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10 Common Barriers to Effective Communication (+How to Handle Them)

10 Common Barriers to Effective Communication (+How to Handle Them)

Effective communication is key to the success of every individual, team, and organization. However, there are many barriers to effective communication in the workplace that one must contend with, including poor listening, distractions, cultural differences, mismatched communication styles, and more.

Each of these challenges presents unique obstacles, making it crucial for individuals and organizations to recognize and address them. Fortunately, if you’re reading this blog, you’ve already taken the first step in doing exactly that. Now, let’s review 10 of the most common barriers to effective communication.

  1. Poor listening
  2. Unnecessary use of jargon
  3. Distractions
  4. Mismatched communication styles
  5. Bad timing
  6. Unresolved conflict
  7. Too much or too little information
  8. Poor manners
  9. Cultural differences
  10. Language barriers


Is the way you communicate helping or hindering your effectiveness as a leader?  Find out in this guide.


1. Poor Listening

Poor listening is arguably one of the most common barriers to effective communication in the workplace. When we fail to fully listen, we risk missing important details, failing to understand the speaker's perspective, and misinterpreting the message. If these are things you have experienced the consequences of, then it’s all that much more vital for you to learn about the different types of listening and practice each until they become second nature.


2. Unnecessary Use of Jargon

Jargon is not inherently bad; in some situations, it can make for faster, more efficient communication. All too often, though, there is no confirmation that the language used by a particular team or organization is understood by all. As a result, people are left unnecessarily confused, lost, and frustrated, which is exactly the opposite of effective communication. It’s as Bart Engal, author of Leading Through Language, put it: “Jargon that creates a shared identity for some can exclude others simultaneously.” So, the next time you go to use a shorthand or acronym, ask yourself first if the audience you’re communicating with has the same understanding of its meaning as you do.


3. Distractions

Whether it's the noise of office chatter, constant email notifications, or interruptions from colleagues, distractions pose a substantial barrier to effective communication in the workplace. Not only do they take attention away from the message at hand, but they disrupt the flow of a conversation, making it challenging to maintain a fruitful two-way exchange of ideas. It is one barrier we all encounter daily, and we must make a conscious effort to fight not only for the good of ourselves, but our colleagues, teams, and clients.


4. Mismatched Communication Styles

When people with differing communication styles interact, there’s a greater chance of miscommunications happening, which in turn can compromise your ability to effectively communicate, collaborate, and maintain healthy working relationships. However, differing communication styles are something you have to navigate every single day. So, start learning about the major communication styles, find out what your and your colleague's styles are, talk about them, and practice adapting your style to suit your audience in low-risk situations.


5. Bad Timing

Timing is everything when it comes to communication in the workplace. You could have the most eloquent, well-crafted speech in the world, only for it to fall flat or blow back on you all because you failed to consider the timing of your message. This is a significant barrier to effective communication, and yet, the answer to overcoming it is simple - stop and think before you speak. Always ask yourself, is now really the right time? Remember, just because you might want it to be the right time that doesn’t always mean it actually is for your audience.


6. Unresolved Conflict

It’s not a matter of if conflict in the workplace is going to happen, but when. Unfortunately, when it does occur, not everyone has the skills, tools, or confidence needed to adequately resolve it. This can become problematic as unresolved conflicts leave space for tension and grudges to fester, which then makes it even more difficult to effectively communicate than it already is.

One way to handle this barrier is to identify your conflict style. In fact, you and the people you work closest at work with should all take this Conflict Styles Quiz and then share your answers. This will help you understand the people you work with better so that the next time you experience a conflict with them, you can address it and communicate with them about it in a way that appeals to their style.


7. Too Much or Too Little Information

Effective communication hinges on your ability to manage and filter information appropriately. After all, it’s a fine line between overloading your audience with excessive amounts of information and not providing them with the crucial information they need to even know where to begin. If this line is something you struggle to walk when communicating at work, make an intentional effort to check in with your audience and let them tell you when they do or do not have enough information from you. Ask questions like, “Is there anything you’d like me to clarify? Do you feel like you have all the information you need to get started? Would you find it helpful if I provided more details on X?”


8. Poor Manners

When you interrupt others, speak in a condescending tone, or ignore someone, you are displaying poor manners. Even if you don’t intentionally or consciously mean to exhibit such rude behaviors, they can still trigger emotional responses, such as anger or embarrassment, that make people feel unwilling to engage in a meaningful dialogue with you. Clearly, this creates a barrier to effective communication.

If people seem to become triggered or defensive when you communicate with them, it’s time to take a close look at your own behaviors. What could you be doing or saying (verbally or non-verbally) that could be causing such a response? Even better, ask them for constructive feedback. It might not be easy to hear, but it will give you a concrete idea of how to improve.


9. Cultural Differences

Cultural norms, values, and expectations influence how we communicate in the workplace every day. However, they may not pose a barrier until you work with someone whose cultural norms, values, and expectations differ from your own. Here’s an example of what that might look like from a popular HBR article on the topic: “French executives expecting straight talk from U.S. colleagues are routinely tripped up by Americans’ reluctance to give harsh feedback, while Americans are often blindsided by their outwardly polite and socially aware French bosses’ savage critiques.”


10. Language Barriers

The last but perhaps most obvious barrier to effective communication is language. When people speak different languages or have varying levels of proficiency in a common language, it can be immensely challenging to have productive conversations as so much time is spent going back and forth clarifying language. Not only that, but language barriers can also cause people to feel excluded and frustrated, which can inhibit collaboration in a big way.

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