Barriers to Effective Communication

Choosing the Type of Communication

The medium, or channel, of business communication influences its effectiveness.

Learning Objectives

Classify the advantages of using the varying communication channels

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Being able to determine the most appropriate channel of communication is critical to effectively communicating.
  • Communication channels vary from richer to leaner depending on their degree of interaction.
  • Oral communication tends to be richer than most written communication.

Key Terms

  • oral: Spoken rather than written.

In communications, a channel is the means of passing information from a sender to a recipient. Determining the most appropriate channel, or medium, is critical to the effectiveness of communication. Channels include oral means such as telephone calls and presentations, and written modes such as reports, memos, and email.

Communications differ along a scale from richer to leaner. Rich media are more interactive than lean media and provide opportunities for immediate two-way communication. For instance, a face-to-face conversation is a rich medium because the receiver can ask questions and respond to the message as they process it. The main channels are grouped below from richest to leanest:

  • Richest channels: face-to-face meeting; in-person oral presentation
  • Rich channels: online meeting; videoconference
  • Lean channels: teleconference; phone call; voice message; video
  • Leanest channels: blog; report; brochure; newsletter; flier; email

Oral communications tend to be richer channels because information can be conveyed through speech as well as nonverbally through tone of voice and body language. Oral forms of communication can range from a casual conversation with a colleague to a formal presentation in front of many employees. Richer media are well suited to complex messages, as well as disturbing messages, since they can provide opportunities to clarify meaning, reiterate information, and display emotions.

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Bill Gates speaking at a school: A speaker giving a large presentation is an example of oral communication.

While written communication does not have the advantage of immediacy and interaction, it can be the most effective means of conveying large amounts of information. Written communication is an effective channel when context, supporting data, and detailed explanations are necessary to inform or persuade others. One drawback to written communications is that they can be misunderstood or misinterpreted by an audience that does not have subsequent opportunities to ask clarifying questions or otherwise respond.

Here are some examples of different communication channels and their advantages:

  • Web-based communication, such as video conferencing, allows people in different locations to hold interactive meetings.
  • Emails provide an instantaneous medium of written communication.
  • Reports document the activities of any department.
  • Presentations usually involve audiovisual material, like copies of reports, or material prepared in Microsoft PowerPoint or Adobe Flash.
  • Telephone meetings allow for long-distance interaction.
  • Message boards allow people to instantly post information to a centralized location.
  • Face-to-face meetings are personal and should be succeeded by a written follow-up.

Quality of Written and Oral Expression

The quality of written and oral communication depends on the effective use of language and communication channels.

Learning Objectives

Describe the central importance and value in having high-quality written and oral communication abilities in a professional environment

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The quality of written and oral expression determines how effective communication will be in achieving its objectives.
  • In both written and oral communication, the use of language is the primary determinant of quality of expression.
  • Oral communication can also employ visual aids and nonverbal elements, such as body language, to convey meaning.

Key Terms

  • effective: Having the power to produce the required or desired effect.

The quality of written and oral expression determines how effective communication will be in achieving its objectives. Whether to inform, provoke, or persuade, communication’s primary purpose is to assign and convey meaning in order to create shared understanding. We can assess the quality of expression by considering such factors as content and use of communication medium.

In both written and oral communication, the use of language is the primary determinant of quality of expression. This includes grammar, word choice and vocabulary, sentence structure, and organization. Another important factor is how well thought out the message is. A common adage states, “Good writing is good thinking.” In other words, it is difficult to express yourself well without first knowing what you want to say. Communication that is easier for the audience to understand and follow is more likely to achieve its aim than is expression that is confused, poorly organized, or vague.

In addition to word use, communicators can employ visual and nonverbal elements to convey meaning. Pictures, charts, or tables can provide value when expressing complex ideas by synthesizing and focusing on the most important points. Body language, eye contact, and tone of voice can play significant roles in face-to-face communication, and may even have a greater impact on the listener than the words actually spoken.

The communication medium is the channel through which information flows from sender to recipient. Channels include email, telephone, written reports, and oral presentations. One’s skill level in using the chosen medium is an aspect of quality of expression. For instance, without training or experience using web conferencing it may be difficult to connect with the audience in ways that effectively convey meaning and understanding.

Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal elements supplement the use of words to convey meaning during communication.

Learning Objectives

Recognize the importance of the nonverbal factors involved in communication

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Nonverbal communication refers to meaning conveyed in the absence of words.
  • Voluntary nonverbal communication refers to intentional movement, gestures, and poses.
  • Involuntary nonverbal communication gives cues about what one is really thinking or feeling.
  • Regardless of what is said verbally, it is important to be aware of the nonverbal messages communicated through body language.

Key Terms

  • nonverbal: Not using words; of communication such as gestures, facial expressions, and body language.
  • body language: Nonverbal communication by means of facial expressions, eye behavior, gestures, posture, and the like; often thought to be involuntary.

Nonverbal communication refers to meaning conveyed in the absence of words. Information conveyed nonverbally can be perceived through any of the five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. There are two types of nonverbal communication—voluntary and involuntary.

Voluntary Nonverbal Communication

Voluntary nonverbal communication refers to intentional movements, gestures, and poses. These include smiling, hand movement, eye contact, or imitation, and are generally intended to reinforce or clarify meaning being communicated verbally. These actions are made willingly and usually with conscious awareness.

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Nonverbal communication: A police officer using nonverbal communication to indicate an action that needs to be performed.

Involuntary Nonverbal Communication

Involuntary nonverbal communication gives cues about what one is really thinking or feeling but may not be expressing in words.

There are many elements of involuntary body language that we use and experience commonly without being aware we are doing so. For example, many people will raise their eyebrows as one approaches them face-to-face as an indication of recognition, esteem, or surprise. If a person walking down the street encounters a stranger, then the chances are that neither person will raise their eyebrows. If they recognize each other, however, even if they do not greet each other, then eyebrows will likely raise and lower. However, if a person is known but not highly regarded by another person, the second person may not raise his or her eyebrows.

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Involuntary nonverbal facial expression: Facial expressions of surprise, an involuntary nonverbal expression.

Involuntary nonverbal communication can betray one’s true beliefs, feelings, or motives. When angry or upset, often someone’s body language can communicate more intensity than their words alone. Similarly, when we perceive someone as being physically uncomfortable during a conversation, they are sending a message that may not be consistent with what they are saying.

Effective communication relies on being aware of nonverbal aspects of interactions with others. It is equally important to be aware of one’s own nonverbal behaviors and be sensitive to how they may be perceived. For instance, maintaining eye contact when communicating indicates interest. Staring out the window or around the room is often perceived as boredom or disrespect. Another simple nonverbal technique to facilitate good communication is the act of mirroring. Mirroring involves mimicking others’ gestures and ideas. This is especially helpful for making outsiders feel comfortable sharing ideas or for minimizing status differences.

Differences in Status

Social status can influence how an individual’s communication is perceived.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the potential communication barriers created by differences in status, rank or organizational hierarchy within an organization

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Social status refers to the relative rank or standing that an individual has in the eyes of others; it is shaped by one’s background, education, reputation, perceived power, and position in an organization ‘s hierarchy.
  • Achieved status can include what an individual acquires during his or her lifetime as a result of accumulated knowledge, inherent ability, skill, and perseverance.
  • Credibility and legitimacy can be gained by demonstrating competence, reliability, and identification with shared interests.

Key Terms

  • Social Status: The honor or prestige attached to one’s position in society.

Among the many organizational and individual factors that can influence the effectiveness of business communication, social status is one of the most challenging to address. Social status refers to the relative rank or standing that an individual has in the eyes of others. Position in the organization’s hierarchy, background, education, reputation, and power all contribute to those perceptions of prestige.

There are two elements of social status—those attributes we are born with and those we achieve. Ascribed status is determined at birth and includes characteristics such as sex, age, race, ethnic group, and family background. Achieved status is what an individual acquires as a result of the exercise of knowledge, ability, talent, skill, and/or perseverance. Employment and occupation are primary factors in social status, and one’s role in an organization is especially relevant within the boundaries of that organization.

Implications of Social Status on Communication

People often have difficulty navigating status differences when trying to inform or persuade others. To many, social status is an indicator of credibility and legitimacy, and this effects how seriously others take what one communicates. Key elements that are involved in an audience’s evaluation include title, reputation, and the extent to which people can identify with the communicator’s motives and objectives. Status differences can create a bias against those with the perceived lower status. For example, a junior or lower-level employee asked to make a presentation to a group of more senior upper-level managers may have difficulty keeping their attention at first even if his information and presentation skills are solid. Outsider status can also be a challenge in communication. This is commonly experienced by salespeople, vendors, and even potential employees.

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Rank affects communication: In the military and other organizations, the status of members affects communication.

In such situations, those with perceived lower status need to build good will by demonstrating competence and reliability and identifying with common interests.

Noise as a Barrier to Communication

The efficacy of communication is impacted by how much noise there is in the communication channel.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate the risk of distractions and noise reducing communication effectiveness

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Communication involves a sender transmitting a message to a recipient, who then decodes and interprets that message. This means there are multiple points in the communication process where misinterpretation and distraction are possible.
  • There are certain barriers to effective communication that every organization faces. These potential interruptions of the flow of information are referred to as ” noise “.
  • Communicative problems (i.e., noise) can be categorized into three groups: technical, semantic, or efficacy-related.
  • Examples of noise include environmental noise, physiological-impairment noise, semantic noise, syntactical noise, organizational noise, cultural noise, and psychological noise.

Key Terms

  • semantic: Related to meaning.
  • noise: Various sounds, usually unwanted.
  • Syntactical: Related to the set of rules that govern how words are combined into meaningful phrases and sentences.

The Communicative Process

Mathematicians Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver defined communication as comprising the following five general components:

  1. An information source (i.e., sender). This produces a message; in an oral conversation, the information source is simply the speaker.
  2. A transmitter. This encodes the message into signals.
  3. A channel. Signals are adapted to this channel for transmission.
  4. A receiver. This “decodes” (i.e., reconstructs) the message from the received signals.
  5. A destination. This is where the message arrives; in an oral conversation, the destination is simply the listener.
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Shannon-Weaver model of communication: This diagram shows the five steps of the communicative process identified by Shannon and Weaver.

Distractions—i.e., noise—can disrupt the flow of information between any of these five stages. That is to say, issues in communication pertaining to distraction could affect the sender, the message itself, the channel it is being sent through, or the recipient of that message.

Communicative Interference

Every organization faces certain barriers to communication. Shannon and Weaver argue there are three particular layers of communication problems:

  • Technical: How accurately can the message be transmitted?
  • Semantic: How precisely can the meaning be conveyed?
  • Efficacy-related: How effectively does the received meaning affect behavior?

These layers relate to a variety of types of noise that can interfere with communication.

Environmental Noise

Environmental noise is noise that physically disrupts communication, such as very loud speakers at a party or the sounds from a construction site next to a classroom.

Physiological-Impairment Noise

Physical conditions such as deafness or blindness can impede effective communication and interfere with messages being clearly and accurately received.

Semantic Noise

Semantic noise refers to when a speaker and a listener have different interpretations of the meanings of certain words. For example, the word “weed” can be interpreted as an undesirable plant in a yard or as a euphemism for marijuana.

Syntactical Noise

Communication can be disrupted by mistakes in grammar, such as an abrupt change in verb tense during a sentence.

Organizational Noise

Poorly structured messages can also be a barrier. For example, a receiver who is given unclear, badly worded directions may be unable to figure out how to reach their destination.

Cultural Noise

Making stereotypical assumptions, such as unwittingly offending a non-Christian person by wishing them a “Merry Christmas,” can also detract from communication. Because of this, it is important that each side of a conversation understands the culture of the other party.

Psychological Noise

Certain attitudes can also make communication difficult. For instance, significant anger or sadness may cause someone to lose focus on the present moment.

By acknowledging and adjusting to noise, a communicator can make it more likely that their message will be received as intended.

Gender and Diversity

Diversity, while an important part of a strong workforce, can contribute to misconceptions that may impede communication.

Learning Objectives

Recognize how diversity and gender may complicate communication in an organization

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Differences in gender, race, religion, cultural background, age, and sexual orientation can be barriers to effective communication.
  • Gender communication issues can strongly affect team interactions. Gender communication issues can range from differences in communication styles and perceptions to sexual harassment.
  • Cultural issues can affect team interactions through differences in communication conventions.
  • Intercultural competence —the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately with individuals of another culture —requires regional expertise, empathy, and linguistic proficiency.
  • Addressing gender and diversity from a communicative standpoint requires a high degree of empathy and understanding. A good communicator must be able to see things from the perspective of the intended recipient.

Key Terms

  • Diversity: The quality of being different.
  • selective perception: The tendency to not notice and more quickly forget stimuli that cause emotional discomfort and contradict our prior beliefs.
  • Intercultural Competence: The ability to communicate effectively and appropriately with people of other cultures.

Diversity and Barriers

Barriers to effective communication can distort a message and its intention, which may result in failure of the communication process or damage to a relationship. These barriers include filtering, selective perception, information overload, emotions, language, silence, communication apprehension, gender differences, and political correctness.

By definition, diversity brings a wider range of views, and having a wide range of views is essential to an organization ‘s success. In addition, as teams are becoming increasingly global, diversity can help an organization or team understand its place in its surroundings.

But a diverse team environment can also cause challenges. Some individuals’ views may challenge those of the larger team. Preconceived notions about differences in other people—such as racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, etc.—disrupt work processes and can prevent teams from achieving their goals. Because of this, diverse teams must keep several important considerations in mind at all times to ensure effective communication.

Communicating in Diverse Teams

The main benefit of a diverse background is that it fosters a creative environment. The main pitfall is that differences between team members can lead to destructive conflict, most often due to communicative failures. As a result, companies must equip their employees with the tools to prevent potential conflicts before they ever arise.

The most effective way to ensure proper communicative efficiency in diverse teams is to improve intercultural competence. Intercultural competence is simply the ability to communicate with different groups and cultures effectively and appropriately—”effectively” meaning that shared goals are being accomplished, and “appropriately” meaning doing so without violating the values, norms, relationships, or expectations of others.

Intercultural competence is a widely studied area of organizational communications and behavior. One model outlines the three following components as being at the core of a culture-savvy individual: regional expertise, language proficiency, and cross-cultural competence.

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Intercultural competence: This figure underlines three useful perspectives to keep in mind when working with diverse teams. People should work to understand relevant languages, regions, and cultural predispositions to avoid communicative misinterpretations.

Other Issues in Diversity

Of course, intercultural considerations are only some of the issues that arise in diverse teams. Further differences such as sexual orientation, gender, political views, age, and special needs are also highly relevant and are critical to consider for communicative success.

The greatest takeaway here should be the power of empathy. The ability to recognize someone else’s perspective (and therefore how they may interpret what you say) is absolutely central to avoiding issues in communication between different groups. In any communicative setting, whether you are speaking or writing or listening or reading, keep in mind the possible interpretations of individuals whose perspectives and predispositions may differ from yours.