Communication is the process of transferring information and meaning between senders and receivers using one or more written, oral, visual or electronic channels. The essence of communication is sharing-providing data, information and insights in an exchange that benefits both you and the people whom you are communicating (Bovee and Thill, Excellence in Business Communication, Ninth Edition, 2011).
Effective communication helps businesses in numerous ways. These benefits include:
Stronger decision making based on reliable, timely information.
Faster problem solving- less time is spent on understanding problems and more time is spent on creating solutions.
Communication barriers can interfere with or block the message you are trying to send. Managers should:
- Recognise the barriers to communication which prevent messages being sent and received successfully
- Develop communication skills to overcome these barriers.
Types of communication barriers
There are many different factors that can create barriers to effective communication.
Language barriers occur when people do not speak the same language, or do not have the same level of ability in a language. However, barriers can also occur when people are speaking the same language. Sometimes barriers occur when we use inappropriate levels of language (too formal or informal) or we use jargon or slang which is not understood by one or more of the people communicating.
Often the situation in which the conversation is taking place, and whether or not people have prior experience of the matter being discussed, can also contribute to such barriers being formed.
Overcoming language barriers
Remember that preparation is an important part of communication.
- who you are communicating with
- what their language needs may be.
Using visuals (photographs, drawings, diagrams and so on) can help to overcome language barriers as can using appropriate non-verbal communication. Be aware, however, that different situations and different cultures (including workplace cultures) have varying interpretations of non-verbal communication. What is acceptable in one culture may be offensive in another. What is clear to you may not be clear to others: a nod for ‘yes’ may not mean the same thing in another country! See ‘Take care with gestures’ in Section 2 for more examples.
The quality of your voice is also important for clear communication. Be sure to speak with appropriate volume for the situation and use clear diction. Listening actively to other people and letting them know that you are listening (nodding, asking questions etc) is an excellent way to overcome language barriers.
Conversational bad habits
There are many bad habits we can have in conversation:
- Sometimes we judge the other person by criticising them, calling them names or diagnosing them (for example, ‘you’re stupid’ or ‘you are only saying that because you know you should have spent more time on it’).
- Another bad habit is sending solutions to the other by threatening, moralising, asking too many questions or advising them. For example, ‘You should apologise.’ ‘If I were you…’.
- Another common, but very negative, conversational habit is avoiding the other person’s concerns by changing the subject, offering a ‘logical ‘ argument or reassuring the person, ‘It’ll be ok. The same happened to a friend of mine…’
Often people just want you to listen. Prejudging helps no one. People have the right to make mistakes. In the workplace, the important thing is to get the job done and to help each other to do this.
Sending solutions may not always be your business and will often not be appreciated. People must make their own decisions. We often reassure the person because we are embarrassed about facing others’ emotions.
Communicating with people of different cultures and backgrounds means becoming aware of the differences in values, beliefs and attitudes that people hold.
Empathy is important for overcoming barriers to communication based on culture. Empathy means sensing the feelings and attitudes of others as if we had experienced them personally. There is a common expression that describes how you can develop empathy: ‘You need to walk a mile in another person’s shoes’.
There are many techniques involved in creating empathy. We can try:
- respecting other’s feelings and attitudes
- using active listening skills
- encouraging involvement of others by asking questions while respecting personal privacy
- using open body language and an encouraging vocal tone
- taking other people’s fears and concerns into consideration.
- refraining from giving unsolicited advice.
- not blaming, instead working towards a solution.
Not all barriers to communication are caused by people. There are many environmental factors affecting the effective communication process. Messages can be blocked by environmental factors, such as the physical setting or the situation where communication takes place.
Managing environmental factors
Here are some points to help you manage environmental factors for effective communication when in teams.
- Team meeting rooms should be cool but not cold. A warm room makes participants sleepy; a cold room can make them very unhappy!
- Make sure that the environment is comfortable and secure. People need to feel safe before they will listen or offer suggestions.
- Check that nothing behind or near the team member will cause distraction (for example, activity seen through an open window or door; a television screen).
- Turn off your mobile phone when you are communicating with other people.
- Wait until machinery (or any other distracting noise) is turned off before you even try to communicate. If this is not possible, move to a quieter location.
- Use accepted format in any written communication (letters, memorandums and reports) and, if it’s important, check with someone beforehand that they can understand it.
As a communicator, you need to think about what are the potential and real environmental barriers in your workplace or community
Bias, generalisations and stereotyping
These behaviours can cause communication barriers. Having these attitudes and not confronting them is not just wrong, it’s bad for business. In the workplace, such attitudes can cost the organisation time and money.
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Stereotyping occurs when you assume you know something about a person because of their cultural or social background. Your views may come from a bias you may have against a particular behaviour, appearance, possession or even a particular geographical area.
An example of generalisation is where you know one person from a particular background and then generalise that all people from that background are the same.
Your situation, appearance and behaviour may contribute to other people’s stereotyped views. This could contribute to communication breakdown. Learn to treat everyone as an individual. You will open up the channels for communication and overcome the barriers based on discrimination.
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