Barriers to Communication


If you’ve ever travelled to a foreign country or even if you’ve met someone who didn’t speak your language and tried to talk to him or her, you have experienced some challenging barriers to communication.  What exactly happens in a situation such as this?  Let’s try to put it into terms that we learned in the Communication Process article.

A Communication Barrier Scenario

Let’s say that you are in another country where you do not speak the language.  You are looking for a bus station.  You stop someone on the street and you ask her in English, “Where is the bus station?”  The confused look on the receiver’s face is the feedback telling you that your message was not received successfully.  You immediately understand that there was a decoding issue – the receiver could not decode the message and you realize that you need to encode it a bit better.  So you take out your language phrasebook and find the word for bus.  As you ask again using the correct word, a large truck goes by and the receiver does not hear you.  You also notice that the receiver seems to be in a hurry and is getting anxious.  These are both elements of noise that are blocking the transmission.  The first receiver leaves.  You try someone else and you try a new channel or medium.  You draw a picture of a bus and point to it; you say the word in their language.  Message received! He then talks for 30 seconds in his language saying nothing that you could decode.  Your feedback tells the person that you need another channel.  You take out your map and the foreign sender points to the bus station on it.  The new medium is a success and the message is received.  You are off to the bus station for more adventure.

Communication Barriers

The sending and receiving of messages occurs in countless forms, oftentimes much more subtle than as depicted above.  Communication is a delicate endeavor and barriers to communication can take on a myriad of forms in the communication environment, in the individuals involved, and in the message itself.  Here are some common communication barriers:

Environmental Barriers – The location where a message is sent can be disrupted by geographic distance, or by interfering factors such as other people or movement (like in a car or on a bus).  It can also be blocked by actual loud, audible noise such as in our example above.

Physiological Barriers – Fatigue, stress, or negative emotions can lead to a breakdown in effective communication.  Physical disabilities in either sender or receiver can be a challenging factor as well.  We already mentioned language barriers; even a strong accent or dialect can interfere with a message.

barriers to communication

Psychological Barriers – Opinions, judgments, prejudices, attitudes and perception all can play a part in the transfer of messages.  If a receiver dislikes or mistrusts the sender of a message, the decoding of that message can be skewed – maybe with good reason.  The same goes for the sender too.  If a sender has strong opinions about the receiver(s), the communication process becomes much more complicated.

Systemic Barriers – When I started a new job at a rather large company a while ago, the “company speak” was filled with jargon and acronyms, so many that the company website provided an acronym dictionary so that workers could find out what the heck was being communicated.  Sometimes organizational communication can be very challenging and it is important for the leaders of an organization to stay open and aware of occurrences of this nature.

Cultures & Beliefs – Different cultures communicate differently.  They have differing rules and expectations of behaviors.  Eye contact is expected between people here in the US, but it is considered rude in some Asian countries.  There are also differing expectations of “personal space” all over the world.  A gesture or behavior that is considered rude would certainly interfere with any kind of message that you are trying to convey.  If you are working or traveling in other countries and cultures, it is important for you to “know the rules” of those with whom you are dealing.  The article Cultural Communication discusses this subject more in-depth. Also, there is an excellent book called Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands.  Click on the image shown on the right to check it out.

Barriers to Communication Definition

If we were to write a “Barriers to Communication Definition,” it could be simply stated as anything that interferes with the successful reception of a message.  We mentioned several potential barriers:  environmental, physical, psychological, systemic, cultures & beliefs.  Master Communicators are aware of all possible barriers to communication and will take them all into consideration when they are encoding their messages.   The most challenging of these barriers are oftentimes the ones that reside within the sender himself.  This is where a high degree of “self” awareness is vital to effective communication.

I know all of you have some awe inspiring stories that tell about some communication barriers that were overcome.  Please share!

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