Overcoming Communication Barriers

Communication occurs when a message is sent by one person and is received by another person.  Communicating effectively is essential to successful business operations.  Company personnel must communicate with co-workers, clients and vendors to achieve the company’s goals.  Advertisements and product information on websites must be current, correct and sensitive to the needs and attitudes of customers of different cultures, interests and abilities.  Customer requests and questions must be answered clearly and promptly to maintain goodwill.

As an administrative professional, you will communicate with co-workers and company managers.  You will probably also communicate with clients or customers and the public.  Improving your communication skills will help you create messages that are clear and effective.  Good communication skills may also help you get and keep a job.  Employers understand the importance of these skills.  When discussing job candidates, the one skill mentioned most often by employers is the ability to listen, write and speak effectively.

communicationThe communication process involves a message, a sender, a channel, a receiver and feedback.

  • A message is a symbol or group of symbols that conveys meaning, such as a thought or an idea. For example, a letter contains words that are written symbols.  These convey a message to the reader.
  • The sender is the person who creates the message and transmits it via a channel. In the previous example, the sender is the person who writes the letter.
  • A channel is a means by which a message is sent, such as a letter, speaking in person or by telephones or electronically by email.
  • The receiver is the person who receives the message, such as the recipient of a letter or an email message.

Gestures and other nonverbal behaviours can also send messages.  When a person (sender) says, “Hello,” smiles and extends a hand toward you (the receiver), that person is sending a message that he or she is glad to meet you.  Feedback is a return message sent by the receiver.  When you smile and say “pleased to meet you,” you are giving feedback.  Feedback helps the sender know whether the message was understood correctly.

The communication process has only been completed successfully when the original sender receives feedback from the original receiver which shows that the message has been interpreted and understood correctly, that is, as the original sender intended it to be understood.

Overcoming Communication Barriers

For effective communication to take place the message must be understood as the speaker or writer intends.  If the listener or reader interprets the message differently, problems may occur.  For example, suppose you receive an email message from your manager on Thursday morning telling you that you need to finish a project by next Friday.  To your manager, the term “next Friday” means the following day.  However, you interpret the message as meaning that the project is due several days later on Friday of next week.  Your manager will be disappointed when the project is not completed the next day and you will be disappointed to learn that you did not understand the message as intended.  You are both the victims of a communication barrier.  A communication barrier is anything that interferes with successful communication.  Communication barriers can be external or internal.

(a) Internal Communication Barriers

In the exchange with the manager described above, an internal barrier prevented the message from being understood.  In your previous experience, the term “next Friday” has meant Friday of the following week – not the next Friday to occur.  Because of your previous experience, you interpreted the message to have a different meaning that the sender intended.

Mention of emotions distractions, biases and lack of motivation are other examples of internal communication barriers.

  • Negative bias toward the topic. If you have had a bad experience with regards to a certain topic, it may be hard to accept positive comments.
  • Lack of motivation. If you have no reason to be interested in what is being said or the topic.
  • Differences in perception and distortion. Because communication takes place between individuals who are all different and unique, it is only natural that their interpretations of messages may differ.  Individual personalities, preferences, attitudes, cultures, values, norms, ideas and background affect people’s perceptions.  Furthermore, the fact that messages are often relayed from person to person creates opportunities for filtering and other forms of distortion.  Filtering refers to the deliberate manipulation of information to make it more acceptable to the receiver.
  • Personality differences. Some people are by nature more critical, more narrow minded or less even tempered than others.  These personality traits influence the way that messages are interpreted and the way in which messages are communicated.
  • Lack of communication s Some people lack the basic skills to communicate effectively.  They may have problems with expressing themselves, sometimes as a result of poor language skills or they may be poor listeners.
  • Information overload. When a person receives too much information at once, making sense of it all can be very difficult.  This is especially true if a person receives conflicting messages from different sources during the same time period.  In organisations, employees are often overloaded with information from various sources and they are sometimes expected to make several important decisions in one day.  This can become very confusing and frustrating and ultimately the quality of decisions taken might be negatively affected.
  • Choosing the wrong communication medium. The best medium for a specific message is the one that reaches the target audience in the most affective and affordable way.  Choosing the wrong medium could result in ineffective communication.
  • Rumours. The grapevine could become a major barrier to effective corporate communication if false rumours are spread.
  • Language and emotional barriers. Not all people are equally proficient in the use of different languages.  Employees are often required to communicate in their second or third language.  Apart from this, different people sometimes attach different meanings to the same word, especially in a diverse society such as South Africa.  Emotions also play an important role in the interpretation of messages that are received.  Depending on how happy or sad a person is, he or she might interpret the same message differently on two separate occasions.
  • Contradiction between verbal and non-verbal messages. Body language and other non-verbal clues, like tone and pitch of voice, play a very important role in the communication process.  If a verbal and non-verbal message contradicts each other, the receiver of the information will be confused, and the message will be distorted.
  • Diversity. Different cultures have different styles of communication.  In a country like South Africa, with its diverse population, it is very important to consider the communication style of the person that you communicate with.  Furthermore, as South Africa becomes more integrated into the international community, negotiations and other forms of communication with other cultures will increase.

(b)  External Communication Barriers

External communication barriers are things such as noise, poor lighting, heat or cold or uncomfortable seating.  Noise may make it difficult to hear or read or focus on a message.  Poor lighting, a room that is too cold or warm and an uncomfortable chair are examples of physical barriers that can distract a sender or receiver and hinder communication.  Language can also be an external communication barrier.  When the sender and receiver do not speak the same language, it is difficult for communication to take place.

(c)  Overcoming Communication Barriers

Senders and receivers should try to recognise and overcome communication barriers.  External barriers are often easier to overcome than internal barriers.  For example, you may be able to move to a quiet location to read a message if noise is a problem.  You may be able to adjust lighting, seating or room temperature to prevent these physical conditions from being a distraction.

Some internal barriers can be difficult to overcome.  If you are ill, you may need to postpone taking part in the communication until a later time.  If you have trouble focusing on a message because you are sleepy, you might take a break to walk about the room or open a window to get some fresh air.  These actions may help you feel refreshed and ready to read or listen to the message.

When speaking or writing to someone, be aware of how well the person knows the language you are using.  For example, suppose English is your first language and you are writing to someone who first language is German.  You should use standard English in your message.  Avoid using acronyms, information terms or expressions that the reader might not understand.


Next week, we will be discussing on how you can improve your listening skills – Don’t forget to sign up for OPSA membership to keep up with this month’s theme of the Communication process and get these awesome articles straight to your inbox every Tuesday!

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