Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Barriers to effective communication

1. How well do we communicate?
We all believe we communicate well. We all believe we know the art of communicating. We are confident we have no difficulty (in) communicating. However, if we paused for a moment and thought about an instance or two, we might just begin to wonder.

          1                                            2
Raghu : Hi, Sundar!
Somu : …
Raghu  : Go to hell!
Rani : How is your mother today?
Devi : Much better.
Rani : I want to visit her. I’ll join you
           this evening.
Devi : She’ll be happy. But my grandpa is
           arriving. I have to get supper ready.
Rani: Okay. When are visitors allowed?

Joseph: Are you too busy, John?
John   : I’m completing  Experiment 3 in the
            Chemistry Lab Record.
Joseph: Oh.
John   : You need help? [Joseph nods] Okay.
             Tell me.
Joseph: Thanksda*. I don’t…

* ‘da’ is a suffix in Thamizh used between friends.    

Raju : [is answering an exercise on
            tenses, has his pen between his
            teeth, looking hard at the
            exercise sheet (as if that would
            somehow locate the answer for
Raghu: Move over. Let me help you.
Raju  : [moves away without a word]
Raghu: [angrily] There’s always a next
             time, my friend!

Sales Manager    : Sir, I need your
                              permission to attend my
General Manager: Permission? Don’t you
                              have any casual leave
Sales Manager    : No, sir.
General Manager: You’re a senior
                              manager. You shouldn’t
                              have mismanaged your
                              leave account. How
                              could you have planned
                              it so badly?
Sales Manager    :???

Supervisor: Babu, Can’t you ever
(accusingly)   do a thing right?
Babu         : Sir, I was only mending
( taken unawares) …………
F.M.          : You mean you were
(glaring)         fiddling.
Babu          : Sir, …..
(clearly upset)
F. M.          : Don’t argue with me.
(cutting him off)
Babu          : No, sir. Let me…..
F.M.           : How dare you talk
(threatening)    back to me?
Babu           : Yes, sir. I mean, no
(bewildered)     sir. (!)     

A few more instances of communication. Read on.


I had once submitted an article for consideration for publication in a magazine to be brought out by the Ministry of Education in an African country for which I was working on a contract. The article depicted the feelings of a frustrated teacher and how he viewed his students, his colleagues and his principal.
A top ministry official was very angry and threatened to cancel my contract. His accusations implied that I was referring to the local students and the principal and that my article was an affront to his nation and race.
I was perplexed because I thought that my article would be seen as no more than a literary piece based on imagination. I was na├»ve enough to expect objective assessment of my article because the official was highly educated. Instead, the officer perceived me not as a writer but as a foreigner who in his perception had no right to comment or say the things that I’d said in the article.


A young fresh teacher entered his class for the first time. While lecturing, he observed two women students chatting and smiling while looking at him on and off, and he concluded that they were not only disrespectful but mocking at him and that they were not behaving as women students should. When he warned them and put them in their places, one woman student got up to say that she and her friend had not done anything to deserve the warning; the teacher became enraged at this audacity and punished them in as many ways as he could think of. 

Communication in dialogues 2 and 3 goes on smoothly whereas in 1, 4, 5 and 6 you notice
barriers to communication, don’t you? The two incidents in 7 and 8 are two clear instances where barriers to communication are working effectively!

 Or think of some other ordinary events. Like, for instance, ordering a coffee. I might order a coffee, drink it, pay for it and leave the hotel. Or the server might come late to receive the order or bring the coffee late. Based on my perceptions and attitudes, I might draw inferences that are not there in the server’s behaviour, and what might follow could be unpleasant for the server and me as well. Let’s say somebody knocks on the door, I take a little time to reach the door, in the meantime, the knock gets longer and louder. I might not make much of the longer and the louder knock, open the door, speak to the person. Or influenced by my perceptions of how a person knocking at a door should behave, I might misinterpret the event and there could be trouble! And the guest may have his ideas of me for not answering the door immediately!

2. Barriers to communication

What are these barriers?
These barriers can be classified as ‘intrapersonal’, ‘interpersonal’ and ‘organizational’.
Intrapersonal refers to barriers coming from within an individual. Interpersonal refers to barriers arising from actions or no actions between individuals. Organizational combines intrapersonal and interpersonal barriers in the place of work.

What are barriers after all?

Obstacles or obstructions that prevent genuine communication.

3. kinds
Barriers are of two kinds: 1. internal [occurring within an individual and between individuals]  2. external [environment outside the individuals]

1. Internal Barriers
Communicating or not communicating depends on assumptions and expectations. In the eight samples presented in the previous pages are examples of assumptions and expectations.

In sample 1, Raghu considers Somu his friend [assumption], so greets him and expects response from Somu  but Somu doesn’t respond [probably he assumes, for whatever reason, Raghu is not his friend]. Raghu’s expectation is not fulfilled, he gets upset and says something unpleasant. The barriers are assumptions and nonfulfillment of expectations.

In sample 4, Raghu tries to help Raju but Raju doesn’t accept it. The barriers here are Raghu’s assumption that Raju would want help and Raju is perhaps too proud to accept help from anyone, even from Raghu who may be his friend.

In sample 5, the barrier is the authoritative attitude and the tone of the GM. He could’ve refused permission without being bossy. The sales manager assumes that exhausting casual leave and asking for a day’s permission is no crime. But the GM thinks so because he believes that no subordinate should exhaust casual leave early.

In sample 6, the barriers are [1] the floor supervisor’s assumption that a worker should observe silence, respond only by accepting his boss’s reprimand, and that he is haughty if he tries to respond [2] Babu’s assumption that he is entitled to explaining his position and his explanation is not arguing with his boss on equal terms. 

In sample 7, the barriers are the perceptions and the resultant assumptions and expectations. Because the article portrayed a negative picture, the ministry official saw the article through his perception of who a foreigner should be and interpreted the article as an offrent. Because I expected the ‘educated’ ministry official to look at the article as no more than an imaginary piece. Both of us failed to acknowledge that there could be difference between intended and perceived meanings irrespective of whether or not we were ‘educated’.

In sample 8, the teacher’s perceptions of how a woman student should behave in a classroom and the student’s perception of how a teacher should perceive her behaviour stand as barriers. The teacher felt he was superior and his superiority meant that no student should question his interpretation. The women students should not have thought it their right to chat and smile while looking at the teacher and expect the teacher to accept their behaviour.  

Perception is a view, an image, idea or understanding of people, places, things. It leads to assumptions. These assumptions lead to expectations. Now the questions is: how is perception formed?

                                       perceptions of
         |                                       |                       |                       |
   self image                         image of            health         relationship
         |                                     others                                 between speaker
         |                                        |                                       and listener
             Formed and expressed through
         |               |                |             |              |                    |
  language     body          stereo    culture    silence       physical 
                     language     types                                    characteristics

This box contains all the barriers arising from ‘intrapersonal’ and ‘interpersonal’ behaviour like ‘wrong assumptions’, ‘varied perceptions’, ‘various backgrounds’, ‘wrong inferences’, ‘prejudices’, ‘complexes –superior/inferior’, ‘lack in language use’, ‘mismatch between verbal and nonverbal communication’, ‘emotions, ‘being selective in focusing only on specific portions of message’, ‘cultural variations’ .

Self image
This refers to
  what you are, who you are as you grow out of your experience
    [your abilities, attitudes, values, emotions, feelings, needs, memory, thinking etc.]

In other words, you think of yourself as a superior, modest or inferior person. Non-English medium students, for instance, may behave confidently even if they are unable to use English as a medium.

Image of others
This refers to
the pictures you have of other people as superior, modest or inferior persons.

You may think well or ill of their language abilities, of their body language; you may or may not like their physical appearance [height, weight, colour, hair etc.], dress, perceptions, attitudes.  ‘he doesn’t like me’, ‘she looks pretty’, ‘he looks aggressive’, ‘she is so selfish’, ‘he thinks he’s an expert on women’, ‘she thinks she can teach me a thing or two’, ‘oh god, what colours does she choose’ are how we think about others.

This refers to
physical condition [ill or well], physical ease [comfortable or not], mental disposition [mood, motivation, willingness, confidence, curiosity, concern, fear, doubt and so on].

Relationship between you and others
This refers to
the closeness or distance you’ve developed or you’ll develop with people around you.

All these factors impinge on the communicating act every time, every moment favourably or unfavourably. They may become barriers to or support interaction.

2. External Barriers

They are: 1. location       2. noise         3. audience       4. authority

Location: This refers to the climate and the geography of the place of communication.
                ‘Climate’ refers to atmosphere available for communication. If music is
                blaring on one side, if heavy traffic flows on either side of the building, if a           
                politician’s voice amplified, the climate cannot be thought of as congenial to

Noise     : It is anything that makes it hard for a communication act to complete, anything
                that interrupts and makes sending or receiving messages difficult. It can be external
                like a noisy restaurant, construction noise outside, music blaring and
                deafening, traffic snarls and the resultant noise, children playing nearby. Or it can
                be internal such as poor use of language [vocabulary and structure],
                pronunciation, too low or high a volume, delivery speed, distracting
                mannerisms, body language seen as unpleasant.

Audience : This refers to people in the communication scene. They can influence a
                   communication. Presence or absence of one individual or certain individuals,
                   arrival or departure of a person or a group of persons in a communicating
                   situation may change the complexion of the communication. Say, your were
                   about to confide in your friend (leaning close) and somebody walked in,
                   you’d shut up (drawing away). Or you could be prepared to come out with
                   your story once a person was out of earshot. You may wait to pass on
                   information until someone you wanted to be present arrived. 

Authority : This is part of organizational barriers. Exercise of excessive authority
                   prevents open and frank and encourages pretence and routine. Again, a
                   management may have so many channels that communication can get
                   distorted. Communication in a team can become difficult if it consists of
                   people believing in different value systems. And there may be too many
                   messages to receive and hence there may be difficulty in comprehension.

When two or more than two people converse, more often than not, their efforts can fail for one reason or the other; the culprit could be how the speaker, the listener or both how they see themselves and others and other things in a communicating environment.

The intention of this article is to not frighten readers, not to picture communicating as an extremely arduous activity but to point out aspects that can hamper or hinder an attempt at communicating , and so to bear in mind these and proceed in such a manner as to help the other person feel comfortable and to conduct communicating as smooth as possible.