Effective Communication

Learning Outcomes

  • Analyze barriers to effective communication

Understanding the functions, process, direction, and types of communication is the first step toward communicating effectively. But of course, there’s more! Communicating well involves a number of factors, including

  • Sending an accurate message
  • Removing communication barriers
  • Controlling distractions (or noise)
  • Monitoring non-verbal cues and actively listening to and offering feedback

Putting together a message, verbally or written, is only the beginning. Let’s take a look at the receiver and the barriers he or she might be experiencing that prevent her from receiving the message clearly.

Perceptual Biases

Perceptual biases can affect how a receiver processes information about others. These biases can allow us to make faster decisions, but they can also lead us to stop gathering information and making decisions prematurely. Those who have already made up their mind stop paying attention.

For example, Theo, a manager, needs to make a decision about a new hire. A talented employee, Susie, refers a friend she thinks would be a good addition to the company and their team. That manager might say, “Well, if this person is okay in Susie’s book, she’s okay with me.” Theo stops gathering information at the point at which he hears Susie’s advice, because Susie is a talented and trusted team member.

However, the person Susie’s recommended turns out to have limited skills and is not a good fit. Theo was a victim of perceptual bias. He took the word of a trusted team member instead of investigating further.

When a sender is transmitting a message, the receiver’s perceptual bias is the “noise” that changes the sender’s meaning. The perceptual bias can be managed by awareness, use of objective data and confirmation whenever possible.

Organizational Barriers

decorative image Effective communication can be impacted by an organization’s hierarchical structure and the rules around how information flows upward, downward, and laterally. For instance, a rigid organizational structure might dictate that communication follow a path up and down, from VP to director to manager and back up from manager to director to VP. This hard-and-fast rule may not be ideal for organizations that need to make quick decisions with information generated by lower-level employees.

Let’s say there were a series of injuries at a manufacturing plant and a company vice president is looking to make changes to ensure worker safety. In a rigid organizational structure, he might ask his direct report, a director, to confirm all the reasons why these injuries are occurring. The director then asks a manager, who asks a team lead, and so on. The process is inefficient.

Organizational hierarchies can also obstruct communication via status differences. Often access to C-level leaders is restricted for lower level employees, so information communicated to and from those levels is often distorted.

Time is also an organizational barrier and an enemy of good communication. Workers are under pressure to perform and meet deadlines, and time may prevent them from communicating with their team members and leaders appropriately.

Often steps must be taken organization-wide in order to overcome these kinds of barriers, effectively placing a value on the communication by allowing employees time to communicate and the space to do so with the audience that needs to receive their messages.

Active Listening

As we said earlier in this module, communication isn’t about talking or writing, it’s about being understood. Communicators on both ends of the social feedback loop should practice active listening. Active listening is the process by which the listener assumes a conscious and dynamic role in the communication process through behavior and action. Active listening looks like this:

Eight icons representing skills that aid in active listening. The first skill is to pay close attention, which is represented by an eyeball. The second skill is to minimize distractions, which is represented by an icon of a computer with a power off symbol on the screen. The third skill is to give good body cues, which is represented by an icon of a person touching their chin in thought. The fourth skill is to ask open-ended questions, which is represented by an icon of several question marks. The fifth skill is to paraphrase, which is represented by an icon of a bulleted list. The sixth skill is to ask clarifying questions, which is represented by an icon of a magnifying glass over a question mark. The seventh skill is to ask clarifying questions, which is represented by an icon of a heart. The eighth and final skill is to summarize, which is represented by an icon of a circle with arrows, indicating a cycle.

You can see in the above model that active listening includes asking open-ended and minimizing distractions, clarifying, paraphrasing, and summarizing. All of these are feedback mechanisms, to ensure that the receiver has heard the message correctly.

This model also includes paying attention to non-verbal cues while the sender is transmitting his message in its recommendation to be attuned to and recognize feelings. The non-verbal cues are particularly important in situations where different cultures are involved. Cultures with high-power distance may be listening but hesitate to ask clarifying questions, which places a bit more responsibility on the sender to ensure the message has been understood. Overall, these active listening practices help deconstruct communication barriers.

Effective Feedback

Communication must be restated and reinforced to ensure no noise is seeping into the message. For instance, if managers set goals for employees, they should be prepared to give those employee feedback on their progress, keeping them on course to reach the finish line.

Positive feedback is always good to share, and negative feedback is a little harder. Both need to be offered if employees are expected to change behaviors. Effective feedback should:

  • Be fact-based and timely
  • Focus on specific behaviors that are clearly documented, rather than vague statements about personalities or attitudes
  • Be job related and professional
  • Address behaviors under the control of the person receiving the feedback

The sender should also ensure that the receiver has fully understood the feedback.

PRactice Question

Organizations that understand these potential barriers to good communication and know how to navigate them are likely to be more successful in creating higher levels of employee engagement and productivity.


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