4 barriers to communication at work – and how to overcome them

colleagues talking

Struggling to convey a clear message? Do your words keep falling on deaf ears? Deal with what stands in the way of key workplace connections using our effective strategies.

When we’re at work, communication plays a major role on a day-to-day basis. Not only can it strengthen our relationships with colleagues, but it’s often the difference-maker in a project’s success or failure.

Strong communication lets us convey ideas, thoughts and directions in ways that everyone can understand. But when problems arise in the way we communicate, the lack of clarity and intent can create barriers – and it’s these barriers that stand in the way of workplace success.

Here, we’ll present some common workplace communication challenges and how you can overcome them to help your spoken and written communication stay clear and confusion-free.

The three main types of communication barriers

Communication barriers can include anything that prevents people from conveying the right message to the listener, or a listener misunderstanding the speaker’s message.

There are three main categories of communication barriers that can prevent effective communication from taking place:

Physical communication barriers

  • Such as social distancing, remote-work, and even the office itself, i.e., background noise, uncomfortable seating, inadequate temperatures

Emotional/psychological barriers

  • Resulting from personal issues, stress, anxiety, fear and mistrust. When emotional barriers occur, it’s tougher for people to concentrate or have constructive conversations

Language communication barriers

  • Such as foreign language, strong regional dialects and over-reliance on technical industry jargon.

dispute in the meeting

Common communication barriers and how to overcome them

1. Inconsistency and mixed messages

When communication lacks consistency it can leave recipients feeling frustrated and confused. When a team is supposed to be on the page, consistency is key.

Mixed messages, on the other hand, can wreak havoc on teams. If you or another team member is giving different messages to different people, it looks like there’s a problem with consistency.

How can it be fixed?

If you’re inconsistent in your communication, then take a step back and consider why you’re doing it. Are you accidentally communicating mixed messages because you aren’t sure of the right answer? If so, you should investigate matters further, reach a fuller understanding, and then communicate with the rest of your team.

Inconsistency can also result from a fear of workplace conflict. If you’re communicating inconsistent information because you’re afraid to rock the boat, then the avoidance will continue to be an issue.

To remedy the situation, it’s important to bring the team together on a conference call; e-mails could confound things further. Resolving issues in communication is far more suited to face-to-face discussion.

When you meet, take ownership of the issue. Let everyone know you’ve noticed the problem and that you want to clear things up. Answer any questions the team may have to clarify the issue.

If the inconsistencies are being communicated by someone else, then bring this up to your manager. When you meet, you might want to begin by saying something like: “I’m getting mixed messages because I was told X but [employee name] seems to think Y. Please could you clarify?”

colleagues talking

2. Poor listening

Listening isn’t as easy as you might think. If you’re in the habit of blankly nodding along to others, interrupting them or zoning out during conversations, then chances are you’re not taking onboard messages in the right way.

It’s here where misunderstandings are most common. When we aren’t paying the proper attention, it can lead to all manner of different issues in the workplace.

How can it be fixed?

Getting into the habit of active listening can remedy the issue here.

The clue is in the name: rather than being a passive part of the conversation, you take an active role in what’s being said by giving others your undivided attention.

Through active listening, the listener observes, refrains from judgment and allows the speaker to finish speaking. And by reflecting on their words, seeking clarification when needed, it lets others know you’re listening to them and gives you the chance to understand their message.

From here, you can share your thoughts on what’s been said and offer your own ideas.

3. Inadequate body language

If you’re saying one thing but your body language is expressing something else, things can get confusing. Maybe you’re trying to convey a positive message, but your body language is doing the opposite.

For the listener, it’s difficult to know what to take away from this jumble of emotions. Body language and other non-verbal communication can have such a big impact on others when we speak, so it’s important to stay aware of what we’re doing.

How can it be fixed?

Like the way we listen to others, paying close attention to our body language matters, especially in the age of remote work. If you find yourself crossing your arms and adopting insular, standoffish postures when talking to others, then your body language could do with some improvement.

businesswoman in meeting

When speaking to colleagues, keep the following tips in mind:

• Make eye contact frequently

• Turn towards the person you’re speaking to

• Smile when appropriate and avoid negative facial expressions such as furrowing your brow

• Uncross your arms

• Stand or sit up straight

• Avoid playing with your hair, jewellery or clothes

When body language and speech fail to stay in sync, it might mislead others – but it may also mean someone is having a bad day. Remember, it’s always fine to ask. If the two don’t match, then inquiring can help clear up further confusion.

Let them know their words express one thing and their expression says another and then ask if they have concerns. When colleagues open up, it can prevent further misunderstanding.

For more tips and advice, check out our article on body language and non-verbal communication.

4. Using excessive jargon

Know your CRO from your CRM and your APIs from your KPIs? That’s fine if you do, but not everyone might be as up to speed on their initialisms as you are.

Sectors and industries are packed with all kinds of technical terms, acronyms and abbreviations, some of which might leave employees, other teams and external stakeholders confused.By relying on buzzwords and jargon, we may end up reducing the clarity of our communication, so it’s important not to fall into the habit of overusing them.

How can it be fixed?

A jargon-free vocabulary is a good idea. Sure, it’s fine to use techspeak when everyone in the room knows what you mean, but when others aren’t so well-versed, it can be alienating. When speaking to new employees and people outside your company, keep jargon to a minimum unless you want to be met with some seriously confused faces.

You should extend the same approach to your company too. Encourage everyone to use plain English and go easy on the acronyms and abbreviations. Being precise with your language makes communicating with everyone else a lot easier.

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