Effective Communication & How to Overcome Them.

Good communication is one of the most valuable assets in your business. With open, clear, and frequent communication, your team can work toward specific goals and objectives. You share ideas more easily and leave nothing to misinterpretation.

That said, good communication isn't natural for everyone. It's a skill that each person must develop and hone. Even then, barriers in communication can arise and unravel your plans, create confusion, and turn progress on its head.

To improve communication, identify the barriers standing between you and a clear message. Understand what barriers in communication look like, where they come from, and most importantly, how to get rid of them.

Here’s your guide to effective communication in the workplace.

Table of Contents:

What Causes Communication Problems in the Workplace?

Two people communicating

Poor communication causes $62.4 million in losses each year, according to an SHRM survey. There are many reasons it’s such a pervasive problem.

First, humans are a unique breed. We speak the same language and express ourselves in various ways in all aspects of life. But still, we each communicate differently.

We have preferences for how we send and receive messages. We respond to different stimuli. Some of us are more forgetful or easily distracted than others, which leads to communication mistakes.

There’s also the matter of personal experience and perspective. We each set different expectations for communicating with others. One person might think it’s acceptable to check email once a day, but another may check email every hour, for example.

Different people may receive things like tone and clarity in different ways. An exclamation point used to express excitement might be misinterpreted as anger or urgency. A person in a hurry might make a blunt statement to save time, but the person receiving the message might feel inferior or chastised as a result.

Even the definition of a good interpersonal relationship can vary from person to person. Some people take issue with a person talking too much, while others might talk a lot because they think it's their strong suit.

For these reasons, being a great communicator is a skill to learn and develop; it doesn't happen overnight. It requires a focus on nuance and a depth of knowledge in all the types of ways people communicate to overcome barriers. But many will agree that taking the time to develop this skill will always be worth the investment.

Why Communication Barriers Are Bad for Business

Trains tracks not aligning.

The financial losses caused by poor communication can be astronomical. Why?

Communication issues hinder productivity and progress. When teams don’t communicate well, it can cause a ripple effect that increases project costs. Teams may have to rework tasks because someone misunderstood the directions. They may miss project deadlines. That can lead to client dissatisfaction and problems with your organization's reputation.

Another way poor communication impacts business is in team morale. Poor communication leads to job dissatisfaction and a hostile work environment.

Co-workers might question their abilities to do their job when they don’t understand what to do. They might get reprimanded for making mistakes or passed over for promotions. Teams that don’t handle conflict well are more likely to let it affect their work.

Communication barriers are bad for business. They lead to over-complicated conversations and thwart progress. The inverse to this is also true. Fostering good communication skills can help you avoid mistakes. It leads to better outcomes for the company, its employees, and its customers.

What Are the Main Types of Communication Barriers?

Are you facing communication barriers at work? Let’s take a closer look at the different types of barriers to communication:

Physical Barriers

The shift to remote work has created new physical barriers that diminish communication. Co-workers that once preferred face-to-face, real-time contact now have to rely more heavily on technology for interactions.

Too much physical distance can contribute to poor workplace communication, but so can being too close in proximity. For example, the once-hailed open office layout has now been pegged as a productivity killer. One in three workers says the distractions and sensory overload slow down their work.

Personal Barriers

A person’s own mindset can influence how they communicate with others. For example, someone who is in a bad mood might not positively accept criticism from a supervisor. People who say “You caught me on a bad day” aren’t just blowing smoke.

Likewise, someone who just received a promotion or earned a lofty achievement might come off as being too proud or bragging, when in reality they are simply sharing their happiness. Emotional intelligence is critical when sharing information so that messages are properly received regardless of individual perceptions.

Cultural Barriers

Group meeting around a table.

We live in an ever-expanding global business environment. It’s essential to take culture into account when communicating. Cultural differences can affect how we receive and understand messages. What might be acceptable in one cultural climate might not translate to another. This can apply to everything from non-verbal communication (e.g., how a person dresses, their body language, etc.) to a person’s comfort level in sharing their ideas openly and honestly.

Attitudinal Barriers

We each have our own ideas of what good communication looks like to us. But we must also be mindful of how our perceptions come across to others. This is what experts refer to as attitudinal barriers. For example, a person standing in a meeting with their arms crossed and looking at their feet might appear to be disengaged or bored. But to that person, that might be their best way to focus on the conversation.

How you communicate can be influenced by your own preconceived ideas. Be mindful of how your communication styles might impact others.

Semantic Barriers

Semantic barriers (also called language barriers) are one of the most noticeable barriers in communication. When working with a colleague whose second language is your first language, there’s bound to be miscommunication. Maybe they don’t have a word in their language for what you’re trying to explain.

Also, generational differences, regional dialects, and industry-specific jargon can affect people who speak the same language. Good communicators know when to ask for clarity, even when it means admitting they don’t understand something.

A lack of a clearly defined communications plan can also be the cause of communications issues, so be sure to write a communications plan.

Common Communication Problems in Business

Communication problems in the workplace have many faces. Each one can have a different impact on outcomes, and each one takes a different approach to overcome.

According to MIT, the top seven communication problems in the workplace are:

The use of jargon

Complex language assumes that everyone knows the same terms you do, but this isn’t always the case. This can make a person feel alienated and confused.

The opening

How you begin your message can have a direct impact on how well it’s received. It’s best practice to set the stage, explain terms that aren’t well-known, and give an overview of your agenda before diving into the details.

Emotional barriers and taboos

Topics that are believed to be off-limits can reduce effective communication. Examples include racism, politics, sexuality, or any unpopular opinion. With these types of ideas, it can be hard for a person to express their ideas or emotions while also taking others’ sensitivity into account.

Physical barriers that lead to non-communication

Without the advantage of non-verbal cues, communication as a whole can be less effective. In fact, non-visual communication is often looked at as being less effective than face-to-face communication.

Expectations and prejudices

Our own expectations can create false assumptions about a person or situation. We tend to hear what we want, which can lead us to the wrong conclusions. (There's a word for this: selective perception.)

Cultural differences

As previously mentioned, cross-cultural norms can vary widely, even within the same country. This may include everything from work styles to how personal space is treated, for example.

Information overload

Too much information can lessen the effects of information sharing. Ideas and sentiments become lost in the free flow jumble.

Other communication problems to anticipate

One of the most damaging is simply a lack of communication. This happens most often when teams or individuals work in silos with little or no idea of the “big picture.” Instead, they work independently so often they don’t know where or how to reach out to others when the need arises.

And then there are external communication problems that happen between the company and its customer base.

For example, the company might have phone lines, live chat queues, and email forms set up for customers to get in touch. But customers might prefer reaching out on social media instead. If companies are not monitoring social media for customer outreach, they might miss key messages or opportunities to grow their business.

How to Overcome Barriers to Communication

Human icons connecting together.

The first step in overcoming barriers in communication is to understand how and why these barriers exist. Once you know this, the next step is to practice being a great communicator.

This means mastering the art of active listening. When you're the sender, be understanding of how the receiver might feel about your message and vice versa.

Improving the communication process can take time, patience, and a lot of trial and error. Your methods in overcoming barriers in communication might also vary, depending on your communication channels.

For example, if you are building a digital transformation strategy, you may suddenly have many new channels where your teams will share ideas. Consider each of these new channels, their unique features, and how they can be best utilized.

If social media is part of your mix, then you might have certain guidelines for your social influencers to follow when communicating to your audience. This ensures everyone receives information in a way that supports your brand image.

And if your organization doesn't have an intranet or internal newsletter, then you may want to consider creating one to share company news and updates more widely within your business to improve transparency.

The big takeaway: communication barriers affect everyone – internally and externally. Overcoming them starts with being able to identify all possible opportunities to improve, and then letting the nuances of each opportunity guide your strategy.

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