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What are the 7 barriers to communication?

You’ve heard the “communication is key” cliché, haven’t you? There’s a reason that sentiment is so oft-repeated: it’s true. Effective communication eliminates confusion, streamlines collaboration, improves productivity, and boosts morale. Sounds great, right? But here’s the catch: effective communication isn’t always easy. In fact, it can be downright hard. One poll of 1,000 employees conducted by Interact/Harris Poll found that 91% of respondents think their leaders lack this critical skill. When it comes to what makes communication so challenging, there are seven common barriers that stand in your way. Let’s talk about each of them, as well as how you and your team can overcome them.

Communication barrier #1: Physical barriers If you’re picturing closed doors, high cubicle walls, and blocked off areas, then you’re on the right track. Physical barriers are the oftentimes tangible obstacles or boundaries that keep team members apart. It’s important to note that, while it’s not exactly tangible, distance can be counted as a barrier in this category as well. When team members are geographically distributed and unable to physically work side-by-side, that adds another layer of complexity to communication (which is why Buffer’s 2020 State of Remote Work Report found that communication and collaboration is the biggest struggle when working remotely, tied only with loneliness). How to knock them down: Nobody is saying you need to immediately convert to an open office floor plan (those have received criticisms of their own), but there are a few things you can do to help steer your team around physical barriers, including:

  • Provide plenty of space for collaboration, so employees have the option to stay heads down in their work in their own workspace or head to a spot where more discussion is encouraged.

  • Set ground rules for the different communication mediums on your team (for example, instant messages are for urgent requests and emails are for status updates and summaries).

  • Keep your own office door open to remain approachable, or set regular office hours where team members can stop by with questions and feedback.

Communication barrier #2: Cultural barriers Diverse teams are more productive, more creative, and more profitable. But, having employees of all different backgrounds also presents some challenges in terms of communication. There are different generations, cultures, races, and more. That means they also have different values, work ethics, norms, and preferences. Sometimes cultural barriers are even more broad, and an employee feels as if they don’t mesh with the existing culture of an organization. Those examples are all at the heart of cultural barriers. It’s tough to communicate effectively with someone when you can’t understand or relate to them.

How to knock them down: If cultural barriers exist, it can be tempting to think that you’re better off building a homogeneous team. That’s not true. You need to find ways to navigate these cultural barriers so you can reap the benefits of a diverse team while still communicating well. Here are a few ideas:

  • Have your employees create guides or “user manuals” that share important information about how to work with them effectively as well as their communication preferences, like how they prefer to receive praise and feedback.

  • Celebrate the differences on your team with various events and educational opportunities (they’re fun, and they boost understanding!).

  • Use a people analytics tool like F4S to measure each team member’s work style and preferred communication style, and use the culture tool to toggle between different cultures to spot potential friction points. For example, a slightly low motivation for “reflection and patience” in Culture A might translate to an extremely low motivation in Culture B, where the average worker scores higher on “reflection and patience”. This tells you that the Culture A team member might come across as hasty and impatient when working with a team member from Culture B, and awareness of this can mitigate tensions before they start.

Communication barrier #3: Language barriers If you’ve ever tried to converse with someone who doesn’t speak your same language, you know that reaching a shared understanding is nearly impossible. That’s why language can be a major barrier to communication. It’s important to remember that this isn’t just about different dialects, but about jargon too. If a marketing team member is talking to someone from the finance team using industry lingo like “PPC” and “top of the funnel,” confusion is inevitable.

How to knock them down: Of course, if there’s a major language difference in your workplace, you’ll likely need to look into translation services to bridge that divide. But, here are some other important things to keep in mind:

  • Be mindful of jargon and encourage your team members to state things as simply as possible. You can even turn it into a fun “jargon alert” type of game to build awareness of when you’re slipping into the habit of using complex acronyms or lingo.

  • Remember body language too. Various gestures and postures are viewed differently by different people, so don’t neglect your nonverbal communication.

  • Use visuals, demonstrations, and examples where possible. Those can help provide a lot more clarity than written or verbal communication.

Communication barrier #4: Perceptual barriers Imagine that you went into a meeting with the assumption that it was going to be a major waste of your time. How inclined are you to listen closely? To engage in the discussion? To actively participate? Your motivation is probably running pretty low, isn’t it? That’s a perceptual barrier. The assumptions we carry with us into exchanges influence our communication style and can actually hinder our ability to get our point across or receive messages from others.

How to knock them down: It’d be nice if your own perceptions, biases, and assumptions had a simple “off” switch. While navigating around this barrier isn’t quite that easy, these tips can help:

  • Support your points with facts and evidence. That type of proof helps to back up your claims, regardless of someone’s perceptions.

  • View situations from a different perspective, and encourage team members to do the same. It’s easy for us to get stuck in our own way of thinking. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes can help you understand other intentions, opinions, and approaches.

  • Ask clarifying questions. These require that you operate based on the information in front of you, rather than your assumptions.

Communication barrier #5: Interpersonal barriers Let’s clarify this one with another example. Think of a time when you had to converse with someone who was undeniably stubborn. They insisted that their view was correct, and they refused to listen to any other points of view. I’m willing to bet that discussion was difficult, because you couldn’t truly connect with that other person. That’s an interpersonal barrier in action.

How to knock them down: I won’t sugarcoat it: interpersonal barriers are difficult to overcome, especially if someone is withdrawn and isn’t willing to engage. But, here are a few tips that can start to get things back on track:

  • Take a deep breath. These situations can be disheartening and frustrating, but escalating emotions won’t help.

  • Remember to listen. So often when we think about “communication,” we think about the words we’re speaking. But, listening is just as (if not more) important. Give others a chance to speak their minds. You might learn a lot about where that interpersonal barrier is coming from.

Communication barrier #6: Gender barriers There’s no shortage of stereotypes and generalizations about how men and women communicate differently. And while some of those might hold true while others have been debunked, it’s worth paying attention to any discrepancies between how different genders in your office communicate so you can facilitate improved collaboration and working relationships.

How to knock them down: Your best bet here is to stay away from generalizations and instead learn more about each of your individual team members—regardless of gender or gender identity. You can do this using the following strategies:

  • This is another area where personal user guides can be helpful. These empower you and your team members to learn more about each other’s unique preferences and styles, rather than operating on stereotypes.

  • Encourage team members to provide feedback to one another. This is helpful for addressing all of the communication barriers and enabling people to understand how their messages are being received by their team members.

  • Have open conversations about gender bias on your team. Being candid and transparent about those issues is far better than turning a blind eye and pretending they don’t exist.

Communication barrier #7: Emotional barriers Emotions and communication are closely related. For example, if you feel uneasy or anxious, you might resist the urge to speak up. If you’re angry and heated, you’ll have a hard time receiving information that’s being given to you. Those are just a couple of scenarios where our emotions can act as a barrier to effective communication.

How to knock them down: Emotions are natural, and they shouldn’t be discouraged or reprimanded. Instead, you and your team need to understand how to deal with them. Try some of these strategies:

  • Know when it’s time to walk away. Whether your emotions are escalating or you notice an exchange is getting heated between team members, normalize “taking a break” and returning to that conversation when everyone has had a breather.

Practice naming your emotions. As strange as it can feel to say, “I feel angry” in front of your team, it’s actually helpful in diffusing that emotion. It’s a concept called “name it to tame it.” Communication is key (and you need to do it right) It’s hard to overstate the importance of communication in the workplace. But, it’s not always easy. In fact, communicating in a way that’s effective and respectful can be extremely challenging. That’s because there are a number of barriers that stand in your way. Use this as your guide to identify them, understand them, and then steer around them, and you and your team will be able to communicate and collaborate on a whole new level.



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