The barriers to effective communication

At the moment, you may be engaged in verbal, nonverbal, visual, or written communication. 

You may be attending a meeting, casually chatting with your manager, or listening to a colleague present ideas. 

Whatever communication type or situation you may be engaged in at the moment, you may suffer problems that distort or disrupt the flow of information. 

These problems are the barriers to effective communication — they represent all obstacles that may arise in a team and cause misunderstandings and miscommunication between communicators. 

As a result of such communication-related challenges, teams are likely to waste both time and money trying to get back on course.

Skilled communicators need to be knowledgeable of these barriers to be able to recognize them in specific situations. They also need to be able to reduce the barriers’ impact on the quality of team communication and the work the team performs in general.

To help you better understand the barriers to effective communication, here are their definitions, complete with examples that cover various industries. This article will also talk about the top solutions that will help you bridge these common communication chasms.

Physical barriers to effective team communication

Physical barriers to effective communication represent the various environmental and natural conditions that act as a barrier between the senders and receivers of information.

These physical barriers include challenges related to time and distance, personal space, workplace design, work environment, background noise, and communication channel issues.

Time and distance

The barriers related to time and distance tend to happen to remote teams whose members work from home. 

Remote teammates do not work in the same office, or even at the same time. Instead, they may operate on a different continent and in a different time zone. This makes real-time communication difficult, and in-person communication inconvenient, or near impossible — unless one teammate is willing to accommodate the other, and work during the night, or fly across the globe on a regular basis. 

🔸 Example of a communication barrier based on time and distance

Let’s look at a remote software developer team, consisting of 5 software developers who live across the globe:

  • Jacob, a CTO/project manager, who lives in Melbourne, Australia (GMT+10);
  • Michail, a QA specialist, who lives in Novosibirsk, Russia (GMT+7);
  • Emile, a back-end developer, who lives in Lyon, France (GMT+2);
  • Matilde, a front-end developer, who lives in Lisbon, Portugal (GMT+1);
  • Mia, QA specialist, who lives in Santa Fe, United States (GMT-7).

This software development team is already geographically apart — and, the time difference means they are unlikely to work at the same time. 

For example, when the CTO/project manager, Jacob, starts working at 9 am, his teammates will already have finished their work, or still be in bed:

  • For Michail, it will be 6 am;
  • For Emile, it will be 1 am;
  • For Matilde, it will be 12 am;
  • For Mia, it will be 5 pm.

Because of these time differences, the team can rarely work together at the same time — and they need to find other ways to collaborate.

Personal space

In verbal, in-person communication, personal space plays a crucial role. 

Namely, this distance that applies only to in-person communication may act as a facilitator to good communication, or as a barrier to effective communication — depending on whether it’s properly interpreted and arranged. 

We classify four types of distance between in-person communicators:

  1. Intimate space The distance between the communicators is less than 18 inches (0.45 meters). Such distance is reserved for close relationships such as those between a parent and child or between partners.
  1. Personal space The distance between communicators is 2 – 3 feet (0.6 – 0.9 meters). Such distance is associated with friends and peer groups.
  1. Official space The distance between communicators is 4 – 5 feet (1.2 – 1.5 meters), depending on the type of information transmitted. Such distance is associated with official situations, such as most work-related situations.
  1. Public space The distance between communicators is over 10 feet (3 meters). Such distance is associated with speakers and listeners in public situations, like speeches. 

Any reduction of these space requirements may lead to awkward or even embarrassing situations. 

But, this depends on one’s culture

Namely, people from the US and Northern Europe dislike having their personal space be violated in any way. 

But, people from Asia and the Middle East assign no importance to their personal space. 

This makes space not only a physical barrier to effective communication but often a cultural one as well — when communicators include people from the US and Asia, for example.

🔸 Example of a communication barrier based on personal space

In the conference room of a marketing agency, employees Steve and Manuel are sitting in the front row listening to the company’s head of HR, Charlotte, deliver a speech about the company’s planned cultural development. 

The conference room is relatively small, but there are a lot of employees — they needed to squeeze in 10 rows, so the front row is only 3 feet away from Charlotte. 

Charlotte needs to keep her voice loud so that the people in the back row can hear her clearly.

Because of this, she appears too loud to Steve and Manuel, who are thus more focused on the discomfort they are feeling because of Charlotte’s voice volume, than on the message she is trying to convey.

Workplace design

Workplace design has a crucial influence on the effectiveness of communication in the workplace. 

For example, the seating arrangements can facilitate effective communication — when members of a team who needs to communicate and collaborate on a daily basis are seated at connected desks.

But, the seating arrangement can also hinder effective communication. 

🔸 Example of a communication barrier based on workplace design

Lisa, Katie, John, and Thomas are user support specialists at a software development company. Rose is the director of user support in charge of Lisa, Katie, John, and Thomas. 

The workstations of this user support team are grouped together. But, their desks are separated by cubicles. 

Once per day, the user support team uses the conference room for their daily meetings. But, each time an emergency arises or teammates want to speak to each other, they need to go from cubicle to cubicle to convey information, ask, or answer questions. 

This practice slows down their response time for customers and lowers their efficacy overall.     

Work environment

The chief element of a work environment that may hinder effective communication is comfort — or, better yet, the potential lack of if

Namely, if the company or home office is too hot/cold, people may not be able to fully focus on the information being communicated in business situations. The same applies if the desks and chairs are too low/high, if the chairs are uncomfortable, or if the office lighting is too bright/dim. 

🔸 Example of a communication barrier based on work environment

Matt and David are two sales specialists that work in a shared office. 

The desks in their office are too low for Matt and David’s liking, while the comfortableness of their chairs leaves something to be desired. 

Moreover, they often have disputes about the thermostat. Matt often finds that it is too hot, while David often finds that it is too cold. 

Because of these work environment issues, these two sales specialists are occasionally unfocused while conversing with customers, each other, or their other colleagues.

Background noise

Noise is a common barrier to effective communication. It includes several types of distractions, but may not be limited to:

  • colleagues talking nearby (often experienced by people who work in an office);
  • family members/roommates/partners talking nearby (often experienced by people who work from home);
  • copy machines, kitchen noise, and other inside noise;
  • thunderstorms, grass mowers, car sirens, and other outside noise.

🔸 Example of a communication barrier based on background noise

Leila (content writer), Craig (SEO outreach specialist), and Adam (content designer) have workstations next to each other. 

While creating content, Adam likes to listen to popular music. He uses headphones, but the music volume is loud enough for Craig and Leila to hear everything clearly. 

Leila and Craig often need to talk about the content she writes. But, the fact they can hear Adam’s music often distracts them from the points they are trying to make.

Communication channel issues

Issues with communication channels may arise as a key physical communication barrier. They may be tied to ignorance of medium and technical problems with the said communication mediums.

Teams often need to use various channels of communication to communicate and collaborate. Most of the time, these channels serve as communication facilitators. But, if a teammate is unfamiliar with how best to use the said communication channel, the channel may turn into a communication barrier.

Most of the time, however, all communicators using a channel of communication will be familiar with how best to use the said channel. But, technical problems may still arise and hinder effective communication. These technical problems may include:

  • Hardware issues — such as modem issues that slow down your internet connection;
  • Software issues — such as bugs in apps.

🔸 Example of a communication barrier based on communication channel issues

Fred and Holly are two customer support specialists working remotely — because of this, they often use email to make joint arrangements. 

However, Holly has an “overeager” spam filter, which is something she is unaware of. Important emails sometimes end up in the spam folder, and she never sees them. 

Because of this, Holly sometimes overlooks emails from Fred and is left unaware of important customer information.

Top solutions for overcoming physical barriers to effective communication 

To overcome physical barriers to effective communication, you’ll need to work with your specific physical barriers in mind.

Top solutions for problems with time and distance

Embrace asynchronous communication — consider using specialized apps, such as:

  • A team chat app with direct instant messaging, audio/video calls, and topic-based channels;
  • A project management tool you can use to communicate project details;
  • A time tracker you can use to indicate and track everyone’s work hours;
  • A time converter app you can use to see everyone’s time zones and organize meetings accordingly.

Top solutions for problems with personal space

In a professional setting, always maintain a moderate distance from the people you are speaking with. When it comes to public speeches in smaller spaces, you can consider organizing a virtual meeting instead.

Top solutions for problems with workplace design

Consider an “open office” plan. Exchange separate offices and cubicles for open tables that make it easier to communicate in person. 

Alternatively, use threads in your chat app for meetings and focused discussions, instead of trying to talk with everyone in person.

Top solutions for problems with work environment

Adjust what you can and learn how to adapt to what you can’t adjust. For example, if the office is too cold for one colleague, but too hot for the other, dress accordingly — wear short sleeves or bring a jacket.

Top solutions for problems with background noise

First, discuss the best ways to manage background noise. Perhaps you’ll find that noise-canceling headphones are a great all-encompassing solution. Or, perhaps you’ll find that playing a noise generator app via regular headphones blocks most noise. If the problem are noisy colleagues, talk with them — try to find a suitable noise-reducing solution together. 

Top solutions for problems with communication channels

Whenever you want to introduce a new channel of communication, talk about your expectations with the team. Solicit opinions about app use and answer all questions. Have public documentation about proper app use.

If people don’t reply through one medium, have another as a backup. For example:

  • If you get no response to your email for a day, send a direct message;
  • If you get no reply to your direct message for 1 hour, use the phone. 

Whenever you have a technical issue, let the rest of the team know — and give alternatives to how they can reach you if necessary. 

Perceptual barriers to effective team communication

Perceptual barriers to effective team communication represent the mental blocks people may have that influence their perceptions about certain people, situations, topics, or events.

These perceptions form intra-personal barriers that influence how people send, receive, or interpret messages in conversations.

Perceptual barriers to effective communication include perceptual filters, but also nonverbal language.

Perceptual filters

Perceptual filters to effective communication include our thoughts, assumptions, preferences, values, and attitudes. They represent lenses through which we view people, situations, topics, or events. These “filters” may lead to misunderstandings, stereotyping, and assumptions in communication. Such “filters” often make us closed-minded to opinions that are different from our own, or ideas that go beyond what we consider “usual”, “expected”, or “normal”.

🔸 Example of a communication barrier based on perceptual filters

Erica is new to a team of medical surgeons. 

She just finished her specialization, and is the daughter of the head of the hospital. Because of this, Erica’s colleagues assume she is inexperienced, and, even worse, admitted to the team simply because her father appoints the staff. 

Erica is also a staunch supporter of new surgical research — research her colleagues are still wary of. 

Because of their assumptions and differences in values, the rest of the surgical team tends to ignore Erica during breaks. 

This means Erica is often left in the dark about important happenings in the hospital.

Nonverbal language (as a perceptual barrier)

Nonverbal facial expressions, triggers, and cues represent the body language people emit while communicating. This body language may be connected with the intended meaning of the messages the communicator is trying to convey. But, it may also be intentionally or unintentionally misleading. In line with that, other people may perceive the nonverbal language of their fellow communicators correctly — or not.

🔸 Example of a nonverbal language challenge (as a perceptual barrier)

Noah and Larissa are the only customer support specialists in an online fashion shop.

Recently, a customer has returned a valuable shipment, asking for a full refund. The reason cited is that a customer support specialist led her on about the color of the dresses ordered.

Julia, the head of customer support, calls up Noah and Larissa to discuss the matter and find the person responsible. 

During the separate interviews, both Noah and Larissa deny it was them — but both also act guilty according to research-based common traits of liars:

  • they avert their eyes when answering questions;
  • their microexpressions indicate alarm and panic;
  • they have fake smiles;
  • they fidget and look stressed.

In truth, Noah is the one to blame. 

Larissa is just nervous because she’s being interrogated on such an important matter. 

The problem is that Julia cannot immediately spot the liar — because her perception of Noah’s and Larrisa’s nonverbal language tells her they are both lying.

Top solutions for overcoming perceptual barriers to effective communication

To overcome perceptual barriers to effective communication, you’ll need to reevaluate your perceptions.

Top solutions for problems with perceptual filters

Just because you perceive someone in a certain way, doesn’t mean your perceptions hold true in reality. Before declaring that you know exactly what someone thinks, feels, knows, or believes, gain the relevant information. Observe how they behave, respond, and act, before making conclusions.

Top solutions for problems with nonverbal language (as a perceptual barrier)

Yes, observing nonverbal language can help you decide whether someone is lying, trying to conceal information, or in any way trying to mislead you. But, it shouldn’t be the key reason why you choose to mistrust someone. 

So, don’t just look for disparities between people’s words and their facial expressions. 

Instead, always focus on what they are saying first — if you cannot decide whether someone’s words match your perception of their nonverbal language, ask more questions. 

These questions should be specific open-ended questions, and direct “Yes”/”No” questions one cannot evade. 

The more questions you ask, the closer you will be to finding out what you want.

Emotional barriers to effective team communication

Emotional barriers to effective communication represent the emotions that may hold you back from communicating what you want to your teammates. These emotions may also hold you back from listening to others attentively and accepting their point of view on matters discussed.

These key emotional barriers include anger, pride, and anxiety.

Anger

Anger is an emotional barrier to communication that actually affects how your brain processes information

Because of anger, you are less likely to be logical in discussions. 

Moreover, you are less likely to contribute productively to solving problems — and more likely to oppose other people’s ideas. 

The people you are projecting your anger to are likely to become defensive, scared, or even feel hurt. 

As a result, people are less likely to contact you in case of an emergency — even if you objectively are the best person to solve the problem.

🔸 Example of a communication barrier based on anger

Ginny is a project manager at a software development company. 

The project she is currently working on is late, and she has organized an emergency meeting to discuss what can be done to speed up and re-organize work. 

During the discussion, Ginny becomes frustrated with her team’s perceived lack of urgency and starts calling on individual teammates to explain their work processes. 

A couple of teammates become defensive, and Ginny angrily rejects their explanations. She even dismisses the fact-based explanations that show it was Ginny herself who disregarded the original deadline estimates and defined an overly ambitious project deadline on her own. 

At one point, Ginny even snaps at a couple of teammates — she publicly questions their university degrees. 

After the meeting, the team goes back to work. They may work with more focus in the future, but they now feel wary of Ginny, and are unlikely to ask for her help in the future — even if they feel that they need to.

Pride

Pride is an emotional barrier to communication that inhibits healthy communication in several ways. 

For one, pride as an emotion implies you take pride in what you say and do. This, in turn, implies, you talk more than you listen — and active listening is an important skill of effective communicators.

Moreover, people who are prideful need to be right to justify the said pride. 

As a result, teammates become wary of inviting you to brainstorming sessions — because your idea always needs to be the best one, or else you become difficult to work with. 

🔸 Example of a communication barrier based on pride

Oliver is a social media marketer at a marketing agency. 

At every brainstorming session, he is the loudest when presenting his ideas. 

He is quick to dismiss the ideas of others with methodical flair. 

His accomplishments are celebrated the longest, and he never makes mistakes (at least, not mistakes he owns up to).

As a result, his teammates have come to dread daily meetings. They tend to let Oliver talk, and often feel unmotivated to try to outtalk him — even if they have something important to say or ask.

Anxiety

Anxiety is another emotional barrier to effective communication — one that can hurt your communication skills and effectiveness. 

For one, you won’t be able to concentrate on what others are saying because you’ll constantly worry about what you want to say. 

Moreover, anxiety may even push you to avoid certain social situations, even in a professional setting. 

🔸 Example of a communication barrier based on anxiety

Daniel is an HR specialist in charge of recruiting, screening, interviewing, and onboarding workers. 

At the end of each month, he attends a meeting with the head of the HR department, the CEO, and the heads of other departments. During this meeting, they talk about his progress with the job positions they’ve asked for. 

Daniel’s talent with most tasks is noteworthy. But, he feels anxious each time he needs to attend the said monthly meeting. 

As a result of his situational anxiety, he often forgets to highlight all of his accomplishments and struggles to articulate answers to the audience’s questions. 

His accomplishments are nonetheless noteworthy — but, his less-than confidant presentations make people question his capacity to handle his HR duties and grow in the future.

Top solutions for overcoming emotional barriers to effective communication

To overcome emotional barriers to effective communication, you’ll need to address each problematic emotion separately.

Top solutions for overcoming problems with anger

The key solution to handling anger while communicating is removing yourself from the problematic situation until you’re capable of managing and responding to it appropriately. Preferably, you should do this before you snap at someone. Once you’ve calmed yourself and collected your thoughts, address the matter again. This time, think clearly about what you want to say before you say it, and refrain from making potentially hurtful comments.

Top solutions for overcoming problems with pride

Accept that your statements may not be perfect or even correct at all times. Admit to your mistakes, instead of investing all your efforts into persuading others that you are not at fault. If you have a particular emotional insecurity, don’t try to compensate for it with a false sense of superiority. Identify the cause of your insecurities and address them instead. As a result, people will feel more at ease when communicating with you.

Top solutions for overcoming problems with anxiety

First, try to relax and ease your anxiety through relaxation exercises, before entering the communication situations that cause you anxiety. Think about why you feel anxious about this particular situation — weigh down your reasons and try to decide whether they are really worth the worries. If you have a more generalized anxiety problem, consult with a medical professional for specialized advice.

Cultural barriers to effective team communication

According to the definition by Joynt & Warner (1996), culture is: “the pattern of taken-for-granted assumptions about how a given collection of people should think, act, and feel as they go about their daily affairs”.

In line with this definition, cultural barriers to effective communication represent the different culture-related behavior patterns that may arise as an obstacle to well-balanced communication among teammates.

These culture-related behavior patterns may revolve around language, nonverbal language, cultural norms, beliefs, and values

They may also manifest as stereotypes or status-based self-importance

Language 

Language can be a crucial barrier to effective communication — especially for teams who operate across the globe and have different mother tongues. 

After all, if you don’t understand your teammates and they don’t understand you, you can’t communicate.

🔸 Example of a communication barrier based on language

Let’s take the previously mentioned software development team who is already plagued by the physical barrier of time and distance, as an example.

To recap:

  • Jacob, a CTO/project manager from Melbourne, Australia — his mother tongue is English;
  • Michail, a QA specialist from Novosibirsk, Russia — his mother tongue is Russian;
  • Emile, a back-end developer from Lyon, France — her mother tongue is French;
  • Matilde, a front-end developer from Lisbon, Portugal — her mother tongue is Portuguese;
  • Mia, a QA specialist from Santa Fe, United States — her mother tongue is English.

As evident, this team has 4 different mother tongues — English has a slight advantage, as two speakers have it as a first language. 

But, Emile and Matilde don’t speak English all that well — they cannot communicate in it with professional proficiency. 

However, they are all familiar with French: 

  • French is Emile’s mother tongue;
  • Michael and Mia both attended university in Paris; 
  • Matilde’s mother is French, and so is Jacob’s father — they were raised bilingual. 

Because of this, the team decides to use French for all official correspondences.  

Nonverbal language (as a cultural barrier)

We already talked about nonverbal language when we addressed the perceptual barriers to effective communication. 

However, nonverbal language can also be connected with the culture of the speaker. In other words, the same gestures or facial expressions can have different meanings in different cultures. 

In such cases, we can regard nonverbal language as an important culture-based communication barrier. 

🔸 Example of a nonverbal language challenge (as a cultural barrier)

Let’s look at another software development team:

  • Olivia, a CTO/project manager from Cardiff, Wales;
  • Denize, a full-stack developer from Istanbul, Turkey; 
  • Nicholas, a QA specialist from Athens, Greece;
  • Tania, a QA specialist from Dhaka, Bangladesh.

This team often has video meetings about the product they are currently developing — the meetings are helmed by Olivia. 

One day, Olivia’s microphone malfunctions right in the middle of Nicholas’ proposal for a new feature. 

When Nicholas asks whether Olivia approves of the feature, she nods her head once and offers a thumbs-up. 

These gestures unnerve the rest of the team. 

Namely, although Olivia wanted to convey her approval, she was unaware that nodding her head once means “No” in Greece and Turkey. 

She was also unaware that a thumbs up is an offensive sign in Bangladesh. 

It takes some time for Olivia to explain what she wanted to convey, and bridge this communication gap.

Cultural norms, beliefs, and values

Each culture holds its own cultural norms, beliefs, and values. Holidays, religions, customs, signs of respect, or even rules for proper business conduct may differ from culture to culture. 

As a result, people who come from different cultures may find it difficult to effectively communicate, because they may perceive the behavior of their fellow communicators as unusual, uncomfortable, or simply disrespectful. 

Of course, this is rarely the intention of the said communicators.

🔸 Example of a communication barrier based on cultural norms, beliefs, and values

Irene is an intern at the local hospital in New York — she has recently moved from Norway. 

The group of interns she works with creates schedules on a bi-monthly basis. One day, the team wants to discuss schedules during Independence Day — Irene asks for a day off. 

Catherine, the internship coordinator, approves her request and marks Irene down for a day off on the 4th of July. 

Two weeks pass with no mention of the day off.

Then, one day in May, Irene unexpectedly doesn’t show up for work. 

Catherine phones her in and learns that Irene is enjoying her day off for Independence Day — considering that she is from Norway, she celebrates on May 17th, which is Norway’s Independence Day. 

Neither Irene nor Catherine made the effort to clarify what Independence Day they were referring to — so, a misunderstanding caused a problem with the schedule. 

An example of a communication barrier based on cultural norms, beliefs, and values in Pumble team chat app

Stereotypes 

According to the definition in social psychology, a stereotype represents a “fixed, over-generalized belief about a particular group or class of people”. 

In other words, we have a particular idea about how a particular group or class of people think or behave — and we assume that every member of a particular group or class thinks or behaves in the same way. 

Such an approach to people who belong to different cultures builds prejudices and stops us from viewing the members of the said cultures for what they really are — unique individuals.

Stereotypes come in different forms: microaggressions, biases, or discrimination are all common and likely to disrupt effective communication between the members of different cultures. 

One particular source of stereotypes and prejudices is ethnocentrism.

According to the classic definition by Melville J. Herskovits, ethnocentrism represents “a feeling of superiority regarding one’s own culture or way of life”.  

Some views of ethnocentrism specifically mark the phenomenon as a type of bias.

For ethnicism to arise, there must be an “in-group” and an “out-group”. 

Social theorist, Theodore W. Adorno, and his colleagues have created a broader definition that defines ethnocentrism as a combination of “a positive attitude toward one’s own ethnic/cultural group (the in-group) with a negative attitude toward the other ethnic/cultural group (the out-group).” 

For ethnocentric people, it’s always “us” vs “them” — which translates poorly to the effectiveness of many communication situations.

🔸 Example of a communication barrier based on stereotypes

Let’s look at an example of stereotyping based on generational prejudices.

  1. Prejudices against the younger generations

Henry and Waldorf are two financial advisers who are less than 10 years away from early retirement. 

At their bank, their generation is slowly getting replaced with younger generations. 

Henry and Waldorf believe that their much younger colleagues are “inexperienced slackers who are used to getting participation trophies without achieving anything of value”. 

They label all such colleagues as “Millenials”. 

This especially happens when the said colleagues ask questions at meetings or propose innovative ideas — even though the actual age of these “Millennial” colleagues marks them as both Millenials and members of Generation Z.

  1. Prejudices against the older generations

Finn and Milo are two new graduates who’ve just got jobs as production assistants at the bank where Henry and Waldorf work. 

The majority of their colleagues are much older than them. 

Finn and Milo believe that the older generation is “out of touch, inflexible, and closed-minded to new ideas.” 

They label all such colleagues as “Boomers”. 

This especially happens when the said colleagues oppose their innovative solutions in meetings or show dislike towards the introduction of new apps to the system — even though the actual age of these “Boomer” colleagues marks them as Baby Boomers and members of Generation X. 

In truth, Henry and Waldorf support the introduction of new technology to the system, rather than being against it. Moreover, Finn and Milo are hard workers, rather than slackers. 

And yet, this goes mostly unnoticed by their colleagues who cling to these stereotypes and prejudices every time it suits them.

Status

The perceived importance of someone’s status can also cause a culturally-based communication barrier. 

Namely, workers who are accustomed to workplaces where seniority and status are highlighted may find it difficult to adapt to workplaces that favor a more fluid work environment, with less strict rules. 

The opposite can also occur — a worker used to a workplace where teammates are encouraged to treat each other as equals may find it difficult to navigate a workplace with distinct hierarchy and rules.

🔸 Example of a communication barrier based on status

Arya is a new senior marketing manager at a marketing agency. 

In her previous job, it was customary that people in senior positions be treated in a “don’t speak until spoken to” manner. 

The hierarchy and rules of conduct were clear and inflexible, and Arya had many formal meetings with subordinates. 

But, in her new company, everything is different. Individual contributions matter more than one’s title, and people often communicate and collaborate freely, regardless of their position at the company. 

At first, this is somewhat demoralizing for Arya as she is used to being treated as someone of higher rank. 

She finds it difficult to chat with junior positions — maintaining a friendly relationship with them is a somewhat unfamiliar concept. 

Top solutions for overcoming cultural barriers to effective communication

To overcome cultural barriers to effective communication, you’ll need to address each challenge methodically.

Top solutions for problems with language

As evident by the example above, the top solution for overcoming the communication barrier of different languages is to identify the language the entire team is comfortable communicating in. Once you do, define it as the official team language. All official correspondence between team members should be handled in the selected language. 

Top solutions for problems with nonverbal language (as a cultural barrier), cultural norms, beliefs, and values

The best way to avoid miscommunication and misunderstandings caused by these cultural differences is to learn about the nonverbal communication patterns of your culturally diverse teammates. Also, it’s important that you also understand what they hold to and believe in. This can be done through individual initiative or organized cross-cultural training. 

Top solutions for culture-based stereotypes

Instead of focusing on generalizations, focus on individual professional skills first. Listen to others, rather than simply assuming you know what they will say or do. 

Let’s address the above-listed example once again. 

Yes, some members of the “older generations” may be averse to new technologies. 

But, the same may apply to some members of the “younger generations”. 

And yes, some members of the “younger generation” may lack focus at work. 

But, the same may apply to some members of the “older generations”. 

There is no universal mold that shapes the members of a particular group. Once again, getting to truly know how your colleagues think, behave, and feel in certain situations is the only way you will get the true picture.

Top solutions for problems with status

The workplace dictates whether status is important or not. 

Learn to adapt to changes in how workplaces function — rather than going against rules of conduct just because they are not what you’re used to. 

When you go from a rule-based workplace to a more relaxed work environment, or vice versa, try your best to adapt to the new atmosphere. 

You can even talk about this with someone from HR, to help smoothen the transition.

Language barriers to effective team communication

Language barriers to effective team communication represent the differences in expressions or buzzwords. They may arise as an obstacle to complete comprehension between communicators, even if the communicators have the same mother tongue.

Language barriers to effective communication may be tied to regional accents, dialects, pidgin languages, jargon, slang, word choice, literacy, and linguistic ability.

Regional accents and dialects

Teammates in a team may have the same mother tongue, but they may also speak in different regional accents and dialects. This may cause comprehension issues, as teammates may use different pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. 

🔸 Example of a communication barrier based on regional accents and dialects

One product team consists of people from Scotland, England, and the United States. 

Although all team members have English as a mother tongue, their accents and dialects often lead to miscommunication. 

This especially happens when teammates from the United States organize a meeting point at the “first floor of their building” — for them, the “first floor” is the floor at street level. But, for teammates from Scotland and England, the “first floor” is the floor above street level.

A lot of the team members simply feel uncomfortable asking their colleagues to repeat or clarify what they’ve just said. This leads to a lot of misunderstandings and workflow issues — including time people waste waiting aimlessly at the wrong floors.

An example of a communication barrier based on regional accents and dialects in Pumble team chat app

Pidgin languages

According to the definition, pidgin languages represent a mixture of words from two or more languages with a simpler grammatical structure and smaller vocabulary than regular languages. They grow out of necessity when two or more groups of people speak different languages but need to communicate on a regular basis. 

Pidgin languages may represent a barrier to effective communication when the standard meaning of pidgin expressions is not clear to all communicators.

For example, a common universal form of pidgin are acronyms — but, emojis can also serve as a pictorial pidgin language. 

In line with that, the question of whether communicators view the meaning of acronyms and emojis the same determines whether the said emojis and acronyms represent a barrier in communication.

🔸 Example of a communication barrier based on pidgin languages

Fay is an art professor at the local community college. 

Her colleague has just lost her sister to illness, and the staff wants to send flowers with a card. On this card, Fay signs off her words of condolences with an “LOL”. 

She believes the acronym stands for “lots of love”. 

But, everyone else who knows the acronym stands for “laughing out loud” finds her sign-off jarring.

Jargon

Jargon represents words and phrases used by a particular group of people (e.g. people in a particular industry or field of work). These jargon words and expressions tend to be difficult for people outside of the group to understand.

🔸 Example of a communication barrier based on jargon

A doctor is talking with a financial adviser about a patient’s bill. 

The doctor uses medical jargon terms such as “sub-therapeutic”, “agonal”, and “iatrogenic”. 

The financial adviser uses financial jargon terms such as “active-participant status”, “advance”, and “life annuity”. 

Neither is fully able to understand the other.

Slang

Slang represents words and phrases regarded as very informal. These slang words and phrases tend to be restricted to a particular group of people.

🔸 Example of a communication barrier based on slang

Jeffrey, A CEO of an American pharmaceutical company is talking with his junior sales representative from France, Jeanne. 

At one point in the conversation, Jeffrey is pleasantly surprised at the number of successful sales Jenne has accomplished, so he exclaims: “Get outta here!” — which is an idiomatic expression in the US that signifies positive surprise. 

However, Jeanne’s first language is not English so she doesn’t know the meaning of all idiomatic expressions. 

She takes “Get outta here!” literally and quickly leaves the CEO’s office thinking Jeffrey is mad and doesn’t believe her sales figures.

Word Choice

Problems with word choice may arise if you use words which are:

  • Homophones — words that share the same pronunciation as other words, but have different meanings. Problems with homophones may arise in verbal communication.
  • Homographs — words that share the same spelling as other words, but have different pronunciation and meanings. Problems with homographs may arise in written communication.

🔸 Example of a communication barrier based on word choice

During a casual conversation at lunch, one colleague mentions that he wants to “right the wrong expressions in Lexie’s report, just to see how she’ll react.” 

His colleagues interpret that he wants to “write” the wrong expressions, to spite their colleague Lexie.

Literacy and linguistic ability

Issues with literacy and linguistic ability represent all issues that may arise due to grammar and differences in vocabulary. 

These issues may be especially prominent if the person is trying to communicate in a language that is not their mother tongue. 

But, they may also be the result of typos.

🔸 Example of a communication barrier based on literacy and linguistic ability

Alan is the HR specialist at the local school, and Gabriella is the new Italian teacher they’ve just appointed — she just moved to the United States from Italy. 

Alan and Gabriella are communicating through the team chat app their school uses about some documents Gabrielle needs to send to him. 

Alan writes: “Assemble the documentation and send them over to me by 06/07/2021”. 

In Italy, this translates to “July 6th”. 

But, in the United States, this date translates to “June 7th”.

However, Gabrielle is unaware of the differences in the US – Italy date grammar. 

So, she misinterprets the message, and believes she has more time to deliver the documentation than she really has.

An example of a communication barrier based on literacy and linguistic ability in Pumble team chat app

Top solutions for overcoming language barriers to effective communication

The first step for overcoming language-based barriers to communication such as accents and dialects, pidgin words and expressions, jargon, slang, homophones, and homonyms is to seek clarifications when you don’t understand something. 

In verbal conversations, you can ask the speakers to clarify what their words and expressions really mean in a given context. 

In written communication, you can also google what you’re unsure of.

Moreover, whenever you’re not sure what the other person has said, ask them to repeat it. If enough people ask when they don’t understand something, others will soon realize that they are not the only ones who need clarification and repetition — and will thus feel more at ease to ask what they want to know.

The second step for overcoming these language-based barriers applies to your role as the communicator of the message. So, try to avoid jargon, slang, and dialect-specific words and expressions when communicating with people outside of your industry or specific field of work. If this is not possible, always offer additional explanations.

Gender barriers to effective team communication

Gender barriers to effective communication imply different genders communicate differently and have different expectations in terms of what they want to gain from communication.

However, these barriers often represent gender-based biases and stereotypes. 

They usually stem from popular assumptions about how men and women communicate, such as:

  • Women talk more”;
  • Men never listen”.

These assertions are mostly based on popular books — “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” by John Gray is a prime example that pursues men and women simply “speak different languages”. This book and other resources that support the Mars/Venus concept propose that men and women communicate differently, not because of their nurture (i.e. their environment), but because of their nature (i.e. their genes). 

Other popular assertions about the communication differences between men and women include the following:

  • “Women are more verbally skilled”;
  • “Women seek to connect with others”;
  • “Men are less prone to emotional reactions than women”;
  • “Men use language to accomplish things”;
  • “Women seek harmony and equality, so they use language cooperatively”;
  • “Men are more direct but less polite”.

However, experts such as linguist Deborah Cameron have made the effort to tackle “The Myth of Mars and Venus” — Cameron found scientific research that indicates many of these popular assertions are wrong. 

She cites the work of Deborah James and Janice Drakich who have reviewed 54 research studies of how men and women communicate. This powerful blow to popular gender-related communication misconceptions shows that 34 of the said research studies report it’s actually the men who talk more than women

Moreover, other similar research studies tend to show that the differences between men and women in terms of their language use are negligible — although some tendencies may persist.

However, we already established that biases and stereotypes affect how people communicate. So, even though women and men may not communicate differently, some teams may communicate with these misconceptions in mind — in which cases they create a gender-based barrier to effective communication.

🔸 Examples of a communication barrier based on gender biases and stereotypes

Charles is an ambulance driver at the local hospital. 

He often engages in discussions about the hospital staff with the emergency medical technician, Peter, who works in the same ambulance car as Charles. 

But, they never include Ainsley, their paramedic, in these conversations because they fear she might spread what they are saying to other people — because they believe women gossip more than men. 

Because of a lack of opportunity to chat with her immediate colleagues and get to know them better, Ainsley feels like she cannot really rely on Charles and Peter.

Top solutions for overcoming gender barriers to effective team communication

To overcome gender-based biases and stereotypes, the first step is to educate the team about the said gender-based biases and stereotypes. 

Namely, people may struggle to identify their own biases and stereotypes that stem from false assumptions. But, if they are discussed at length, people may better understand their own negative patterns and strive for positive change.

The next step is encouraging diversity — whenever decisions need to be made, include everyone in the discussions and solicit opinions and feedback equally.

And, finally, you’ll need to properly equip the HR team — whenever a gender-based issue arises, you’ll want to rest assured that the HR team is equipped and ready to deal with it in a respectful, effective, and tactful manner.

Interpersonal barriers to effective communication

Interpersonal barriers to effective communication are barriers that stop people from reaching their full potential in terms of communication skills. 

They may manifest as your inability to listen to others with attention, or the inability to maintain the attention of the people you want to communicate with.

The reason for these communication problems stems from a lack of participation and a lack of open-mindedness.

A lack of desire to participate in communication

A crucial interpersonal barrier to effective communication is one’s lack of a desire to participate in communication situations at the workplace. 

Often, others will feel frustrated while trying to communicate with people who clearly don’t want to communicate with them.

🔸 Example of a communication barrier based on a lack of desire to participate

John is an enterprise sales specialist at a company that builds software solutions. 

An important part of his duties is to conduct calls with prospective clients. But, he often needs the assistance of the software development team to answer technical questions. 

However, rarely anyone from the software development team is enthusiastic about participating in these client calls. 

In fact, John often has problems finding people to join him in these calls — which results in a lot of time wasted on futile persuasion and evasive answers.

An example of  a communication barrier based on a lack of desire to participate in Pumble team chat app

A lack of desire to explore new concepts

Another crucial interpersonal barrier to effective communication is one’s lack of a desire to explore new ideas and opinions. 

Such closed-minded individuals make brainstorming sessions difficult and uncreative — they tend to frustrate the teammates who are looking to explore new ideas and opinions.

🔸 Example of a communication barrier based on a lack of desire to explore new concepts

Michael is a senior product designer at a product design studio. 

He is experienced and renowned for his work ethic — but, dreaded at brainstorming meetings.

He shoots down every idea and opinion that is different from what he knows, even if they have great potential.

As a result, the team dreads having meetings with him. They know he will always try to confine them to his old ways of thinking.

Top solutions for overcoming interpersonal barriers to effective communication

To overcome interpersonal barriers to effective communication, you’ll need to employ a range of tactics:

  • Explore new concepts alone — to overcome your reservations towards new concepts at meetings and brainstorming sessions, you’ll need to expand your horizons outside of business communication situations. So, make the effort to read about new relevant findings that test your previous knowledge — perhaps you’ll find that what you think you knew in the past, does not hold up today.
  • Talk more — to overcome your reluctance to communicate, make the effort to communicate more. Get out of your comfort zone and partake in different communication situations — contribute in a meeting, ask questions during onboarding, or step up to resolve a conflict between colleagues. The more you partake, the more you’ll feel at ease with partaking in the future.
  • Provide the right feedback — we already talked about what people who lack the agency to participate in conversations and explore new concepts can do to overcome their barriers. But, their teammates can also help out — you can provide constructive feedback to aloof teammates, and help them improve their approach to communication, collaboration, and work in general.

Conclusion

The barriers to effective communication come in various forms — you may:

  • have difficulties establishing a natural rapport with colleagues who are seated far away from you; 
  • perceive a colleague’s behavior differently than he intends you to;
  • let your pride get into the way of owning up to and properly tackling your mistakes;
  • misinterpret your teammate’s facial expressions due to cultural differences;
  • confuse your HR director with overly specific jargon words and expressions;
  • have your opinion be disregarded because of gender-based stereotyping;
  • miss out on important team events because of your general lack of enthusiasm for participating in team activities.

No matter whether you are experiencing physical, perceptual, emotional, cultural, language, gender, or interpersonal barriers to effective communication, you’ll need to be able to recognize and overcome them. 

Luckily, there is a way to overcome any communication obstacle — if the team is willing to cooperate on the matter. As a result, you’ll get to enjoy more effective communication, and manage your work better overall.

References

  • Baylor, E. (2012). Ethnocentrism. Oxford Bibliographies. Retrieved 17.05.2021, from https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199766567/obo-9780199766567-0045.xml
  • Cameron, D. (2007). The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do Men and Women Really Speak Different Languages?. Oxford: OUP.
  • Daily Health Post. (2019). This is What Happens to Your Body When You Get Angry. Retrieved 17.05.2021, from  https://dailyhealthpost.com/anger-negatively-affects-brain-and-heart/
  • Erickson, A. (2017). What ‘personal space’ looks like around the world. The Washington Post. Retrieved 17.05.2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/04/24/how-close-is-too-close-depends-on-where-you-live/
  • Etinson, A. (2018). Some Myths about Ethnocentrism, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, 96:2, 209-224, DOI: 10.1080/00048402.2017.1343363
  • Fulbright, Y. K. (2011). Male-Female Communication: Debunking the Mars-Venus Myth. HuffPost. Retrieved 17.05.2021, from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/male-female-communication_b_813095
  • Joynt,  P. and  Warner, M. (1996). Managing Across Cultures: Issues and Perspectives,  International Thomson Business Press, London. 
  • McLeod, S. (2017). Stereotypes. Simple Psychology. Retrieved 17.05.2021, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/katz-braly.html
  • Shofner, K. (n.d.) The Evolution of Pidgin Languages. United Language Group. Retrieved 17.05.2021, from https://www.unitedlanguagegroup.com/blog/evolution-pidgin-languages
  • Steinhilber, B. (2017). How to Tell if Someone is Lying to You, According to Researchers. NBS News. Retrieved 17.05.2021, from https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/how-tell-if-someone-lying-according-behavioral-experts-ncna786326

Free team chat app

Improve collaboration and cut down on emails by moving your team communication to Pumble.

FREE FOREVER • UNLIMITED COMMUNICATION

Learn more Arrow Right Primary
Pumble chat app