7 effective strategies in overcoming communication barriers at work

Jobstreet content teamupdated on 19 July, 2023
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Imagine working on a project where there are no updates from your teammates. No feedback from your stakeholders. No clear directions on what you have to do. Spoiler: it’s going to be a disaster.

Effective communication is vital in the workplace. It keeps the business running, and plays a vital role in establishing and nurturing connections. It’s crucial in maintaining engagement, too. A Gallup study has found that consistent communication, whether in person, via phone or video call, or electronically, makes employees more involved and committed to their work.

Knowing that communication is essential, why is it not easy to do? Having difficult conversations with co-workers and bosses can be challenging. Communication barriers may hamper proper exchange of information among individuals and groups. When these barriers are present, the message may be delivered or received differently than intended. This results in confusion, misunderstandings, and conflicts.

This article will help you identify and overcome communication barriers in the workplace.

Causes of communication barriers

Communication barriers may arise due to many factors.

Differences in language and culture

While diversity in the workplace is booming, it comes with a caveat. It’s not easy for individuals from different backgrounds and cultures to work together. They speak different languages. They have varying customs and traditions. They also interpret body language differently low context cultures.

For example, people from prefer direct communication. They will not understand hints. People from high context cultures pay more attention to non-verbal cues. They may find directness a bit too abrasive.

Physical barriers

These barriers make it physically difficult for people to hear or see each other. They can be natural or man-made. Examples are distance, poor audio, background noise, and technology issues.

For example, when in a choppy Zoom call, you may miss some critical meeting details.

Emotional and psychological barriers

Strong negative feelings, such as anger and frustration, can affect your communication ability.

For example, an angry co-worker may lash out. This makes it hard for you to understand their perspective. Or they may shut down and not listen to your side.

Attitudinal barriers

Your values, beliefs, and experiences can influence biases and prejudices. These can affect your willingness to listen to and accept different perspectives. Some manifestations include closed-mindedness, skepticism, or resistance to change.

An example is when you don’t align with a particular manager’s leadership style. Sometimes, this predisposition carries over to how you resist their directions, even if they mean well.

Perceptual barriers

These stem from the differences in how people perceive and interpret information. Preconceived notions of people or events can affect your judgement.

For example, an employee may have a bad experience with someone from one department. Unknowingly, they might view everyone from that department negatively. They might even avoid any communication with them.

Types of communication barriers

Communication barriers can be categorised into three types, depending on the mode used to deliver the message.

Verbal barriers

These are obstacles that arise from the use of spoken language and can be caused by several factors:

Language differences

Having different native languages, accents, and even vocabularies can make communication challenging. While English is the working language in multicultural Singapore, it is common to hear a different language used in the workplace.

Ambiguity or lack of clarity

Abstract or vague language can be hard to understand. For example, saying “I need this done soon” is ambiguous. Different people will have a different interpretation of what “soon” means.

Use of jargon and technical language

When people use specialised terminology or trendy industry jargon—like AI buzzwords, for example—things can get lost in translation. Most people are usually unfamiliar with technical terms.

Tone and inflection

How a person says something can significantly affect their message. A humorous tone may make light of a grave matter but might cause others not to take the issue seriously. Also, what may be humorous to you, may be offensive to others.

Non-verbal barriers

Non-verbal cues like body language and facial expressions may also interfere with communication.

Body language and gestures

Body language can reinforce what is being said or convey additional meaning. Alternatively, it can also contradict what someone is saying. For example, crossing one’s arms during an interview is considered a body language mistake as it’s perceived as a sign of resistance.

Facial expressions

A person’s facial expression while speaking can also convey a different message. For instance, employees might feel confused if a manager smiles while delivering bad news.

Eye contact

Eye contact is an important non-verbal cue conveying trust, respect, and attention. When someone fails to make eye contact during a discussion, the listener might see it as a sign of dishonesty, lack of interest, or disrespect.

Distance and physical space

The distance between two people can affect the dynamics of interaction and the quality of communication. If you stand too close, the person you are talking to might perceive you as confrontational or aggressive. If you are too far, it may feel awkward.

Written barriers

These things get in the way of effective communication when using the written word, such as via letters, emails, and reports.

Poor grammar and spelling

When a message is poorly written, the reader may end up confused or misinterpret some information. Errors in grammar and spelling are signs of laziness and carelessness. They can affect the relationship between the sender and receiver.

Incorrect use of punctuation

Even the tiniest mistake in using punctuation can change a sentence's meaning or cause confusion. For example: “This document needs approval from the marketing heads, Sara and Greg” differs from “This document needs approval from the marketing heads, Sara, and Greg.”

Poor sentence structure

When the structure of a sentence is unclear or awkward, it can be prone to misinterpretation. Deciphering it may also require extra effort from the reader, leading to feelings of frustration.

Lack of organisation and coherence

Written communication that is disorganised can be hard to understand. Your reader might miss the main points and have a hard time understanding the message.

7  ways to overcome communication barriers

two women colleagues overcoming communication barriers by discussing issues

It may take some time and effort, but it’s possible to break down walls and overcome communication barriers in the workplace. Here are some steps you can take:

1. Learn how to adapt your communication style.

According to a report from The Economist, the most frequently cited cause of communication barriers is the differing communication styles of people. This is primarily influenced by language, culture, and age. If you work with people from different cultural and generational backgrounds, it’s beneficial to improve your cultural intelligence. These are skills that help you handle culturally diverse situations. Use this as an opportunity to learn about others’  culture’s values, beliefs, and practices.

For example, some cultures, like Malays, are known for being very polite when conversing, which may be a barrier if you prefer direct, straightforward language. By acknowledging that it’s a cultural nuance, you can minimise the risk of misunderstandings.

2. Choose appropriate communication channels.

Different communication channels work best for different situations. An email may be best for relaying the exhaustive details of a project, while a face-to-face meeting might be more effective in resolving a conflict between teammates. For urgent issues, a Viber or WhatsApp message (or any direct messaging tool your company uses) might be ideal.

Be efficient in the way you send out communication, too. For instance: If a project involves a large group of people, it’s better to send a group email versus individual messages. On the other hand, make sure not to disclose confidential matters in a group forum or meeting.

3. Be clear and concise.

No one wants to waste time decoding a lengthy email with technical acronyms. The easiest way to communicate effectively is to be clear and straight to the point. For example, when you are briefing teammates about a project, it is best to stick to the important details. Some tips here:

Use simple language.

Your primary goal is to be understood, so stick to simple, easy-to-understand language. Avoid using complex words and jargon your audience may need to be more familiar with.

Keep it short.

Ensure your audience gets the most crucial information quickly, and avoid rambling or going off-topic. Practice brevity and clarity, and make you sure you are not committing these common email mistakes.

Use an appropriate tone.

Use a tone that matches the context of the message to reinforce the meaning and make it easier to understand.

4. Be mindful of non-verbal cues.

Annie McKee, a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and the author ofHow to Be Happy at Worktalks about how to read people, particularly during meetings. She says, “If you’re relying [solely] on their words, you’re only getting half the picture.” Look at people’s facial expressions, posture, and body language. Be mindful of your non-verbal cues. This kind of social awareness helps people understand each other better, establish rapport, and build trust.

Let’s say you’re having an emergency meeting with your teammates about an urgent deliverable. A quick scan of the people in the room can tell you if they’re feeling extra stressed. They might be frowning or fidgeting. A good leader will pick up on these cues and do what’s necessary to ease the tension. They create a more positive atmosphere by speaking calmly and using reassuring language.

5. Be an active listener.

Active listening is a unique skill for successful communication. This means you give complete attention to what others are saying and listen carefully without interrupting. Provide non-verbal, visual cues. Make eye contact, nod your head, or respond verbally with appropriate feedback or questions.

Active listening builds relationships and promotes mutual respect in the workplace. It can be beneficial during conflicts, too. By actively listening to someone else’s perspective, you can help de-escalate the situation. You and your team can have a more collaborative approach to problem-solving.

6. Practise empathy.

It’s not enough that you listen; it’s important to care about other people’s thoughts and opinions, too. Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing—within their frame of reference and not yours. It allows you to see things from other people’s points of view. This is helpful in scenarios where parties have varying opinions. Or when cultural or generational differences seem to clash. Case in point: A Gen Z employee may need to empathise with a senior colleague struggling with technology-based processes.

Empathy is essential in improving teamwork as well. When you respect and acknowledge people's unique perspectives, they’re more likely to feel valued and connected at work.

7. Clarify and confirm understanding.

Some people, particularly introverts, may have difficulty asking questions at work. They may think that doing so might make them appear incapable or incompetent. But clarifying information ensures everyone is on the same page.

If you’re the one speaking, it’s also good to always confirm your audience’s understanding of your message. Be willing to answer questions without sounding annoyed or condescending. Research has found that when questions are encouraged, it leads to better innovation. Questions stimulate people’s creativity.

Communication Barriers in Specific Contexts

Obstacles in communication can vary depending on the context or situation.

Communication barriers in the family setting

Families may experience emotional distance, power imbalances, and age gaps. There are also differences in communication styles. For example, in most traditional families, it can be hard for the younger generation to speak up. Elders may find it disrespectful.

Communication barriers in the cultural setting

Intercultural communication barriers can be a challenge, too. Differences in language and non-verbal cues affect communication between people of different cultures. For instance, while physical touch is okay in some cultures, others may find it offensive.

Communication barriers in the healthcare setting

Medical terms may be too complex or challenging for ordinary people. This blocks effective communication between healthcare professionals and patients. For instance, a patient may panic because of a diagnosis. The disease may be treatable, the medical terms just sound intimidating. Or, a patient may not understand that they have a serious disease.

Due to cultural differences, people have different expectations on giving and receiving healthcare. For instance, some people may prefer to be treated with traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which can conflict with Western medicine.

Communication barriers in the educational setting

Differences in learning styles and abilities hinder effective communication in the educational setting. So do technological barriers, language barriers, and varying socio-economic backgrounds.

For instance, an international student from a non-English speaking country may have difficulty catching up with lectures in the English language.

The impact of technology on communication barriers

woman talking with her colleagues while overcoming communication barriers on a online meeting

Technology can help overcome communication barriers:

  • Modern modes of communication allow people to share information quickly and efficiently.
  • Technology provides us with many tools—instant messaging, emails, and video conferencing. You can now connect regardless of your location, time zone, or language.
  • 75 % of companies now use automation tools. Businesses can automate communications through email marketing and chatbots.
  • Collaboration software allows employees to work together efficiently on projects. With the click of a button, you can share insights and solve problems.
  • Hi-speed internet enables real-time communication. This is helpful in arriving at quick decisions.

Technological advancements can also create new communication barriers:

  • Modern communication methods, such as email or text, can easily be misinterpreted.
  • Tech tools can be distracting, what with real-time updates and nonstop notifications. It’s difficult to focus on important tasks when you’re constantly glued to your phones and laptops.
  • Technical issues, like poor internet connectivity or software malfunctions can disrupt communication.
  • Heavy use of technology in communications may cause lack of personal connection. This can cause feelings of isolation and reduce worker engagement.

Striking a balance

It is important to balance use of technology with face-to-face (F2F) communication. Modern tools provide convenience, but F2F interactions provide connection. It builds trust and establishes rapport among co-workers.

Conclusion

Communication barriers can hinder effective communication, collaboration, and productivity. These barriers take on many forms and can manifest in different ways.

Here’s what you can do to overcome these barriers:

Here are tips to overcome these barriers:

  • Adapt your communication style.
  • Choose the appropriate communication channels.
  • Be clear and concise.
  • Be mindful of non-verbal cues.
  • Practise active listening.
  • Practise empathy.
  • Clarify and confirm understanding.

These steps can help break down walls and help you connect better in the workplace.

FAQs

  1. What are the most common communication barriers?
    The following may cause communication barriers:
    ⁠- Differences in language Cultural differences
    ⁠- Physical distance
    ⁠- Emotional and psychological barrier
    ⁠- Attitudinal factors
    ⁠- Perceptual barriers
  2. How can communication barriers be overcome in the workplace?
    Communication barriers at work can be overcome by trying these different strategies:

    ⁠- Adapt your communication style.
    ⁠- Choose appropriate communication channels.
    ⁠- Simplify your language.Understand non-verbal cues.
    ⁠- Practise active listening and empathy.
    ⁠- Ask or encourage clarifying questions to promote understanding.
  3. What are the best strategies for overcoming language barriers in communication?
    Use simple and clear language, avoid jargon, and understand cultural nuances. You can also minimise misunderstandings by improving your cultural awareness.
  4. How can emotional barriers be addressed in communication?
    A safe and supportive environment is key to addressing emotional and psychological barriers. Active listening and empathy can also help you navigate emotionally-charged situations. In severe cases, you may need professional help to overcome emotional barriers.
  5. How do communication barriers affect personal relationships?
    Communication barriers can lead to misunderstandings and conflicts in your personal relationships. When you cannot communicate what you really mean, it can be hard to build trust.
  6. What role does active listening play in overcoming communication barriers?
    Active listening allows you to understand and respond appropriately to the person you are talking to. When you listen actively, you make people feel that you value their thoughts and ideas.
  7. How does technology impact communication barriers in today’s society?
    Technology has both positive and negative impacts on communication in the workplace. Modern tools allow the faster relay of information. This increases connectivity and improves collaboration. Meanwhile, heavy reliance on technology can have a negative impact on personal relationships. This can lead to feelings of isolation and decreased engagement. It is important to strike a balance and use technology thoughtfully.

Check out our Career Advice page or download JobStreet’s app available on the App Store and Google Play for more tips that can help you in navigate your career and professional relationships.

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