Six Barriers to Communication

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Communication is one of the most important parts of all human life. People communicate to maintain relationships, complete tasks, exchange information and manage numerous tasks.

That being said, communication is not always easy and can cause undue stress and conflict when problems prevent communication from reaching full potential. A number of barriers exist that cause meaning to be confused, prevent individuals from communicating with each other and generally damage the value of communication.


Perception plays a powerful role in the way that people communicate with each other and can greatly influence the quality of the communication taking place. During perception, a person becomes aware of the people, locations, objects and events present, assigning meaning to those things. Meaning is designated based on past experience, first impressions and evolving understandings. This means that through perception people can potentially assign labels and stereotypes to each other, preventing them from communicating with each other in a healthy manner.

Poor Listening

Whereas "hearing" is a purely physical process, and thus requires little effort, the mental process of "listening" requires a significant amount of attention and effort in order to be effective. Poor listening can lead to messages being distorted or lost, and lead to poor overall communication. People use the communication skill of listening all of the time, yet very little attention is given to how to listen effectively.

Misunderstood Symbols

According to "Communication Counts: Getting it Right in College and Life," human communication can be defined as "negotiating symbolic meaning." This means that through verbal communication (language) and nonverbal communication (action and behaviour), people use symbols with created meanings. This creates a barrier when the meanings assigned to a symbol don't match up between people communicating.

Cultural Differences

Cultural differences can confuse meaning and ultimately create a communication barrier. Individualist cultures, such as the United States and Great Britain, focus on individual success and "speaking one's mind."

In contrast, collectivist cultures, such as Asian societies, focus on group success and the use of indirect language organised around respect and authority. Differences between these cultural styles of communication can lead to misunderstandings and an unwillingness to communicate in worse-case scenarios.

Conflict Management Styles

The way that people manage conflict can directly effect the quality of communication. Individuals with competition-based conflict styles will approach disagreements as a challenge that must be won, disregarding any communication organised to resolve the conflict amicably.

In contrast, individuals whose conflict management style leads them to avoiding conflict altogether are just as unlikely to foster quality communication, as they will withdraw from conflict discussions. Adopting a conflict management style focused on collaboration is more likely to reduce barriers and contribute to healthy conflict management.

Technological Barriers

When technology is used mediate communication, the potential for misunderstanding is increased and can potentially lead to significant barriers. Technology-based communication, such as phone conversations, text messages and e-mails remove aspects of the face-to-face interaction found in natural human communication. Without aspects such as nonverbal cues, eye contact and vocal communication, people are more likely to misunderstand messages, causing communication to suffer and potentially leading to conflicts. For example, a text message sent in all capital letters can be interpreted as angry, when the reality may be much different.