Define Barriers to Communication

by Leslie Bloom - Updated June 04, 2018
Businesswomen taking a break

No matter how hard you try to avoid them, barriers of communication will pop up between employees, managers and clients. A failure of communication can cause unnecessary delays, frustration and potentially lost business. The good news is that there are ways to overcome barriers of communication to keep your business running smoothly.

What Are Communication Barriers in Business?

Communication barriers can be found everywhere in business, from the top down to middle management to external relationships. Communication breakdowns occur organizationally, such as when team members are isolated, or individually, when a person misinterprets or ignores what another is saying. They can arise from too many distractions at work or not enough clarity about a project. A few examples of common barriers of communication you may see in your business are:

  • Distraction. If you are not present in a conversation, it’s likely to result in miscommunication. Whether from multiple interruptions, multitasking or rushing off to your next meeting, being distracted is a barrier to communication that can cause many problems. It is also one that is easy to remedy if you learn to focus and be present in the moment.
  • Poor management. When employees don’t like their managers or don’t feel they can talk openly to them, communication channels quickly shut down. Managers who fail to give feedback, don't listen to problems, can't talk openly about relevant company business or won't ask questions of their staff create barriers to communication that don’t need to exist.
  • Lack of conversation. Of course, the best way to communicate is to have a conversation. These days, however, people are more likely to text or email when they have an issue to discuss. This type of one-sided conversation often leads to unnecessary misunderstandings and frustration, and can be a waste of time. An issue that can be handled in a direct, 15-minute, face-to-face talk instead becomes a daylong anxiety-inducing exchange of words that has no resolution.
  • Physical barriers. When management isolates themselves on a different floor of the building from the rest of the workforce or work teams are assigned to separate offices, physical barriers are created that lead to poor communication.
  • Personality differences. Chances are you have several types of personalities floating around your business. There’s also a good chance that some of those personalities just don’t mesh and have different communication styles, which lead to misunderstandings, stereotyping and silence.
  • Lack of clarity. When dealing with stakeholders, clients and staff, it’s important to have clear company policies. Not doing so often creates confusion and frustration that leads people to not want to do business with you.

If you take some time to assess your workplace to learn how people communicate, you’ll likely find these and other common examples of barriers to communication. Some can be resolved more quickly than others, but they all require willing participation and good communication skills from your team.

Communication Barriers Examples

Not all barriers to communication are obvious. It may seem like you are conversing and being productive, but it’s not until later that you realize nothing actually got accomplished. Here's how a team meeting with a manager can be riddled with communication barriers:

The team meets at 10:00 a.m. with the manager to go over an upcoming networking event. Team members arrive promptly, but the manager is having a phone conversation. Everyone awkwardly sits in the room, not knowing when the conversation will end and when the meeting will actually start.

Ten minutes later, the manager focuses his attention on the people in the room and asks for an agenda for the meeting. Nobody has one, so someone scrambles to quickly write one. While doing so, the manager gets distracted by another phone call, one that requires him to leave the office in 15 minutes to meet with someone offsite. That results in a rushed meeting where people do not ask a lot of questions because they want to cover as much material as possible in the now-limited time available.

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Once the meeting is over and everyone is back in their offices, the team may realize a few things: They did not cover some important items that needed to be discussed, they felt rushed and ignored by the manager while trying to discuss what they did cover and they are no further along in their planning for the upcoming networking event than they were before the meeting. Barriers to communication resulted in a waste of time and a lack of productivity for all involved.

Other barriers to communication are blatant, like the team member who keeps missing your assignment deadline without giving you a reason or the manager who tunes out and plays with his phone every time you try to have a conversation. It may be organizational red tape that prevents new ideas from ever actually coming to fruition or the lack of intraoffice socializing among workers of different levels in the business.

External Communications Problems

If you are in a business that serves customers, external communications are just as important. For example, if you don’t clearly advertise how long sale prices are in effect, you may end up with irate customers insisting they pay only what the sale price is one month later. If you provide customer service information on your website but no direct way to contact your customer service department, you may end up with public complaints on your social media pages instead of one complaint that could have been handled quickly and privately.

No matter if the barriers to communication are obvious or subtle, they do nothing to help a business succeed. In fact, they can end up causing a lot more problems than you anticipate.

Downfalls of Communication Barriers

You may think you don’t need to spend time working on communication at your business, but there are many consequences to ignoring communication problems. Barriers to communication lead to frustrated employees and clients who don’t feel like they're being heard. When that happens, staff becomes less motivated, leading to a lack of productivity, creativity and innovation. Failure to effectively communicate with clients and customers can even lead to lost business.

If employees don’t feel that what they say matters or has any impact, they may stop talking altogether and not communicate when something is wrong or when a deadline is going to be missed. This results in inefficiencies, mistakes and a company culture that encourages isolation instead of teamwork.

When people don’t feel like they have open channels to communicate, many shut down and just go through the motions at their job. This is probably not what you want to happen at your company, which is why it’s necessary to prioritize good communication among your staff and externally with clients, suppliers and customers.

How to Overcome Communication Barriers

The best way to overcome communication barriers is to prevent them in the first place. This is done by setting a clearly defined policy for your business that encourages communication. It can be as simple as setting a short morning meeting to address issues and projects or a more complex hierarchy that sets out whom to talk to when a problem occurs. This way, everyone knows they have a chance to be heard.

This communication policy should be written and reviewed with all new hires, as well as regularly reviewed and updated to reflect current technology and company practices. If necessary, training in communication skills and your specific communication policies can be useful, especially for those who aren’t the best communicators.

Even when people know they have an outlet to be heard, it’s still important for employees to actively participate in improving communication throughout the company. Encourage your staff to:

  • Talk in person. When possible, have a conversation in person. That way there is no confusion about tone or meaning. If there is, it can be immediately dealt with, eliminating frustrations and miscommunication. Encourage staff to pick up the phone and talk if they can’t meet in person, especially if the issue is complicated. Only use email and text when it’s a last resort or for a quick question.
  • Limit distractions. Conversations require both talking and listening. Make sure you are really listening by limiting interruptions, putting down your phone and focusing on what the other person is saying. This will help overcome communication barriers and make the other person feel heard and valued. Distractions should be limited whether in person or on the phone.
  • Have an open door policy. Encourage an open door policy so people know they can talk to managers or other teams any time they need to. This policy should extend to stakeholders and clients, who should feel like they can reach an appropriate person at your company anytime they have an issue or concern.
  • Create social opportunities. People are more likely to engage with people they know. Creating social opportunities within your company and networking events for external clients can help people get to know each other and open the lines of communication. Once people have met and had a conversation, they will likely feel more comfortable talking in the future.
  • Keep it simple. Another common barrier to communication is trying to make a good impression. Be yourself. Ditch the jargon or formal vocabulary in exchange for personal stories and clear, concise language. Be friendly, warm and genuine. If it's a professional relationship, maintain your boundaries while still remaining sensitive to the issue at hand.
  • Be affirming. It’s important to acknowledge other people's experiences and respond accordingly. Watch for body language and emotions as well as listen to the words being exchanged. Be respectful of the information you receive and any feelings that arise. Ask questions, be positive and provide helpful and supportive feedback when you can.
  • Consider culture. Be mindful of expressions, gestures, and religious and political beliefs associated with different cultures as you converse so your message is not misconstrued. It's also important to check any generalizations and stereotypes about cultural groups before jumping to conclusions. How people think, react and see the world can vary widely because of culture.
  • Prioritize. Focus on just the information you want to convey instead of doing an information dump. Too much information at once can lead to the listener being overwhelmed, resulting in inaction. By presenting only relevant information, you more clearly communicate what’s important and what the recipient needs to do.
  • Correct your body language. Communication doesn’t just come from words. It also comes from your body. How you sit and move when conversing with someone often says a lot more than words ever can. Making eye contact and using appropriate nonverbal gestures go a long way. Avoid looking annoyed, stressed or distracted to prevent someone from wanting to talk with you.

With some clearly defined policies, training and practice, you can prevent communication barriers from slowing down your business, which will increase efficiency.

About the Author

Leslie Bloom is a Los Angeles native who has worked everywhere from new start-ups to established corporate settings. In addition to years of business and management experience, she has more than 20 years of experience writing for a variety of online and print publications. She holds degrees in both journalism and law.

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