Barriers to Effective Communication

The basic rule in all verbal communication, whether you are speaking or listening, is to take responsibility for the outcome by making sure the other/s have grasped your exact meaning and that you fully understand what is said to you. But there are many barriers to accurate and effective communication. Only when these barriers are removed or surmounted does the best communication take place.

Physical barriers

Physical barriers can be as obvious as distance, noise interference (e.g. a car going by, loud music, crackles on the telephone line etc.), or any other external distraction. Lack of privacy can also inhibit communication.

Sometimes physical barriers are deliberately erected. A bank manager who positions himself in a high, leather bound chair behind a huge desk in order to intimidate a customer is doing just that.

A uniform or other role symbol (a ceremonial chain, for instance) can also create barriers. For example, a vicar recently told me he never takes his dog collar when he goes on holiday, because people behave differently when he is wearing it.

Perceptual barriers

Psychological barriers are more complicated and usually more subtle. Our interpretations are coloured by our perceptions, attitudes and beliefs. We have a tendency to hear only what we want or expect to hear, and to screen out anything which we consider unacceptable. The brain automatically ‘tunes out’ most incoming data – including some that would be useful to receive.

The meaning of words

Words are merely symbols of ideas. Words may conjure up a totally different mental image in the listener to that intended by the speaker. For example, in Britain, we drive on the ‘road’ and walk on the ‘pavement’. In the USA, they drive on the ‘pavement’ and walk on the ‘sidewalk’. Imagine the confusion that could ensue!

There are over half a million words in the English language, and five hundred of the most frequently used have over twenty meanings each. But the average person uses only two thousand, speaks in short, simple sentences and has difficulties following more than nine or ten words.

Bad Attitude

A good attitude is essential.. If both parties are interested, willing to listen and respectful, the interaction flows smoothly. But if either believes that the other person isn’t worth listening to, communication breaks down.

Allowing yourself to be distracted by the speaker’s personal mannerisms is another barrier.  (i.e. voice, gestures, body language etc.), or if you are speaking, by the listener’s personal mannerisms, is one of the main barriers to good communication.


Making judgements is a major dragon to be slayed to become a better communicator and a more caring person. We all have a tendency to pre-judge, e.g. ‘This person is well dressed – she must be talking sense,’ or ‘He looks shifty; I can trust him.’

Pre-judging can be a major problem if the parties are from different cultural, religious and/or racial groups, or have widely differing political opinions.

Everyone you meet has something to teach you, but you won’t find out what it is unless you’re prepared to listen.

Mental Activity

The average person speaks at around 100-150 words per minute but can think at 400-600 words per minute. This means that the brain has quite a bit of ‘spare time’ when listening. Poor listeners listen for a few seconds to establish what is being said and then allow their attention to wander while they rehearse their reply. When they return to the conversation, they may have missed a vital chunk of information.

If your mind wanders off, bring it back and make sure you have fully understood the point.

Emotional Barriers

Unless we are self-aware, we tend to project our attitudes, beliefs and feelings onto other people, assuming they think, feel and respond as we do.

If you find yourself getting emotional about the subject matter, the environment, or something the speaker has said, take a few deep breaths and calm and centre yourself.


Recognizing the barriers to communication is every situation is a big step forward in improving our communication skills at all levels!

©David Lawrence Preston, 28.3.2016

Facebook and Twitter

Follow me on Facebook and Twitter @David_L_Preston

Life Coach book cover

How To Books, 2004


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *