12 barriers to effective communication: Breaking down walls

We've all been there: You're trying to communicate important information at work, but it’s ineffective. As a result, people don’t know what to do, so productivity and morale drop. And that brings a whole load of issues.

Poor communication exists everywhere. Overcoming this means examining and solving the specific barriers in your way.

These obstacles can range from physical to emotional to psychological. Ignoring them can cause a lack of understanding, clarity and trust, which can be devastating for everyone.

Understanding each communication barrier can help you build your communication skills and increase interpersonal and organizational effectiveness.

Why is effective communication important?

Effective communication connects a team and company. It can help stakeholders find common ground, work together and get more done. 

A 2021 study in the Open Journal of Business and Management demonstrated how effective communication improves productivity, engagement, collaboration and innovation. 

12 common barriers to effective communication

Effective communication doesn't happen automatically. Unfortunately, ineffective communication tends to be more common, preventing organizations from reaching their full potential. 

Here are 12 barriers to effective communication examples:

1. Communication styles

Many barriers come down to simple differences in communication preferences and styles. 

Effective communicators know how to account for and leverage the four most common styles: Passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive and assertive. 

Ignoring these styles risks your message falling flat and potentially alienating your audience.

Solution: Active listening can help you identify someone’s communication style. Asking questions about what they’re saying can give you a deeper understanding of what’s happening. Knowing these details allows you to tailor your approach and communication. 

2. Emotional disconnects

Successful interpersonal communication includes both parties agreeing to shelve their emotional baggage and preconceptions. If they don't, their emotional barriers can prevent them from listening and connecting.

Emotional disconnects are especially common when the parties don’t get along.

For example, a history of poor management may lead employees to feel mistrust, ultimately leading to a lack of engagement with the message. 

Poor body language and biased phrasing can also cause an emotional disconnect from the conversation. 

Solution: Making an effort to be cordial and rise above any history can work to rebuild emotional disconnects. If it’s impossible to get along, it may be time to move departments. 

If you’re sending out messages, ensure they don’t contain any offensive or prejudiced phrasing.

3. Channel-specific barriers

Most barriers relate to the communication channels you use to convey a message.

For example, people working remotely may find it more difficult to connect with each other. 

Similarly, multigenerational workplaces may struggle if employees prefer different communication channels. One group may want in-person meetings, while the other prefers Slack and Microsoft Teams.

It’s also crucial to consider whether your audience has any conditions that can impact how they process information. From sight issues to neurodivergence, your communications should suit your audience’s physiological needs. 

Identifying these channel-specific barriers is vital to effective communication. Understand which communication channels your audience prefers. Learning about the channel nuances can help you engage your audience effectively and avoid misunderstandings.

Solution: If you’re an employer, training employees on your company’s preferred communication channel can solve this issue. 

If you’re in marketing, learn where most of your audience is and focus on that channel.

4. Information overload

Communicating too much information at once can lose the core message, preventing you from reaching your communication goals. 

Information overload can occur in three scenarios:

  • too much information in a message makes it difficult to identify or retain its core meaning
  • frequent communication can cause your audience to tune out of future communications
  • your audience’s internal noise can cause overload that your message can’t compete with

In these cases, your message won't get through, despite your best efforts. 

Solution: Keep communications short, sweet and occasional. Don’t spam inboxes every day with irrelevant information. 

5. Lack of credibility or trust

What if your audience simply doesn't trust you? 

A lack of trust can be devastating in your quest for effective communication. It's among the main barriers you'll need to overcome.

Part of the reason for this barrier might be your audience's history with you or others. 

Solution: Trust and credibility build over time through transparent, effective communication, sticking to your word and acting ethically. 

If you’ve broken trust in a way that requires an apology, genuinely apologizing to those you’ve offended can start rebuilding trust. 

6. Communication as a one-way street

Don't think of effective communication as a bullhorn. Instead, consider it a two-way street.

If you’re constantly sending information without paying attention to your audience, it’s like a tennis game with one player: You. Two-way communication is key. 

Solution: In interpersonal scenarios, practice active listening and adjust your message accordingly. In broader communications, provide an opportunity for feedback so your audience feels like an active participant.

7. Different sender-receiver expectations

Inherent biases can impact how people process information. You need to know what your audience expects and adjust your message accordingly.

This can be relevant in a wide range of scenarios. 

For example, generational differences can lead to various interpretations of the same message depending on who you talk to. 

Solution: Understanding your audience is key to knowing how they’ll interpret your message. A common example among younger millennials and Gen Z is punctuation. While you may think a full stop is just that, Gen Z may see your punctuation as rude.

On the other hand, slang can confuse everyone. While your youngest employee knows what you mean when you say “no cap”, your oldest employee is wondering why you’re referring to your headwear. And your Gen Z employee thinks “hip” is referring to your pelvis.

Keep things simple, to the point, and be aware of how people interpret messages differently. 

8. Organizational structure barrier

The structure you operate in can have a big impact, especially in hierarchical organizations.

In many cases, upward communication can become difficult, leading to a lack of collaboration between employees at various levels. 

Existing communication systems may only focus on one-way information distribution. Not considering feedback can alienate your audience.

Solution: Ensuring employees can communicate with higher-ups is important. That could be 1-1 meetings, employee surveys or feedback forms. 

9. Lack of purpose

Sharing engaging content is only possible if it has a specific goal. Irrelevant content can make your audience feel like your communications aren’t worth their time. 

Solution: Ensure your communication is relevant and well-crafted to maximize its impact.

10. Confusion between informal and formal communication

Ineffective and improper communication can also result from a lack of formality when that formality is expected, and vice versa. 

For example, workplace gossip isn’t the place for the most important information. However, informal communication channels are still valuable. 

Solution: Create a system that clearly outlines which information requires formal sharing and which is better off in a more informal peer-to-peer setting.

For example, if your company is merging with another, that needs formal communication, not a water cooler chat. If Wendy is getting married, you don’t need a press conference.

11. Cultural and language differences

Cultural differences are among the biggest barriers to communication. 

Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions can help you understand just how important it is to consider backgrounds to overcome these cultural barriers.

If you have employees from different cultural backgrounds, always account for their preferences throughout your communication process.

Solution: Translating your content is a simple one if you’re trying to reach people who speak a different language. 

You also need to ensure your message doesn’t involve any stereotypes, as these can be insensitive or even racist. This understandably alienates any audience. 

Consider signs and symbols. While you might regularly do the thumbs-up gesture to show you’re happy with someone’s work, this can be offensive in places like Iran and Greece. 

Shaking hands when you greet someone is commonplace in places like the US and UK, but some cultures see it as offensive. Instead, bowing is customary in Japan. 

12. Inconsistent communication

Finally, any successful communication plan relies on consistency. 

Most barriers to effective communication stem from a disconnect with your audience, which depends entirely on the sender. 

Using jargon inconsistently or including contradictory information can cause your audience to lose trust and find it difficult to pay attention to you in the future. 

Solution: Ensure your communication is consistent, whether that’s your use of jargon or fact-checking your message. It may help to have a second pair of eyes look over your comms. 

How to eliminate common communication barriers

Most communication barriers are common in interpersonal and organizational environments. They all lead to inefficient communication that can negatively impact everyone involved. 

Use these tips to avoid that worst-case scenario:

Embrace the seven principles of effective communication

 The seven principles of communication are:

  • clarity
  • concision
  • concreteness
  • correctness
  • coherence
  • completion
  • courtesy

In the ideal communication ecosystem, every message you send should account for each of these principles. That includes anything from the communication channels people use to connect with you to informal water cooler conversations.

Agree on shared communication preferences

Research and talk with your audience to understand how they want to communicate. At its core, that means using a common language fundamentally and in terms of jargon. 

You should also consider things like using the same document-sharing tools to simplify information access.

Understand and consider the receiver

It's time to examine the sender-receiver relationship more deeply. The more empathetic you can be, the better. 

At its best, you'll be able to write, speak and record communications with the exact message you need to convey. 

To get this right, you can use anything from existing generational research to employee surveys and informal knowledge about your audience.

Focus on content relevance

If your content is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter if you’re working with the most tailored communication.

Instead, focus on a concise message that summarizes your goals when communicating with your audience. Shorter is better as you try to convey key information. 

If the information is still complex, consider simplifying it by building segment audiences that might benefit from different nuggets and keep your message focused that way.

Prioritize multichannel communications

When you segment your audience, their preferred communication channels may differ. 

Even if they don't, sending the same message across multiple channels benefits you by creating multiple touchpoints and repetitions that increase understanding.

Think through your core message in more detail: 

  • What channels and forms of communication make the most sense?
  • Could you benefit from personalized news feeds alongside emails, personal conversations, and text messages? 

This is how you create a coherent communication ecosystem that works toward the same goal.

Remove barriers of formality

Your audience's communication experience changes drastically depending on the formality of the message. 

People tend to be more receptive to messages in an informal setting. That means honing your listening skills, turning speeches into conversations and considering your nonverbal cues. 

It may also mean changing the tone of your written messages. Stuffy, jargon-filled emails can feel standoffish, while a casual approach can feel much more friendly. 

How technology can help you overcome common barriers to effective communication

Overcoming the main communication barriers requires a careful strategy. Modern technology can play a major role in helping you through that process.

For example, technology can help you distribute your information through multiple channels. You can also track the success of any technology-based communications to understand whether your audience actually engages with your message.

Your use of modern technology depends on the purpose of your communication. Everything should focus on your audience and the goal of your messaging. 

Once you define both, you’ll find ample tech solutions to optimize your efforts as you create more effective communications.

Pip Decks offers practical toolkits to help you master communication and succeed in your career. Learn how top companies and institutions like Apple, Google and Stanford University use our system to break down common barriers to effective communication. 

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