Barriers to Effective Communication

Three typical barriers to effective communication include the following.

Defensiveness or premature assumptions

Problem: A defensive listener will be less able to "hear" what the speaker is saying. In some cases, instead of listening, a person is thinking about why an interaction is occurring or perhaps preparing a response to a message that he or she hasn't heard. By making assumptions about the speaker and the reasons that a conversation is taking place, the listener keeps him/herself from paying attention to the real message. 

Solution: The listener should not presuppose that he or she knows the reason for or the basis of the communication, nor should the listener feel defensive without knowing what is being said. Being open and nonjudgmental will allow the listener to truly hear what is being said. 

Judgments based on cultural differences or interpersonal relationships

Problem: This problem goes hand in hand with that of making assumptions. In this case, the problem involves presupposing things about another person based on cultural differences and personal associations. This can result in not hearing a message or misinterpreting the message. 

Solution: It's important for the speaker and listener to be open with each other to dispel assumptions and biases. For this to happen, it may be useful to address biases straight on in an open dialogue. By revealing and discussing biases and assumptions, it is possible to minimize their negative impact and thereby communicate more fully and effectively. 

Mixed messages

Problem: A conversation that conveys contradictory messages or conflates the intended message with extraneous issues can cause confusion, concern, or resentment.

Solution: Before speaking, people should think carefully about the points to be made. Written talking points can be useful in this regard. If there are multiple messages to convey (perhaps some positive and some negative messages), it may be better to present them on separate occasions or in different environments. Conveying only one message at a time can help avoid confusion and misunderstanding.  [ds1]If at all possible, this kind of formatting works best in definition list style. We may want to talk about it.  [KWM2]Sure.  I'd like to see what it is.  I think this is hard to read as it is…

This section adapted with permission from the Institute for Clinical Research Education Mentoring Resources, University of Pittsburgh. Learn more about PITT ICRE Mentoring.