Communication involves a sender, channel, message, receiver, and feedback. Problems with any one of these components can become a barrier to communication. These barriers suggest opportunities for improving communication.

Communication Cycle Diagram

Audience orientation

  • The communication process begins with the analysis of the audience. Focus on understanding the audience, their culture, worldview, religion, needs, interests, fears, joys etc.
  • We need to:
  • know what lies behind peoples actions.
  • find the common reference points with the audience. (Bridges)
  • identify the barriers. What will make the audience to close their ears and hearts?
  • begin communicating from the known to the unknown. Start where the audience is and move them along to where we want them to be.

The human filter

Incoming communication must pass a filter. The filter contains all that we know, believe and value. Filters are our eyeglasses through which audiences receive messages.

  • World view. Our understanding of the world and our basic values and beliefs about life. The window through which we view everything else.
  • Learning and experience. What we have learnt formally and informally and experiences that has shaped our understanding and beliefs.
  • Beliefs and attitudes. Our feelings about what we have learned and experienced. Our attitudes. All shaped by our culture and religion.
  • Personality.  Everything else that make us unique.

Typical Communication Barriers in Training

1. Muddled messages

Effective communication starts with a clear message. Contrast these two messages: "Please be here about 7:00 tomorrow morning." "Please be here at 7:00 tomorrow morning." The one word difference makes the first message muddled and the second message clear.
Muddled messages are a barrier to communication because the sender leaves the receiver unclear about the intent of the sender. Muddled messages have many causes. The sender may be confused in his or her thinking. The message may be little more than a vague idea. The problem may be semantics, e.g., note this muddled newspaper ad: "Dog for sale. Will eat anything. Especially likes children. Call 1234 567 for more information."   Or this one seen by an escalator: "Dogs must be carried" - does this mean you must carry a dog to use the escalator...?
Feedback from the receiver is the best way for a sender to be sure that the message is clear rather than muddled. Clarifying muddled messages is the responsibility of the sender. The sender hoping the receiver will figure out the message does little to remove this barrier to communication.

2. Stereotyping

Stereotyping causes us to typify a person, a group, an event or a thing on oversimplified conceptions, beliefs, or opinions. Thus, basketball players can be stereotyped as tall, green equipment as better than red equipment, football linemen as dumb, Landrover as better than Toyota, Vikings as handsome, and people raised on dairy farms as interested in animals.
Stereotyping can substitute for thinking, analysis and open mindedness to a new situation. Stereotyping is a barrier to communication when it causes people to act as if they already know the message that is coming from the sender or worse, as if no message is necessary because "everybody already knows." Both senders and listeners should continuously look for and address thinking, conclusions and actions based on stereotypes.

3. Wrong channel

"Good morning." An oral channel for this message is highly appropriate. Writing "GOOD MORNING!" on a chalkboard is less effective than a warm oral greeting. On the other hand, a detailed request to a contractor for construction of a house should be in writing, i.e., non-oral. A long conversation between a builder and the owner about the house construction, with neither taking notes, surely will result in confusion and misunderstanding. These simple examples illustrate how the wrong channel can be a barrier to communication.

Variation of channels helps the receiver understand the nature and importance of a message. A written disciplinary warning for tardiness emphasizes to the employee that the problem is serious. A birthday card to an employee's spouse is more sincere than a request to the employee to say "Happy Birthday" to the spouse.

Simple rules for selection of a channel cause more problems than they solve. In choice of a channel, the sender needs to be sensitive to such things as the complexity of the message (good morning versus a construction contract); the consequences of a misunderstanding (medication for a sick person versus a guess about tomorrow's weather); knowledge, skills and abilities of the receiver (a new employee versus a partner in the business); and immediacy of action to be taken from the message (instructions for this morning's work versus a plan of work for 2017).

4. Language

Words are not reality. Words, as the sender understands them are combined with the perceptions of those words by the receiver. Language represents only part of the whole. We fill in the rest with perceptions. Trying to understand a foreign language easily demonstrates words not being reality. Being "foreign" is not limited to the language of another country. It can be the language of another culture. The Omar’s house may be where the Abdullahs now live. The green goose may be a trailer painted red long after it was given the name green goose. A brassy day may say much about temperature and little about color. Each new trainee needs to be taught the language of the trade. Until the trade language is learned, it can be as much a barrier to communication as a foreign language.  Jargon and abbreviations also get in the way.  For example: 'Please do a TNA to develop KSAs for L&D so we can achieve KT' or 'Please do a training needs analysis to develop the learning objectives to identify the knowledge, skills and attitudes for learning and development so we can achieve knowledge transfer'.  Most professions have their own jargon or TLAs (Three letter acronyms = abbreviations).
5. Lack of feedback

Feedback is the mirror of communication. Feedback mirrors what the sender has sent. Feedback is the receiver sending back to the sender the message as perceived. Without feedback, communication is one-way. Feedback happens in a variety of ways. Asking a person to repeat what has been said, e.g., repeat instructions, is a very direct way of getting feedback. Feedback may be as subtle as a stare, a puzzled look, a nod, or failure to ask any questions after complicated instructions have been given. Both sender and receiver can play an active role in using feedback to make communication truly two-way. Feedback should be helpful rather than hurtful. Prompt feedback is more effective than feedback saved up until the "right" moment. Feedback should deal in specifics rather than generalities.

6. Poor listening skills

Listening is difficult. A typical speaker says about 125 words per minute. The typical listener can receive 400-600 words per minute. Thus, about 75 percent of listening time is free time. The free time often sidetracks the listener. The solution is to be an active rather than passive listener. One important listening skill is to be prepared to listen. Tune out thoughts about other people and other problems. Search for meaning in what the person is saying. Avoid interrupting the speaker. "Shut up" is a useful listening guideline. "Shut up some more" is a useful extension of this guideline. Withhold evaluation and judgment until the other person has finished with the message. A listener's premature frown, shaking of the head, or bored look can easily convince the other person there is no reason to elaborate or try again to communicate his or her excellent idea.
Providing feedback is the most important active listening skill. Ask questions. Nod in agreement. Look the person straight in the eye. Lean forward. Be an animated listener. Focus on what the other person is saying. Repeat key points. Active listening is particularly important in dealing with an angry person. Encouraging the person to speak, i.e., to vent feelings, is essential to establishing communication with an angry person. Repeat what the person has said. Ask questions to encourage the person to say again what he or she seemed most anxious to say in the first place. An angry person will not start listening until they have "cooled" down. Telling an angry person to "cool" down often has the opposite effect. Getting angry with an angry person only assures that there are now two people not listening to what the other is saying.

7. Interruptions

The interruptions may be due to something more pressing, rudeness, lack of privacy for discussion, a drop-in visitor, an emergency, or even the curiosity of someone else wanting to know what two other people are saying. Regardless of the cause, interruptions are a barrier to communication. In the extreme, there is a reluctance of employees and family members even to attempt discussion with a manager because of the near certainty that the conversation will be interrupted. Less extreme but serious is the problem of incomplete instructions because someone came by with a pressing question.

8. Physical distractions

Physical distractions are the physical things that get in the way of communication. Examples of such things include the telephone, a passing car, a desk, an uncomfortable meeting place, and noise. These physical distractions are common. If the phone rings, the tendency is to answer it even if the caller is interrupting a very important or even delicate conversation. A person sitting behind a desk, especially if sitting in a large chair, talking across the desk is talking from behind a physical barrier. Two people talking facing each other without a desk between them have a much more open and personal sense of communication. Uncomfortable meeting places may include a place that is too hot or too cold. Another example is a meeting room with uncomfortable chairs that soon cause people to want to stand even if it means cutting short the discussion. Noise is a physical distraction simply because it is hard to concentrate on a conversation if hearing is difficult.

9. Technology

Technology can be a great asset as well as providing a significant distraction. Poor use of audio-visual equipment can create a barrier to a trainer’s communication so be careful using services such as Twitter or TV relay on screen when you are presenting.

Facilitating Communication

In addition to removal of specific barriers to communication, the following general guidelines may also facilitate communication.

  1. Have a positive attitude about communication. Defensiveness interferes with communication.
  2. Work at improving communication skills. It takes knowledge and work. The communication model and discussion of barriers to communication provide the necessary knowledge. This increased awareness of the potential for improving communication is the first step to better communication.
  3. Include communication as a skill to be evaluated along with all the other. Help other people improve their communication skills by helping them understand their communication problems.
  4. Make communication goal oriented. Relational goals come first and pave the way for other goals. When the sender and receiver have a good relationship, they are much more likely to accomplish their communication goals.
  5. Approach communication as a creative process rather than simply part of the chore of working with people. Experiment with communication alternatives. What works with one person may not work well with another person. Vary channels, listening techniques, and feedback techniques.
  6. Accept the reality of miscommunication. The best communicators fail to have perfect communication. They accept miscommunication and work to minimize its negative impacts.

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