Communication Barriers in Organizations

Communication Barriers in Organizations

There is a bus load of arrested prisoners awaiting transport from the city jail to the state prison. Two prisoners from obviously different social, cultural and financial backgrounds share one of the seats.

With a vociferous tirade, the more affluent character petitions his case to lethargic ears. Obviously scared and bothered by his arrest, and not too quiet about his family wealth and status, he—partly to himself, partly to his bench mate—says: “Man, I miss Italy. Do you miss Italy?”

With all intentional irony, the second character, who has never even been out of his own district retorts: “You ever listen to Wu-Tang?”

This is a scene from the 1998 film Slam. It beautifully illustrates the complexity of communication barriers, and how communication barriers develop in organizations.

The scene depicts many of the barriers to good communication: social, cultural and financial backgrounds are all key points where barriers occur. Furthermore, the first character is upset and boastful, which exemplifies emotional and psychological barriers. And, as if these barriers weren’t enough, the characters are alienated by subculture; the second character intentionally makes a reference to Hip-Hop in comparison to trips to Italy—neither character understands the other’s life experience.

At this point it is clear there will be no affinity between the characters, because their faulty communication has resulted in a barrier. Has your organization experienced something similar?

For any movement, business, team or circle of friends to organize, there needs to be a common language. So it is important to understand what kind of communication barriers stand in the way to facilitating a commonality.

There are physical barriers to communication, such as poor, outdated equipment; even things like background noise, lighting and temperature can affect the viability of good communication. Barriers can also be found within the structures and systems of an organization when these are incorrectly applied or are impractical and outdated. Take a look around the physical aspects of your organizations to see if you need to address obvious items then turn to examine possible human barriers.

In his e-book Overcoming Communication Barriers between People and in Organizations, Martin Hahn, a Ph.D. and industrial sociologist, outlines six different types of communication barriers.

Differences in Perception

The way we absorb information creates our perceptions and no two people’s perceptions are alike, even if their experiences are similar.

As a sender we choose the bits of information we think we need to transmit in order to best convey our thoughts; as a receiver we absorb this information, but when it stands in stark contrast to what we think, our brain often distorts the information rather than change our existing perceptions.

Incorrect Filtering

Information can become distorted when something called filtering takes place. Filtering happens when information is passed through an intermediary source—such as a secretary, assistant, email or message center—and thereby comes to you second or third hand.

Intermediaries can reinterpret the message before you actually get it, effectively double-filtering the information.

Language Problems

Language is a system of shared meaning, but different cultures and subcultures have their own meanings that can filter out those individuals not in the know. Slang is precisely meant to do this. But as slang becomes part of common vernacular, new slang arises and the process repeats.

Moreover, there are multiple meanings for different words, and when people use them in ways unfamiliar to the others around them, messages can be misconstrued.

Poor Listening

Simply put, people are not listening well enough. Most poor listening is a result of passive listening habits. Attention is not honed and focused, and people look to voice their thoughts more than they look to hear those of others.

Without active listening there is a lot of room for misunderstanding, misinterpretation, missed information and confusion leading to miscommunication, all of which have a dramatic impact on personal and team performance.

Differing Emotional States

Every message has a content meaning and an emotional meaning which suggests the nature of the relationship between the sender and receiver. Communication breaks down when either of these two meanings are taken incorrectly.

Bad moods, for example, can affect how you hear messages, and can lead to you misunderstanding the meaning of a message.

Differing Backgrounds

Many aspects of a person’s background can interfere with the message sent and received, ranging from age and gender to religion and political beliefs.

The important thing to remember is that none of these communication barriers are impossible to break. Be aware of perceptions. Directly communicate as much as possible. Use precise and shared language. Listen actively. Be aware of the emotional state of yourself and others, and mind and the backgrounds of others as best as you can. Then you won’t end up on a bus, talking to the air, like the characters in the film.

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