Module Three: Understanding Communication Barriers

On the surface, communication seems pretty simple. I talk, you listen. You send me an e-mail, I read it. Larry King makes a TV show, we watch it.

Like most things in life, however, communication is far more complicated than it seems. Let’s look at some of the most common barriers and how to reduce their impact on communication.



An Overview of Common Barriers

Many things can impede communication. Common things that people list as barriers include:

  • I can’t explain the message to the other person in words that they understand.
  • I can’t show the other person what I mean.
  • I don’t have enough time to communicate effectively.
  • The person I am trying to communicate with doesn’t have the same background as me and is missing the bigger picture of my message.

These barriers typically break down into three categories: language, culture, and location.


Language Barriers

Of course, one of the biggest barriers to written and spoken communication is language. This can appear in three main forms:

  • The people communicating speak different languages.
  • The language being used is not the first language for one or more people involved in the communication.
  • The people communicating speak the same language, but are from different regions and therefore have different dialects and or unique subtleties.

There are a few ways to reduce the impact of these barriers.

  • As a group, identify that the barrier exists. Identify things that the group can do to minimize it.
  • Pictures speak a thousand words and can communicate across languages.
  • If you are going to be communicating with this person on a long-term basis, try to find a common language. You may also consider hiring a translator.

Cultural Barriers

There can also be times when people speak the same language but are from a different culture, where different words or gestures can mean different things. Or, perhaps the person you are communicating with us from a different class from you or has a very different lifestyle. All of these things can hinder your ability to get your message across effectively.

If you have the opportunity to prepare, find out as much as you can about the other person’s culture and background, and how it differs from yours. Try to identify possible areas of misunderstanding and how to prevent or resolve those problems.

An example: A British restaurant owner needs to talk to a culinary specialist in Australia. Although they speak the same language, their words could mean very different things.

If you don’t have time to prepare, and find yourself in an awkward situation, use the cultural differences to your advantage. Ask about the differences that you notice, and encourage questions about your culture. Ensure that your questions are curious, not judgmental, resentful, or otherwise negative.


Differences in Time and Place

The last barrier that we will look at is location, definable by time and by place. These barriers often occur when people are in different time zones or different places.

Take this scenario as an example. Bill works on the east coast, while his colleague, Joe, works on the west coast. Four hours separate their offices. One day, right after lunch, Bill calls Joe to ask for help with a question. Bill has been at work for over four hours already; he is bright, chipper, and in the groove.

Joe, however, has just gotten to the office and is, in fact, running late. He does not feel awake and chipper and is therefore perhaps not as responsive and helpful in answering Bill’s question as he normally is.

Bill thinks, “Geez, what did I do to make Joe cranky?” In response to the way he perceives Joe’s behaviour, he, too, stops communicating. Their effort to solve a problem together with has failed.

So how can you get over the challenges of time and place? First, identify that there is a difference in time and place. Next, try these tips to reduce their impact.

  • Make small talk about the weather in your respective regions. This will help you get a picture of a person’s physical environment.
  • Try to set up phone calls and meetings at a time that is convenient for you both.
  • If appropriate, e-mail can be an “anytime, anywhere” bridge. For example, if Bill had sent Joe an e-mail describing the problem, Joe could have addressed it at a better time for him, such as later on in the day. Clearly, this is not always practical (for example, if the problem is urgent, or if it is a complicated issue that requires extensive explanation), but this option should be considered.

Another thing to watch out for is rushed communication. The pressure of time can cause either party to make assumptions and leaps of faith. Always make sure you communicate as clearly as possible and ask for playback. The listening and questioning skills that you will learn in this course will help you make the most of the communication time that you do have.