Communication Barriers

Photo by Herbert Ponting (1870-1935): The Great Wall of China in 1907



There are many different barriers to communication. These range from the largely invisible, such as those dealing with culture and cognition, to observable behaviors which we are able to see and hear quite easily.

In fact, it’s a wonder that we can communicate at all the large number of factors that can interfere with the process of understanding. However, there are number of different things that can prevent this from occurring.

There are a number different barriers which can rear its ugly head, during a normal conversation, each of which is largely ignored.

17 Communication Barriers

Encoding and Decoding Barriers

Image by: Mk2010. Coke-bottle-shaped barcode on a Coke can.


Encoding refers to the hidden process of taking thought and turning it into a language. Decoding occurs on the receiver side when one takes language enters it in the thought.

One-Way Communication

This is a major barrier to communication and a source of misunderstanding. It refers to the behavior of both the sender and the receiver. In one way communication the sender dominates and the receiver acts passively. There’s also very little feedback verbal available to the sender even if the sender was asking for it. This lack of feedback prevents you party from checking to make sure that the message is understood properly. And of course, written communication biased nature is a one-way medium.

Cultural Barriers

Fourteen thousand Chinese performers adorned with 15,153 different types of costumes perform during the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China, August 8, 2008.


Culture also has great impact on nonverbal communication and produces many barriers to understanding. One nonverbal element is people’s understanding of time or chronomics. In one culture business meetings may start and end on time. In other culture, they never start and never end on time. More subtly, some viewed time as a line–it has a beginning and an end. And you hear people speaking of a timeline. Other cultures, pew time as a circle. It has no beginning or end.

Proverbs and Idioms

Proverbs are essentially sayings the existed in a culture for a long period of time that those within the culture understand instantly, and those outside the culture will be totally confused. To the average American, the words ” lure the tiger from the mountain” would have little meaning. To the average Chinese, saying the words ” it was the straw that broke the camels back” would equally not mean too much. These types of common sayings actually may not be deeply understood even when someone is raised within a culture for many years. To cite one example, there is a saying which goes “don’t cry over spilled milk.” It essentially means one should let go of the negative emotion associated with a bad experience.

Wrong Choice of Medium

People often send the message but failed to consider whether that message should best be sent verbally, written, or through some type of electronic media. It’s very common in today’s organizations for people to automatically default to sending an e-mail when in reality, this should pick up the phone or call the meeting.

Bad Timing

Timing is important. The right message at the wrong time means that the message is often left unheard. A simple example in many business situations concerns the coffee ritual. Many have to have one cup and sometimes two before they are ready to tackle the problems of the day. And of course, all of us have missed out by bringing up a problem when our boss is in a lousy mood.

Missing Nonverbals

Image by: VasoniVasoni


It’s easy to miss nonverbal information—few people routinely process it. This is a major mistake.. If you watch face you can pick up signals and information that is not communicated verbally. For example, most people signal both understanding and confusion not with words but with facial expressions. Or one can get an idea from reading face whether person agrees or disagrees with you. And most people, find it difficult to mask facial expressions when they’re lying.

The Limitations of Serial Informational Processing

Image by: Tashaila Nichole Meyers. A water fountain on Gilbert Road, at the North entrance to downtown Gilbert, Arizona


If you can only process one language stream, then he would be processing information serially. If you can process to language streams at the same time, then you would be processing information in a parallel manner. How many language language streams can the mind process at any given moment a time? It turns out that most people can’t process paralleling and the best we can do is process one the time. However, some people can do pretty good job of fast switching. This is when one turns one attention back and forth between two conversations catching the essence of what each person is saying.

Semantic Confusion

Confusion by Adi Ron


Semantic confusion results over the differences in meaning associated with a concept Many communication barriers exist at this very subtle level. When I say word and you hear the word we both understand it, but these understandings are different.

One story that illustrates this is one that comes out of World War II. In the early days of the war, British and American military official wanted to talk over strategy. The Americans wanted to it “table it,”as did the British. An argument broke out between the two groups table it at meant different things. To the Americans, table it meant to postpone discussion While to the British, table it meant talking over right now.

Abstract Versus Concrete Language

This important communication barrier relates to the nature of words themselves. Concrete words that have a high image content. Words such as chair, table, glass, mirror and so on fit this category. Other words are more abstract And because we can’t necessarily form a mental picture with abstract words, it’s easier to misunderstand each other. Commonly misunderstood abstract words include: democracy, freedom, free market, taxes, etc.

Differences in Depth of Understanding

At a subtle level, individuals can also misunderstand each other due to the associations and richness of meaning surrounding a particular concept or schemata. To illustrate one example, a word such as neurotransmitter has a great deal of meaning attached to if you’re neurophysiologist. But to a businessman, while the word is superficially understood, it doesn’t have a lot of meaning attached.

Jargon and Slang

Jargon is professional language. Most occupations and all professions have a unique set of language that people outside those disciplines don’t understand. It was once said, that there are over 80,000 words in English that describe aspects of the human body or disease. These medical terms can be found in Dorland’s Medical Dictionary. In it you would find words such as dopamine, serotonin, nephritis, cirrhosis, microtubules, myocardial infarction and so on. One commonly sees communication barriers originating from the use of jargon in a business setting where three or four people are using words the other barely understands An engineer might not understand marketing. Marketing, doesn’t understand logistics, nobody understands the software, and so on.

Slang is a bit easier to understand since one can overcome this barrier by understanding how a certain word is used in a context. Slang essentially the language of the young, who love new words, especially those that the old cannot understand. A classic example of this is the use of the word “bad.” Until Michael Jackson song in the year XX, it was understood to be “not good.” However his song by the same title essentially change the meaning of the word in common English.

Metaphor, Analogy, Simile, Allegory

Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569): The Tower of Babel


Metaphor is a common method of decreasing confusion and lowering barriers to communication, but it can also introduce inaccuracies. To give you one example, there is an engineering term known as “nominal.” This is a very important term in understanding how high-quality products get made. But if you’re not exactly sure about what it means, we can simplify the understanding by using a metaphor of shooting an arrow into the bull’s-eye or center part of a target.

Sometimes government leaders do this when they want to communicate complex concept in a much more simple way. An example is a concept promoted in the 1980s by the Reagan administration known as the Strategic Defense Initiative. Since this was a rather difficult thing to understand, it was sometimes explained by a simple metaphor that one wanted to have an nuclear umbrella (missile over the house (country) to prevent the nuclear rain (other missiles) from coming down. In other words, one wanted to have the ability to shoot down a missile with another missile. This is sometimes put in an analogy form of your throwing a rock to intercept a rock thrown at you.


Filtering is a subtle mechanism typically running outside of conscious awareness in which we discount or even forget information not consistent with our existing beliefs. This is partly accounted for by the psychological mechanism of cognitive dissonance. This occurs when new information that conflicts with existing beliefs causes a certain amount of anxiety. Rather than dealing with anxiety, is much simpler to just ignore and forget the new information reducing that level of anxiety. In business, this is been offered as a reason for a high level of returns. Let’s say you go out and buy a new suit. But your best friend says that you look ugly when that suit and you got ripped off. In the case, you might take back the student asked for your money back. In the case, you might believe in low taxes. However, city government one may want to increase taxes to pay for new schools. And rather than believe this line of logic, it would be much easier to discount this information and reject the argument out of hand.

The Ego Defense Mechanisms

National Prtg. & Engr. Co. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde poster. Story by Robert Lewis Stevenson. A story about the two sides of the Ego: a good side and a bad side

There are many different types of these defense mechanisms. What they have in common is a protective function that wraps the Ego in a safety blanket. This mental security zone protects the Ego from perceiving threats and information that causes anxiety. It’s one of the underlying mechanisms for filtering.

Awareness and Attention

Believe it or not, attention is a very scarce mental resource. Besides being scare, we might allocate what is available to the wrong things. We may focus on the visual when in reality, we should be paying attention to the audio. Or we may have withdrawn our attention to focus on our own internal thinking, instead of listening to what the other person is saying.

Few people know how to focus their attention to reduce this communication barrier. And so we end up missing a great deal of verbal information. And because attention is a scarce resource, most people pay no attention to the nonverbal information available.

Information Transmission Problems

Image by: Stefan Andrej Shambora. High voltage transmission towers and lines.


Transmission of verbal information is subject to:


Deletion, and


The one that always occurs, is deletion. Let’s say, that your manager was in a meeting lasting for two hours and you ask, “What happened?” They proceed to give you a 30 seconds to 1 minute summary— deleting a huge amount of information.

People don’t always remember the details so they will fill in the details with additional information. Few of us are likely to remember what we did on our eighth birthday, but if asked, we could likely put together pretty good story. Distortion is a bit different. In the meeting, maybe they were talking about apples, but what was transmitted about the meeting was a discussion on oranges. Both are fruit so distorted information still contains some element of truth.


We take the communication of meaning for granted and most of the time it works well enough. However, there are a number of communication barriers, some visible–most invisible, the have major impact on your ability to send and receive messages.

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