For any kind of communication to be successful, it is essential that the receiver attributes the same meaning to the message as intended by the sender of the message. But all acts of communication are not perfect or successful. At times, some meaning is lost as the message encounters various barriers along its passage between the sender and the receiver. Such barriers may arise at any of the stages through which a message passes during the process of communication. This is also called miscommunication.
Some of the common problems that lead to the failure of communication are: noise, cultural differences, complexity of subject matter, personal biases, semantic problems, socio-psychological barriers, filtering, information overload, poor retention, poor listening, goal conflicts, slanting, inferring, etc.
Barriers to communication can be classified as follows on the basis of the stage of the communication process during which the problem/s arise:
a. Sender-oriented barriers: lack of planning, lack of clarity about the purpose of communication, improper choice of words resulting in a badly encoded message, difference in perception, wrong choice of the channel, unjustified presumptions, etc.
b. Receiver-oriented barriers: poor listening, lack of interest, difference in perception, biased attitude, etc.
c. Channel-oriented barriers: noise, wrong selection of medium, technical defects in the address system or the medium of communication chosen by the sender, time and distance, etc.
We may define communication as a psycho-semantic process. Therefore, the barriers that affect the effectiveness of communication are mostly of social-psychological-linguistic nature. These factors may act upon any or all of the elements of the process of communication, that is, the sender or the receiver or the channel. And a common barrier for both the sender and the receiver can be the absence of a common frame of reference which often leads to the breakdown of communication in a specific situation.
Common frame of reference is the context in which communication takes place. A well-defined context helps the sender and the receiver to comprehend the content of the message in a similar way, with regard to its implications and meaning. Many of the barriers listed above are easy to understand. But a few of them may require a detailed explanation.
4.2 TYPES OF BARRIERS
Barriers to communication can be classified into the following broad categories: 1) Physical or environmental barriers, 2) Physiological or biological barriers, 3) Semantic or language barriers, 4) Personal barriers, 5) Emotional or perceptional barriers, 6) Socio-psychological barriers, 7) Cultural barriers, and 8) Organizational barriers.
4.2.1 PHYSICAL OR ENVIRONMENTAL BARRIERS
Physical barriers are those barriers which are caused due to some technical defects in the media used for communication and/or due to certain disturbances in the surrounding environment.
Often, the term ‘noise’ is used as a blanket term to refer to the physical barriers in general. But noise, in its literal sense, is also one of the factors that give rise to the physical barriers during the process of communication.
Besides noise, wrong selection of medium, lack of acoustics, poor lighting, frequent movements of hands, fiddling with a pen, or even serving of tea during an important conversation- all of these are also responsible for creating physical barriers in the communication process.
Noise is the first major barrier to communication. Communication is distorted by noise that crops up at the transmission level.
The meaning attributed to the word ‘noise’ in the field of Communication is derived from the realm of Physics. In Physics, noise refers to “a disturbance, especially a random and persistent disturbance, which obscures or reduces the clarity of a signal”.
The modern-day connotation of the word ‘noise’ is “irrelevant or meaningless data” as is apparent from its usage in the field of Computer Science.
For example, the noise of the traffic around a school obstructs the smooth flow of information between the teacher and the students. It makes oral communication difficult. Similarly, poor signal or static while talking over the cell phone or while using the public address system or while watching TV also distorts the sound signals and disrupts communication. Bad weather conditions may also sometimes interfere with the transmission of signals and may lead to breakdown of the communication channels.
As discussed above, noise is not only the disruption of sound signals, but it also includes all the barriers that may arise at any of the various stages of communication. In a broad sense, it denotes semantic barriers, perceptional barriers as well as psychological barriers.
b. Time and Distance
Time and distance may also obstruct the smooth flow of information. Today, because of technological advancements, we have faster means of communication available to us and this in turn has made the world a smaller place. But at times, these means of communication may not be easily accessible because of unavailability or due to technical/technological problems. This may lead not only to a physical but also a communication gap between the transmitter and the receiver.
Time differences between people living in two different countries may affect communication between them. Even people working in different shifts in the same organization may also face problems in communicating effectively.
Improper seating arrangement in a classroom or in a conference hall may also act as a barrier to effective communication as it is difficult to maintain eye contact with one’s audience.
Thus, communication can be successful only when the communicators manage to overcome the barriers by minimizing the obstacles that crop up due to spatial and temporal factors.
c. Wrong Choice of Medium
This can also create a barrier to effective communication. For example, if an expert uses charts or graphs or PowerPoint presentations to orient the illiterate workers or volunteers to a new method of working, they are bound to be ill-equipped to infer any information or instructions from such sophisticated presentations.
Adverse weather conditions affect not only the means of communication, but also have an impact on the sender and the receiver of the message. When two people have to communicate with each other under extreme weather conditions, whether too hot or too cold, their surroundings does have a direct repercussion on the effectiveness of the exchange that takes place between them.
Thus, environmental factors determine people’s mood and also influence their mental agility and thereby their capacity to communicate effectively. Extreme heat and humidity make people either hyper or listless and thus cause immense stress which in turn affects clear thinking and the attitude of the communicator; whereas, extreme cold weather induces laziness and also impedes the ability to think clearly and respond sharply, thereby causing communication failure.
4.2.2 PHYSIOLOGICAL OR BIOLOGICAL BARRIERS
Physiological barriers are related to a person’s health and fitness. These may arise due to disabilities that may affect the physical capability of the sender or the receiver. For example, poor eyesight, deafness, uncontrolled body movements, etc.
Physical defects in one’s body may also disrupt communication. While communicating, a person uses-
his vocal (speech) organs to produce sound/speech
his hand and fingers to write
his ears to take in the spoken words
his eyes to absorb the written words
Flawless functioning of these body organs is inevitable for effective communication to take place. In case of any defect in any of these organs, the successful completion of communication will be difficult to accomplish.
Speaking can be adversely affected by stammering, fumbling, utterance of improper sounds due to defective vocal organ/s, etc.
Listening can be rendered ineffective as a result of defective hearing. Deafness- total or partial- obstructs the absorption of sound signals. This leads to information loss.
Writing can fail to convey the message successfully because of illegible handwriting due to hand injury, excessive trembling of the palm or fingers, numbness, etc.
Reading can be affected due to poor eyesight. Defective vision impedes the reading ability of the receiver. Words may appear hazy, broken, overlapping, etc. to the receiver’s eye.
To overcome such barriers, one must avail oneself of the necessary medical treatment (for defects in the body organs), therapy (to improve speech) or corrective aids (like hearing aid, spectacles, etc.).
4.2.3 SEMANTIC OR LANGUAGE BARRIERS
Semantics is the systematic study of the meaning of words. Thus, the semantic barriers are barriers related to language. Such barriers are problems that arise during the process of encoding and/or decoding the message into words and ideas respectively.
Both the oral and the written communication are based on words/symbols which are ambiguous in nature. Words/symbols may be used in several ways and may have several meanings. Unless the receiver knows the context, he may interpret the words/symbols according to his own level of understanding and may thus misinterpret the message.
The most common semantic barriers are listed as under:
a. Misinterpretation of Words
Semantic problems often arise because of the gap between the meaning as intended by the sender and that as understood by the receiver. This happens when the receiver does not assign the same meaning to the word/symbol as the transmitter had intended.
Words are capable of expressing a variety of meanings depending upon their usage, i.e. in the context in which they are used. The association between the word/symbol and the meaning assigned to it is of arbitrary nature.
For example, the word ‘yellow’ when used as an adjective can have multiple connotations depending upon its usage. Words have two levels of meaning- literal (descriptive) and metaphorical (qualitative). ‘Yellow’, besides being a primary colour, also stands for ‘freshness’, ‘beauty’, ‘sickness’, ‘decay’, etc. Hence, the receiver is free to interpret it in any of these ways based on his own imagination and experience.
But for communication to be perfect, it is essential that the receiver must assign to it the same meaning which the sender had in his mind while encoding the message. Therefore, there is always a possibility of misinterpretation of the messages. Mostly, such problems arise when the sender does not use simple and clear words that can convey the exact meaning to the receiver.
b. Use of Technical Language
Technical or specialized language which is used by people or professionals who work in the same field is known as jargon. Such technical language can be a barrier to communication if the receiver of the message is not familiar with it. For example, in the computer jargon, ‘to burn a CD’ means ‘to copy the data on a CD’. To a layman, the word ‘burn’ may have a very different connotation.
Ambiguity arises when the sender and the receiver of the message attribute different meanings to the same words or use different words to convey the same meaning. Sometimes, wrong and speculative assumptions also lead to ambiguity. A sender often assumes that his audience would perceive the situation as he does or have the same opinion about an issue or understand the message as he understands it, and so on. All such assumptions may turn out to be wrong and cause communication failure.
4.2.4 PERSONAL BARRIERS
Communication is interpersonal in nature. Thus, there are certain barriers that are directly linked to the persons involved in the communication process, i.e. the sender and the receiver, which influence the accurate transfer of the message. These are called personal barriers.
Personal barriers have to do with the age, education, interests and needs or intentions that differ from person to person.
When one communicates, s/he addresses an audience that may belong to different age-groups. With age, one’s choices, preferences and interests undergo enormous changes. So one has to consider this factor while communicating in order to check the possibility of communication failure.
Difference in education is another important factor. It determines the sender’s ability to think, to form an intelligible message and to convey it successfully. On the other hand, it also influences the receiver’s capability to read/listen, to understand and to respond to the message that he receives. Thus, difference in education can hamper the successful encoding and/or decoding of the message, if proper care is not taken by the sender and/or the receiver.
In any business organization, the attitude of the superiors and the subordinates play a vital role in determining the success of communication. If the superiors have a hostile attitude, then there are chances that they may filter the information or manipulate the message, sometimes intentionally, in order to achieve certain selfish motives.
Many superiors are not open to suggestions and feedback as they presume that their subordinates are not capable of advising them. Also, they often tend to keep too busy with work and do not pay much attention to communication. Due to this, the downward flow of information within the organization is badly affected and this in turn leads to poor performance.
Besides, the superiors often exercise their authority by insisting that the subordinates should approach them only through proper formal channels of communication. If, under any circumstances, the subordinates try to communicate to the superiors directly, then they may take offense as they perceive such an attempt as a challenge to their position of power. Such an attitude thus becomes a barrier to effective communication.
On the other hand, there are certain factors that influence the participation of the subordinates in upward communication. Lack of confidence and fear are the primary reasons why the subordinates fail to communicate openly and comfortably with the superiors.
If they feel that some information may, in some way, harm their prospect/interest in the organization, then they prefer to conceal such information. In case, if that is not possible, then they filter the information so that they cannot be held responsible for the same.
Moreover, when the superiors do not support the active involvement of the subordinates in the functioning of the organization by encouraging them to exchange their ideas and to give suggestions that would contribute to the success of the organization, the subordinates become indifferent to such reciprocity and this creates a barrier to upward communication. If the subordinates feel that their ideas and suggestions are of no value to the superiors, then they do not feel motivated to convey the same.
Therefore, on the basis of the above discussion, we may conclude that personal barriers have their origin in the attitude of the sender as well as the receiver. Personal barriers often lead to distortion, filtering, and omission of information and thus have an adverse effect on the fidelity of communication.
4.2.5 EMOTIONAL OR PERCEPTIONAL BARRIERS
Emotional or perceptional barriers are closely associated with personal barriers. Personal barriers arise from motives and attitudes (as seen above), whereas emotional or perceptional barriers have an added dimension that includes sentiments and emotions as well.
If the receiver does not evaluate the information with an open mind, i.e. objectively, his judgment/evaluation would be colored with his biases and/or his emotions, thus inducing him to read too much into a message. This would interfere with the exact transfer of information and cause misinterpretation.
Such a barrier may also emerge at the time of encoding the message. Over enthusiasm on the part of the sender may lead him to invest his message with meaning/s which he may actually not have intended to.
Besides, too much aggression or passivity on the part of either the sender or the receiver, while communicating, also has an adverse effect on the success of communication. Also, too much of emotion thwarts reason and sometimes, the communicator, blinded by his own sentiments, makes impulsive judgments or illogical decisions. This also results in the breakdown of communication.
Indolence, apathy, or the tendency to procrastinate, either on the part of the sender or the receiver, also lead to withholding of important information thus creating a barrier. Extreme emotions like euphoria, excitement, anger, stress, depression, etc. also get in the way of effective communication. All these factors may create biases in the mind of the sender or the receiver.
Therefore, the sender and the receiver may encode and decode the message respectively as per their own perceptions, background, needs, experience, etc. And this leads to a distinct kind of exchange of ideas and feedback as well. They tend to obfuscate the reality and see what they want to see. This is also one kind of filtering that takes place during the communication process.
4.2.6 SOCIO-PSYCHOLOGICAL BARRIERS
Socio-psychological barriers can also be considered as one of the offshoots of the personal barriers, akin to the perceptional barriers. We need to study it as a subcategory of personal barriers because a person’s attitude is shaped not only by his instincts and emotions, but also by his approach towards and his interaction with the people around him, and hence the need for this fine distinction between the personal, the perceptional and the socio-psychological barriers.
a. Status Consciousness
To begin with, the consciousness of one’s position in an organization has an effect on the two-way flow of communication. A vertical channel of communication is present in every organization, but its efficacy is heavily influenced by the relationship between the superiors and the subordinates. Though many organizations are now becoming accustomed to the open door policy, the psychological distance between the superiors and the subordinates still prevails. Status consciousness is thus one of the major barriers to successful communication.
b. Difference in Perception
Moreover, in a communication situation, the communicators have to deal with two aspects of the reality- the one as they see it and the other as they perceive it. The mind filters the message i.e. the words/symbols/ signs and attributes meaning to them, according to individual perception.
Each individual has his own distinctive filter, formed by his/her experiences, emotional makeup, knowledge, and mindset which s/he has attained over a period of time. Because of this difference in perceptions, different individuals respond to the same word/symbol/sign based on their own understanding of the situation and ascribe meaning to it on the basis of their unique filter.
At times, this difference in perception causes communication gap, i.e. distortion, in the message. In face-to-face communication, this gap can be easily eliminated as there is immediate feedback. But in written communication, the semantic gap between the intended meaning and the interpreted meaning remains unidentified, as the feedback is delayed or sometimes there is no feedback at all.
Besides, a person with deeply ingrained prejudices is very difficult to communicate with. He is not responsive to discussion or to new ideas, information, viewpoints and opinions. He has a closed mind and tends to react antagonistically, thus ruling out all possibilities of communication. An unreceptive mind can, hence, be a great barrier in communication. To overcome this barrier, people should be receptive of new ideas and must learn to listen considerately with an open mind.
d. Halo/Horn Effect
Also, sometimes the listener may be too much in awe of or may completely distrust a speaker. In both these situations, the chances of success of the communication are very less.
e. Information Overload
Furthermore, information overload leads to poor retention and causes information loss. So, whenever there is some important information to be conveyed, the communicators must use the written channel of communication.
On the basis of the above discussion, we may thus conclude that the socio-psychological factors do have a profound impact on the effectiveness of communication.
4.2.7 CULTURAL BARRIERS
Culture is “the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought. Culture is learned and shared within social groups and is transmitted by non-genetic means.” (American Heritage Dictionary, 2005)
From this definition, we can infer that culture is the sum total of ideas, customs, arts, rituals, skills, etc. of a group of people. It is handed down from generation to generation in the form of conventions, traditions, rules, codes of conduct, etc. To put it simply, culture is “the shared ways in which groups of people understand and interpret the world.” (F. Trompenaars, Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global Business; 1994)
Each group, categorized on the basis of nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, etc. has its own distinctive culture. Thus, there are varied subcultures that co-exist within a major culture. Such immense cultural diversity plays a very crucial role in communication as it has an extensive influence on both verbal and non-verbal communication and may therefore create barriers to effective communication.
Cultural differences give rise to a great deal of complexity in the encoding and the decoding of messages not only because of the difference in languages, but also because of plenty of culture-specific assumptions at work in the mind of the sender as well as the receiver.
People belonging to different cultures may attach different meanings to words, symbols, gestures, and behaviour or they may perceive each others’ social values, body language, attitude to space distancing and time, social behaviour and manners, etc., i.e. the entire culture in general, very differently depending upon their own standards, attitudes, customs, prejudices, opinions, behavioral norms, etc., i.e. their own distinct culture.
Thus, cultural barriers arise when people belonging to different cultures insist on preserving their cultural identities and at times, judge the other cultures as inferior to their own.
(For a detailed discussion on the various elements that can create cultural barriers, refer Chapter 6 International Communication)
4.2.8 ORGANIZATIONAL BARRIERS
Organizational structure greatly influences the flow of information within an organization. Some major organizational barriers are as follows:
a. Goal Conflicts
There may be goal conflicts within the organization between the superiors and the subordinates, among people working in the different departments, among the colleagues, etc. This may create a hostile atmosphere within the organization and can lead to serious communication breakdown.
b. Organizational Policies
These are also to a great extent responsible for determining the kind of rapport that people working in the same organization share with each other. If the organizational policy is such that it restricts the free flow of information in all directions (refer Chapter 7 Formal and Informal Networks of Communication), then communication would not be successful. In some organizations, there may be rules to restrict the flow of certain messages and this may deter employees from conveying those messages, however important they may be.
If an organization favours the open door policy, the subordinates would not feel shy or reluctant to approach their superiors directly. But in the organizations where the formal channels of communication have to be strictly adhered to, the superiors and the subordinates share an awkward relationship. They experience a lot of discomfiture while interacting with each other. Because of this, the objective of communication may never be accomplished.
c. Organizational Hierarchy
The hierarchical structure of the organization may also impede the flow of information and this can cause delay in taking decisions. When the message passes along the chain of command in an organization, there are chances of filtering and distortion of the message at almost every level before it reaches the intended receiver. Thus, the hierarchical structure of the organization is also one of the important factors that may create a barrier to effective communication.
Barriers to effective communication can be summarized as under:
Physical Barriers: sound, sight, size, light, location, distance, time, surroundings, environment, infrastructural facilities, etc.
Speaking- stammering, fumbling, utterance of improper sounds due to defect in speech, etc.
Listening- hearing impairment, deafness, etc.
Writing- illegible handwriting due to uncontrolled hand movements like trembling, numbness, etc.
Reading- difficulty in reading due to poor eyesight, perceiving the written words as hazy, unclear and overlapping, etc.
Differential Barriers: difference in age, education, needs, interests, intention or purpose creating a communication gap between the speaker/writer and the listener/reader.
Intellectual Barriers: use of foreign language, pronunciation, style, tone, vocabulary, etc.
Socio-Cultural Barriers: race, religion, culture, habits, behaviour, social values and manners, etc.
Psychological Barriers: attitude, mood, temperament, ego, prejudice, jealousy, rivalry, nervousness, excitement, etc.
Organizational Barriers: status, hierarchy, policies, filtering, manipulation, etc.
On the basis of the above discussion, we may thus sum up that barriers to communication are “the aspects of or conditions in a workplace- such as status differences, gender differences, cultural differences, prejudices, and the organizational environment- that interfere with effective exchange of ideas or thoughts.” (Business Dictionary)
However, there are certain specific strategies that can help us to surmount these obstacles and achieve the purpose of communication. These are discussed in detail in the following section.
4.3 OVERCOMING THE BARRIERS TO COMMUNICATION
On the basis of the various kinds of communication barriers listed in the previous section, let us now discuss certain strategies that would help us to overcome these barriers and thus improve communication.
As effective communication is essential for the success of a business organization, the communicators must take care to remove the barriers in the way of communication, to the best extent possible.
In communication, it is not enough only to know the message. For communication to be complete, the message must be understood by the audience. The communicator shares his message through the medium of words- spoken or written, through gestures, through symbols, etc. Thus, from this we can infer that communication, whether verbal or nonverbal, is symbolic in nature.
These two aspects of communication determine the fundamental difference between effective and ineffective communication. If an idea/information is known to but not fully understood by the receiver, then the communication will be ineffective.
The sender can know whether the message has been understood by the receiver through his response, i.e. feedback.
The following are some general guidelines for the sender and the receiver of the message:
For the Sender of the Message
At the very outset, that the sender should reveal the purpose of his message and the important topics that he would deal with. By doing so, he prepares the receiver for what is to follow. This helps the receiver to identify the main points of the message, to recognize the link among the important ideas that the message contains and to organize them in a meaningful pattern in his mind.
The message should be compact and the sender should concentrate exclusively on the main ideas or information that he intends to convey. Likewise, the sender should situate his ideas in an appropriate context so that the audience will evaluate and interpret them within that common frame of reference which the sender has indicated or suggested.
While communicating, the sender should, at all times, emphasize the important points of the message with the help of bulleted lists, chart, graphs, illustrations, body language, tone, pitch, etc. He should also provide a summary at the end of his presentation or write-up. This will help the receiver to grasp the overall meaning of the message, thus making it easy to understand the various parts, i.e. ideas, in relation to the overall framework.
The sender should arrange the ideas/information in such a way that it is appealing to the audience’s visual and/or auditory senses. In written communication, the writer may make use of an attractive layout and good quality paper to attract the readers’ attention.
While communicating orally, the sender must take care to minimize noise. He should make sure that his surroundings are well-equipped with the necessary acoustics. He should pay special attention to his facial expressions, gesture, and eye contact with the audience at the time of delivering the message.
The sender should be clear about why he wants to communicate and his message should be precise and well-structured. He should take care to select an appropriate channel or medium so that the impact of message is not lost in transmission. He should send his message through an effective channel i.e. keeping in mind his audience and the purpose of the message and should select a channel where there are less chances of distortion.
The sender should avoid using grandiloquent words in order to avoid the possibility of misinterpretation of the overall meaning of the message. The sender should neither burden the receiver with information overload nor should he provide him too little information. He should identify his audience before encoding the message so that he knows what his audience may already know and in what context he should place his message.
The sender should formulate and deliver his message in such a way that it retains the audience’s interest in what he intends to convey. He should do away with all his prejudices and preconceived notions and must communicate clearly and with an open mind. All these would enable him to have an audience-centric approach while encoding his message.
For the Receiver of the Message
In the initial stage of the communication process, the onus is entirely on the sender of the message. But in the later stage, the receiver plays an active role once he starts absorbing and processing the information in his mind. Thus, the receiver of the message also plays an equally important role in the successful completion of communication.
Not all barriers are sender-oriented. The barriers arising from the side of the receiver are known as receiver-oriented barriers. The foremo