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Communication barriers: why isn't it easier?
Have you ever left a meeting and realised that you and a colleague have a very different impression of how the meeting went and what was agreed? How many times have you seen your colleagues react badly to an email from a client?
How do you feel when you send a ‘great’ email out to your network and get very little response? Do you ever get the sense that the person on the other end of the phone is more engaged with their emails than with what you are saying? These are common occurrences for many of us yet communication should be such a simple process. Somehow it doesn’t always work as smoothly as it should and all too often we come up against communication barriers that get in the way of effective communication. Either communication simply doesn’t take place at all or it is misinterpreted or ignored.
What happens when communication breaks down?
Poor communication can lead to all sorts of frustrations and misunderstandings from an email being ignored, feedback misinterpreted or a presentation going badly. Time is wasted, relationships suffer, teams become disengaged, opportunities can be missed and ultimately poor business communication can have a detrimental effect on an organisation’s success.
What are the barriers?
1. Linguistic barriers
Of course, business communication is more challenging when you are operating in a language that is not your first. You may miss the subtleties of the message, it can take longer to formulate your response and it can sometimes be hard to find the right expression. However, language barriers can also impede communication between people who share the same language. Using very abstract language and passive forms can put your audience at a distance and obscure the message. Complex language, technical jargon or in-house acronyms can risk alienating your audience; they might feel ignorant or not part of the ‘in-group’ and not feel able to ask for clarification. And of course, poor grammar and spelling in written communication can create a negative impression on your reader.
2. Cultural barriers
Competing cultural values can create barriers to effective communication and cause offence to be taken when none is intended. The nuances of how politeness is conveyed, how personal relationships are built and how timelines are managed all impact on cross-cultural communication styles. For example, in cultures where harmony is highly valued and conflict is avoided, communication is often very indirect and it can be hard for people to give negative feedback or say ‘no’ directly when asked a question. This can be frustrating for people from more task-focused cultures who value clear and direct communication and prefer to ‘tell it like it is’.
3. Psychological barriers
We all have attitudes and biaises that can sometimes create communication barriers. If we are simply having a bad day, feeling stressed and overworked or disengaged from the team or organisation we belong to, we may not pay enough attention to the niceties or the interpersonal side of the way we communicate. Tone of voice, lack of facial expression or other non-verbal signals can all come into play and give a negative impression whether we are the speaker or the listener.
4. Physical barriers
Sometimes our environment is not conducive to good communication. Background chatter, an irritating noise outside, an airless room or a poor internet connection can make it hard to focus and our communication suffers. Taking important phone calls while on the move, delivering sensitive feedback in a crowded place or arriving late for a meeting can all create barriers to successful communication.
A check list for breaking down communication barriers
The good news is that we can improve our communication skills and by being more mindful about how we send and receive communication we can remove some of the obstacles that get in the way.
1. Listen actively and attentively – keep your mind focused on what is being said and avoid the temptation to let your eyes wonder to your smartphone or computer screen. Even if you are on the phone the other person will sense when your attention has wondered. And give signals to show that you have listened and heard by using non-verbal signals, summarising or asking follow on questions.
2. Use plain language – keep your language simple and avoid using complex expressions, jargon or acronyms that may confuse your audience.
3. Focus on one key message – if you are sending a written communication or giving a presentation make sure you have one clear message and state this upfront. Don’t leave your audience asking themselves what your point was or what they are supposed to do.
4. Put yourself in the shoes of the other person or people - think about how they prefer to communicate and whether you should adapt your usual style. Take a moment to consider their environment and what might be going on for them on a personal level.
5. Don’t jump to conclusions – we often make assumptions about the other person’s intentions or judge them as rude. Try to start by assuming that intentions are good and consider if there were any communication barriers that left you feeling negative.
Communication, just like any other business skill, requires time and effort. Managing yourself, being prepared and ensuring your surroundings or technology are appropriate will all help to remove some of those visible and invisible communication barriers.