The First Step of Effective Communication: Understanding The Barriers

Les Brown, one of the top five motivational speakers in the world, once said that effective communication is the number one tool to succeed in any endeavor. He said that communication determines whether people vote for you; write you a check; invest in what you do; buy your services and products. He declared, “Communication opens up a new whole world to you”.

He is right; without the ability to relate, we cannot really do anything meaningful and significant. Communication is the key to create and sustain relationships at home, work, and in the marketplace. For that matter, relationship without communication is a handgun without bullets.

Nonetheless, effective communication is not an easy task. There are old and new barriers that result in incomplete communication, miscommunication, and/or broken communication. Such malfunctioning in our communication has severe consequences both at individual, family, team, and organizational levels. That is why we need to identify and transcend those barriers that stand between us, and our communication goals. These barriers obstruct our communication and result in poor communication.

In this article, I would like to discuss some of the most important communication barriers believing in the popular saying: “Understanding the problem is half the solution”. This article doesn’t attempt to suggest solutions- half of the equation- to overcome these obstacles. Here, my goal is to emphasize the importance of recognizing communication barriers, most of which you might have already been familiar, as a first step in becoming an effective communicator.

  • Self. It is the thickest & toughest barrier that may deny us effective communication. We don’t just communicate outwardly using our words and gestures. We also communicate at a deeper level- with our mind, soul, and spirit. Therefore, we (what we think and project from within) may become barriers of communication. Our doubt, worries, personality, and character flaws may complicate our effort to communicate effectively. They ‘jam’ our communication.
  • Message. One of our reasons why we need communication is to extend our message. If our message isn’t well articulated, it cannot achieve its intended goals. Of course, our message shouldn’t be just appealing; it should also be relevant and useful to the target audience. However, making your message appealing and relevant doesn’t mean you please everyone with your message. We shouldn’t expect to get applauses, standing ovations, and high rate on the feedback sheet all the time. There are many people who don’t want, need, or buy into our message because of so many reasons. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t fail to tailor and refine our messages to the intended audience.
  • Irrelevant communication methods and approaches. The types of communication methods and approaches we use may also become barriers. For instance, many researches show that members of the digital generation communicate effectively among themselves using latest technologies, and in the cyber-space. That means, unless we reach out to the digital generation by using a combination of technologies such as texts, videos, social media, we may not communicate with them effectively. Another example is the discovery concerning how different people learn differently. Some people quickly learn from written words, others prefer images, still others stories, metaphors, and still some prefer conversations, and so on. That means, using one (or a few) types of learning methods and approaches may become a barrier & prevent us from communicating effectively.
  • Communication incompetency. Even if self, our messages, methods, and approaches may not be barriers; our lack of competency to communicate may become a barrier. How we communicate in writing, verbally, during public speaking, interviews, phone conversations, talk-show appearances, and so on may become barriers. Besides, our platform performance such as our gestures, eye contacts, the way we dress, lack of vocal variety and pause, strong accent, and so on may become barriers too.
  • Unable to cross the generational gap. We should have the ability to cross generations in our communication. Just one example, we cannot communicate effectively without involving and interacting with the younger generation. We cannot use slangs heavily and expect connection with adults and elderly people. Unless we use diverse examples & show cases that are relevant to diverse age groups, we may lose certain segments of our audience.
  • Inability to cross diverse cultures. Culture matters. It makes or breaks our ability to communicate and connect with people from cultures we don’t belong. It releases or binds us from succeeding in our communication efforts. In this highly networked world of the 21st C, culture shock is more prevalent than ever. Almost all of us have been exposed to other cultures, thanks to globalization and the Internet. Our inability to cross cultures- at least the dominant cultures we are exposed most of the time- becomes a barrier to our effort in becoming effective communicators.
  • Failure to listen. As we communicate with our loved ones, co-workers, and partners, we should make sure to listen their side of the story too if our desire is to communicate our messages and also earn their trust. We need to listen their feedbacks, and also make sure to read their unexpressed questions, doubts, and concerns they may have. Without active listening, it is hard to pick these signals. I like what Peter Drucker said, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said”. When we fail listening, we fail to communicate. It becomes a barrier, and denies us to create a trusting and more loving communication atmosphere.

But I have to admit that there are barriers, which you and I may not be able to transcend. They are out of our control. As much as we cannot applaud with our one hand, we cannot effectively communicate without the full participation of the people we are trying to communicate. But discussing this issue is beyond the scope of this article.

Let me ask you, which of the aforementioned barriers have you overcome? What have you done to transcend these barriers? On which ones are you still working?