Given the fact we have all learned how to communicate differently (just look in any home and you’ll find the differences), have varying degrees of what certain words “really” mean, utilize volume, pitch, and tone in nuanced ways, and have various dialects and even languages, it’s actually amazing we are able to communicate at all. This article will discuss the barriers to effective communication and provide 3 tips to communicate better.
We communicate in a variety of ways – verbally, through body language, text, and email, to name a few. And having a better understanding of the inputs, blocks to listening (or reading), and the value and significance of word choice, will help you to overcome the likelihood of miscommunication.
Examples of Barriers to Communication or Miscommunication
Miscommunication or a lack of communication comes in all shapes and sizes. And results in all kinds of problems when not addressed appropriately. Following are just a few examples.
A young man’s significant other sends him to the audiologist sure he has a hearing problem. He didn’t always hear her when she was speaking and talked more loudly than she thought was normal. Turns out – he didn’t have a hearing problem. He was ignoring her.
A woman at work was certain she was about to get fired because she said “Good morning” to her boss, he rushed right by her and barely made eye contact. Turns out – he was preoccupied with another meeting.
In a meeting at work, a leader slammed his fist on the table and raised his voice to make his point. And then wondered why nobody offered any good ideas after that. Turns out – he and the rest of his team had different interpretations of what slamming one’s fist on the table means.
A husband is baffled because his wife is making a lot of noise throwing the dishes in the sink and glaring at him for not following through on this commitment. Turns out – while doing the dishes seemed like minutia to him, it was an indication of trust to her.
Inputs to Communication
Before we can get to solutions, it’s important to understand the inputs that affect our ability to communicate effectively. These can also be called “filters.” We all have different filters when it comes to communication. Following are a few examples of filters you (and others) may have.
- The meaning and or weight that is given to certain words based on experiences, education, and culture.
- The tone, pitch, and volume given to each word in the message.
- Our personal history with tones, words, and expectations (this is often unconscious).
- The relationship the receiver has with the provider of information.
- The last communication between the receiver and provider.
- Your current mood.
- Differences that might occur from previous times you’ve communicated with this person.
- The weight we have assigned to the cadence or style of communication.
These are all filters that subconsciously impact how we hear and interpret a message.
Examples of How Filters Impact Our Communication
Following are a few examples of how filters may impact how we receive communication as well as how we communicate with others.
Meaning Given to Words
Maybe, as a child, one of your parents used a particular word when they were angry. For the purposes of this example, let’s just say the word was “annoyed.” And whenever they said they were “so annoyed,” they threw dishes, screamed, and stomped. Fast forward 20 years, you are in your boss’s office and he says he is “annoyed” by something that happened. On an unconscious level, your interpretation of that statement may be much greater than he intended just because of your experience with that word. In his world, “annoyed” means a little troublesome but no big deal. In your world, all hell is about to break loose.
Another example in this category has to do with texting and the use of emojis. I recently learned emojis are interpreted differently based on the generation (and I’m not talking about the eggplant emoji). Images are just a replacement for words so this shouldn’t be a surprise (yet for some reason it was). Yet, here we are with different generations assigning different meanings to the smiley face emoji.
Tone, Pitch, and Volume
Similarly, if you are soft-spoken and are in a relationship where the other individual is accustomed to a louder environment, you may perceive the increased volume as angry, demanding, abrasive, or enthusiastic. And others may perceive your lower volume as the message not being important. A person’s volume may have more to do with learned behavior than the message being delivered.
Relationship between Receiver and Provider
One of the most important aspects of communication is the relationship between the giver and receiver. When we have high trust, we tend to overlook other factors or expect the best intentions. When our last conversation or email with that person was tense, we tend to read that into the current communication. Take a minute and think about that concept relative to emails, verbal conversations, and even videos or social media you have viewed in recent days. When you like someone, you perceive the message differently than if you don’t connect with the person or have some feeling of mistrust.
The Weight We Assign to the Style or Cadence of Communication
In the workplace, we may assign a certain value to a style of communication. For example, someone who is not a direct communicator may be perceived as weak or difficult to understand. Yet, in a different environment, they may be perceived as a wonderful conversationalist.
We are always filtering. And we are filtering based more on us than on the deliverer of the communication. We filter based on if we got enough sleep last night if we’ve had our coffee, and if we got into it with someone at work before we got home. We even filter based on the clothes someone is wearing, the style of their hair, and the way they carry themself.
After reading this section, I hope you realize just how amazing it is that we are able to communicate at all!
Tips to Improve Your Communication
Now that we have a better understanding of the challenges we are dealing with, let’s talk about some solutions.
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1. Clarify, Clarify, Clarify
Quit assuming your interpretation is accurate and take a moment to clarify. It’s important to clarify in a non-threatening, non-accusatory way. Here are a few ways I’ve found helpful to clarify.
“I want to make sure I understood correctly. What I heard was (insert info).” Don’t just repeat it back to them. Use different words and summarize the conversation.
“Could you tell me a bit more about (insert info)?” This is a perfect way to have someone elaborate on what they mean when they say something.
When someone says something like “And then he yelled at me in front of everyone,” this is a perfect time to say “Tell me more about that.” You can further clarify by asking “Who exactly is everyone?” “What did he say?”
This article might help you learn how to ask better questions: How to Ask Better Questions at Work
Effective communication not only requires one to clarify what others are saying, but it also requires you to slow down and think about the information you are putting out. Whether you are writing or speaking, take a moment to anticipate the questions others will have. Everyone isn’t comfortable asking questions so the more you can clarify up front, the better off everyone is.
2. Don’t Interrupt
I know you’re busy but honestly, it’s rude. When you cut people off, they feel unimportant and eventually they shut down. If someone is trying to talk to you when you are in the middle of something or on your way somewhere, simply stop, look them in the eyes, and sincerely say, “I want to give you and this conversation the importance it deserves. I can be available at (insert time). Can we talk then?”
This tells the other party they matter so much that you don’t want to rush them. It’s a powerful message.
Some people don’t communicate as well as others and it’s difficult to pay attention. They ramble and have a difficult time getting to the point. Even with all your competing demands, try to remember how important it is to them to give them the time and gift of listening.
Interrupting often means you’ve formulated a response before hearing all the information. When you are only hearing half of the conversation, I’d guess your likelihood of miscommunication would increase by 50%.
3. Anticipate Reactions, Questions, and Concerns
Every teenager knows that before asking your parents if you can go out with a group of friends, you anticipate all the questions your parents might have and target your request for when your parents are the most relaxed. How is it that a 16-year-old knows this but adults struggle with it?
Whether you are providing verbal or written communication at work or home, slow down and take a minute to anticipate reactions, questions, and concerns. Don’t think about what your questions would be, think about what their questions would be. Anticipate how they might interpret words, tone, and even gestures. Look back at that list of filters and anticipate how you could minimize the risk of ineffective communication.
There are many challenges to communication. To add to those challenges, we live in a world where we are accustomed to trying to communicate in 140 characters or less. Worse yet, we are becoming accustomed to one-sided communication. This is frustrating and results in misinformation. Just because you “tweet” messages online, doesn’t mean that’s how you should communicate with human beings. Effective communication requires give and take – listening and talking. It may seem challenging yet it’s so fulfilling when it works!
Leave a comment below regarding your greatest challenge with communication.