Communication barriers that creates misunderstanding

The difference between an almost-right word and the right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” Mark Twain.

The digital revolution has profoundly changed the way we live and work. The way we conduct business, and particularly the way we communicate, has changed dramatically. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, we are sending a large number of messages often delivered over social media platforms. Despite the acceptance of these interactive media, the nature of communication remains the same. Regardless of how messages are created or sent, the basic communication process -sender-message encode-channel-receiver-feedback – remains unchanged.

However, the communication process can only be described as successful when the recipient of the message understands the message as intended by the sender. Though it sounds quite simple, yet it is not. In the workplace, this is especially critical as any miscommunication or misinterpretation of a message can have dire consequences.  How many times have we thought that we delivered  a clear message, only to learn later that our intentions were misunderstood. A lot of messages that we send reach their destinations, but many are not fully understood or misinterpreted.  As workers, we can improve our chances  of communicating successfully by learning to recognise barriers that disrupt the communication process.

A crucial barrier to successful communication is the use of words.  Each of us tend to attach some meanings words we use, and these meanings are usually not the same. The process where we attach different meanings to words is known as bypassing.  Bypassing  occurs when people assume that meanings are contained in words. This is not accurate because words have no meaning, meanings are in the people.  Many times, we believe that once we have spoken, whether it’s an instruction, a request, a suggestion, the meaning should be clear to the receiver. For communication to be successful, the receiver and sender must attach the same symbolic meanings to their words.  Common but vague words like right away, often, soon, usually, always, never, probably,  have been noted to cause miscommunication. What do we actually mean when we use such words and how does the receiver interpret it?

Another barrier to successful communication  is what we call frame of reference. A frame of reference is a set of beliefs or ideas  that influences the way act or make judgement. Everything that we see and feel in the world is translated through our individual frame of reference, which is shaped by a combination of things including our education, experiences, culture, personality, expectations etc. In communication, we mostly bring our biases and expectations. This means that two parties are not likely to see things the same way. Communication can only be successful when we strive to prevent miscommunication by being alert to both our own frames of reference and those of others.

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Lack of language skills is another barrier to clear communication. No matter how good your idea is,  it will not be fully appreciated or understood  if you cannot express it well. Everyone needs an adequate set of vocabulary  and skills in oral and written expression. Using unfamiliar words, jargon, and unrecognisable abbreviations can seriously impede the transmission of meaning.  Consider the following paragraph culled from a feature:

The role of the press as Fourth Estate and as a setting for public discussion and debate cannot be overemphasized. Today, despite the mass media’s propensity for skulduggery, luridness and superficiality ,……. Unfortunately, the media have sometimes wafted the combustions of

discord  by taking sides….

Having a good language skill is not about putting words together because they sound nice and makes you look like you know your grammar. Your audience are your primary target and if they do not understand the message, you have not achieved your goal. Bottomline, keep it simple.

In the digital environment we are always  distracted by many things including emotional interference, physical distractions, and digital interruptions.  Developing a smart message is difficult when we are feeling fear, joy, hostility, resentment, sadness, or some other strong emotions. In order to reduce  the impact of emotions on communication,  both parties in the communication process  must focus on the content of the message and attempt to remain objective. Physical distractions such as noisy surroundings, poor mobile connection or faulty acoustics, tiredness or discomfort can disrupt oral communication. Similarly, the technological era does not seem to be helping matters. In the current digital environment, knowledge workers are increasingly distracted by multitasking, information overload, conflicting demands, and being constantly available digitally. Multitasking is seen by some as being good and very important. However, according to one neuroscientist, Daniel Levitin “What
we’re actually doing is rapidly shifting
our attention from one thing to another.” Such fast switching not only fatigues the brain, but just having the opportunity to multitask can lower your effective IQ by 10 points”. The problem with multitasking is that the individual  is unlikely to remember information or pay attention the way a single tasker will do. Multitasking and distractions are common communication obstacles in today’s workplace. Successful communication involves focusing on what is important and shutting out interruptions.

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So how do we overcome these communication barriers in the fast-paced digital workplace? As knowledge workers operating in a digital environment, there are a number of ways we can resolve communication barriers.  The first thing is to recognise that the communication process is sensitive and susceptible to breakdown.  A good communicator should anticipate problems in encoding, transmitting, and decoding a message. Successful communication also focuses on the environment and frame of reference of the receiver. You should ask yourself, how is the person likely to react to this message? Does the person know as much as I do on the subject?

Miscommunication will be minimised if ideas are arranged in a logical manner and words are used precisely. However, communication is more than expressing oneself well. A significant aspect of effective communication is listening. Management expert Peter Drucker noted that “too many executives think they are wonderful with people because they talk well. They don’t realize that being wonderful with people means listening well.”

Successful communication also means creating an environment that encourages feedback.  In verbal communication it means  asking questions like, do you understand?, do you have any questions?, as well as  encouraging listeners to repeat the instructions or paraphrase ideas. For the listener, it is important to let the speaker know that you are listening. This can be done by nodding your head and maintaining eye contact. Ask relevant questions at appropriate times. Getting involved improves the communication process between the sender and the receiver.

As workers in the digital age, understanding communication barriers and dealing with them will shape the way we communicate. Afterall, communication is the lifeblood of any successful organisation.

>>>The writer is a Communication specialist and lecturer


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