We send thousands of messages all day every day, using a variety of different methods; either in person, on the phone, through social media, or written. Even if we are sitting on our front steps just watching the sunset, we are communicating; it’s impossible not to. It would only make sense that some of the messages we send don’t make it to whomever is on the receiving end in the exact same way that was intended, and, in turn, that we don’t interpret their messages fully either. There is so much that can interfere with our ability to communicate that it’s a challenge to get messages across as intended.
Barrier #1 – Ourselves
It’s true, our personal makeup can account for quite a bit of interference in our communication. Our individual backgrounds, personalities and life experiences shape how we see and understand our world, so naturally it makes sense that these things could impact how we relate to and communicate with others.
Another significant barrier to communicating is our cultural perceptions and stereotypes. Despite the many improvements to combat racism, sexism, ageism, etc., there are still situations where we may assume things about others, or judge not only them or their personality, but how they will react. Something as simple as the way someone dresses can lead us to believe we “know their type”, when we really don’t. There are inevitably times when our pre-conceived opinions and attitudes might get in the way of communicating effectively with others, but the best way to manage this is to be open-minded and give each person we meet the respect and caring that we’d like others to give us.
Our attitudes and emotions also play a significant role in our communication. As humans, we are blessed (and cursed at times) with a range of emotions so vast that it only makes sense that they would influence our communication. If someone is particularly happy, agitated, or angry for example, you’d have trouble having a decent conversation with them because of their emotional state, not because of the words you were using. Their mood could block, sway or lead to misinterpretation of what you were trying to say, as well as alter whatever they were attempting to communicate back to you. I was trying to have a conversation with a flight attendant last week who was in a very bad mood, as she was seemingly reliving an unpleasant experience in her mind and responding to me almost robotically rather than engaging in the reality of her current dialogue. Emotions are like noise when it comes to interacting with others; they can really distort what’s trying to be said or heard. Using our emotional intelligence can help break through some of the communication barriers that plague us.
Another key obstacle to effective communication is the lack of listening skills. As social beings, we are often so entrenched in thinking about what we are going to say next that we forget to truly listen. We also have so many time-constraints, distractions and emotions on any given day that to sit still and listen carefully seems like a challenge. If you can’t give someone your full attention, just tell them. By explaining that you’re interested and you’d like to know more but it will have to wait a bit shows you care.
Barrier #2 – Our environment
Our physical and external environments can be major barriers to communicating well – or even at all. Some of the obvious obstacles to good communication include the physical barriers that block non-verbal cues that we rely on to fully understand others. These can be physical partitions or location challenges – especially since organizations and our general interactions are more spread out than ever, even globally. We also must contend with things like low (or very high) volume levels, visual obstructions including poor eyesight or messy handwriting, or trying to figure out how to use a new cell phone or social media platform. All of these things impair our ability to get messages sent and received. Additionally, something seemingly small such as a dripping faucet, a bee buzzing past you, or something in your eye can be so distracting that very little communicating is taking place. These days, it seems that we are overrun with distractions and constantly trying to multi-task, to the point that it’s hard to really connect with someone or have a decent conversation. Another part of our environment that impacts our communication can be the different types of language barriers. This includes accents we aren’t familiar with, or speech impairments, as well as improper spelling, grammar, slang, and our use of emojis, short forms and jargon that others just don’t understand.
Overcoming barriers & improving relationships
Now that we’ve covered the many things that can get in the way of communicating well with others, the good news is that we can learn to overcome barriers by studying them and improving our own communication skills. This, in turn, will improve interactions and relationships in all areas of our lives. Remove or ignore distractions, and take the time needed to clearly express yourself, even if it means picking up the phone instead of sending a text message. Listening carefully and paraphrasing someone’s message to make sure you got it right is also a great start. It’s important to have and give feedback. Not having a feedback loop in place stifles opportunities for improving communication. Our relationships at home, work and with our friends are so valuable, yet we often get caught up in simple misunderstandings that are easily avoidable if we just take the time to reflect, listen, and open our minds.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”. – George Bernard Shaw