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Types of Communication Barriers

January 25, 2013 by Dr. Jon Warner in Communication

Types of Communication Barriers

So-called ‘bad’ communication is pretty simple. Bad communication is what happens when you’re not able to get your ideas and feelings through to the other person – when you’re misunderstood. To exaggerate, it’s quite obviously ‘bad’ communication if you ask two people to work together to produce a report and you get two individual reports (rather than one combined one) without any collaboration whatsoever. Similar situations happen all the time in organizations because people make assumptions about how they will be understood (as well as commit many other communication ‘sins’).

In order to overcome bad communication or unnecessary barriers to understanding, you need to have a goal for every important conversation. You need to make plans for it too. Making assumptions that others feel, hear and understand things in the same as you can be a sure way to ‘mess up’ a conversation. We therefore need to be careful not to focus so much on our own agenda, that we forget that we are just half of the conversation.

For effective communication to take place, each person has to understand what the other is saying in the same way that the other person understands it. At the very simplest level we need to be using words which have a common meaning and we should check that meaning. For example, we often may use words such as ‘quickly’, ‘soon’, ‘quality’, and so forth, but are we always sure that what we understand them to mean is what the other person understands? People in organizations are often frustrated because what they mean is not what others understand. The boss who gives someone a job to do ‘quickly’ without explaining what they mean can be left waiting much longer than they would like for a result. Similarly, doing something ‘soon’ may mean a lot longer for kids than most parents would like.  The same goes for asking for a given ‘quality’ of result-this needs clarification in order to be meaningful.

So, you should ideally be thinking very carefully about the words you intend to use and to then be specific about what some of the more ambiguous words mean. For instance, “I’d like this done by the end of the day”,  or “If you finish the report by Tuesday, I will have time to read it before the presentation on Wednesday morning” leaves much less room for misunderstanding or confusion about what is being said.

In general terms, to avoid misunderstandings based on different perceptions of what we mean, we need to always check the other person’s experience when it comes to our communication. This means that we should develop a good appreciation of all the possible barriers that might arise so that we can take these into account ahead of time. You will notice that the list below is not only about poor word choices.

Things which can create barriers in conversations:

  • Using vague, ambiguous or confusing words, terms, jargon and phrases
  • Using body language that is inconsistent with the words we are using
  • Not paying attention to the other person in the conversation
  • Not listening in general
  • Talking over the other person/interrupting
  • Being angry/irritated/attacking
  • Pretending (to be interested, friendly, sincere, and so on)
  • Talking down
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Ridiculing/being sarcastic
  • Knocking down ideas
  • Scoring conversational points
  • Making the other person feel stupid

Of course, we may not “own up” to doing any of these things most of the time but even now and again or engaging in just one or two of these behaviors may have a highly detrimental effect on any communication.

So what can we do to help a conversation or to assist the communication to flow more smoothly?

Things which remove barriers in conversations:

  • Planning our words, terms and phrases carefully
  • Talking in plain language wherever possible
  • Using body language consistently
  • Being welcoming/smiling as often as appropriate
  • Using introductory small talk in the early stages of a conversation
  • Maintaining good eye contact
  • Listening attentively
  • Sharing your experience where appropriate
  • Being open and honest
  • Asking for feedback
  • Being prepared to try and understand how the other person feels
  • Agreeing (when you do)
  • Checking your understanding as often as necessary

The above behaviors may seem obvious when you review them in a list like this but its amazing how few of them we may actually use in our everyday conversations, even though the impact on the overall quality of the communication can be significant when this is done well.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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