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Barriers To Communication

By Kevin Flach

This article was originally written for and posted in the "Off-Topic Forum" at www.renderosity.com, an online art community with well over 100,000 members.


Talk Is Cheap. Communication is Priceless!
There used to be a popular saying that went something like, "I know that you think you understood what I said, but I'm not sure if what you heard is what I meant." Although it was put on buttons, bumper stickers, and t-shirts as a joke, the fact remains that it is an accurate description of the aftermath of many conversations. We talk (or write) and assume that the other person got the message. Furthermore, if we find out they didn't really get it we tend to wonder how >they< could be so stupid.

Although we all do it, thinking that the person you're talking to is stupid sucks. Effective communication is a two-way street so I'm gonna my part to keep the communication traffic here in the forums running smoothly and efficiently. Hmmm, if we had an accident would the spit hit the van?

Attempted communication usually involves at least two entities and some form of message. Effective communication, on the other hand, generally requires more than that. Oh sure, you still have at least two entities and some form of message, but when communication is effective, the person receiving the message actually understands what the person sending the message really meant to say. Sounds pretty simple doesn't it? Unfortunately it's not always as simple as it seems. The person sending the message (the "sender") generally has some thought or concept that they want the person receiving the message (the "receiver") to understand and respond to. However, there are a number of barriers that can stand in the way of successful communication. These barriers can be obvious or hidden and can exist within the sender, the receiver, the message itself, and the environment within which the message is transmitted.

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Barrier One
Have you ever noticed that sometimes it's hard, even within your own head, to find the right word to describe what you want to communicate? That's right, the first barrier is simply coming up with the correct words to describe the concept. It seems the more abstract the concept, the harder it is to put into words. What do I mean, you ask? OK, as an example, what is love? Is it a feeling, a commitment, sexual attraction, or does it mean you want someone's beer? When you say you love football, love prime ribs, love your mom, love Metallica, and love "that special someone," do you mean you have the same feeling toward each? The first barrier to effective communication is often just finding the right words to say what you really want to say.

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Barrier Two
Each of us has beliefs, values, knowledge, personality traits, experiences, and family or cultural conditioning that affect the way we perceive, evaluate, process and describe concepts (whew, that was a mouthful). For example, you and your grandparents probably view rock music differently. You may perceive it as music, they may not. You may evaluate it as being something you like, they may not. You may tap your toes or shake your anatomy when you hear it, they probably cover their ears. You may describe it as "cool," they may describe it as awful. Therefore if you tell them you bought some cool music, they might interpret it to mean some store is selling Frank Sinatra albums that have been refrigerated. OK, that was pretty obvious. How many times have you and someone you know defined the word "later" differently? They say they'll call you later, you expect to hear from them in about 15 minutes, but they actually call the following week. Clearly, the word later - even in the same language, culture, and social group - can have different meanings to different people. Words represent concepts, and because each of us is different we often have slightly different interpretations of what the words mean or represent. The second barrier to communication is the unique characteristics within both the message sender and receiver that often result in different interpretations of the same words, events, or concepts.

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Barrier Three
Sometimes the actual message is a barrier. Over 80% of our communication is non-verbal. That's right, 80%. The way we say something, our body language and the tone of voice we use, communicates more than the words themselves. Remember when you were a kid and some other kid did something mean to you and their parents made them say "I'm sorry?" Did they mean it? Of course not! How do you know? That's right - their non-verbal communication. Do I need to mention the words themselves? Slang, accents, jargon, foreign languages; that's right, they can all be confusing. As I write this, I have no non-verbal cues from you as to whether or not you understand what I'm saying. You don't necessarily have cues from my vocal inflections to know whether I'm being serious, humorous, or sarcastic (that's why we use symbols like ;-) in our net communication). Once again, the third barrier to effective communication can be the message itself. Both non-verbal and verbal cues, or the lack thereof, may exacerbate the mutual transference of symbolic conceptualization, albeit surreptitiously.

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Barrier Four
Mom: "Can you please turn the stereo down?" Mom: (raising voice) "Turn the stereo down please!" Mom: (yelling) "Turn that darn stereo down!!" Dad: (jerking the kid around to face the mother and screaming) "@$#%$#!!! TURN THE #%$!! STEREO OFF AND %@#$ LISTEN TO YOUR MOTHER #%$@%$#!!" Kid: (protesting innocently) "It's not my fault. I couldn't hear her; I had the headphones on." The fourth barrier to effective communication is the noise and other distractions in the environment of the message sender and receiver. Duh!

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Barrier Five
Sex. Religion. Politics. My sex. My religion. My politics. Your sex. Your religion. Your politics. Our sex. Our religion. Our politics. Their sex. Their religion. Their politics.

There are certain subjects that, for whatever reason, seem to bring out strong emotions. Sometimes they're obvious but sometimes they aren't. Even the most mundane subjects can occasionally become associated with strong emotions depending on one's life experiences. For example, if you'd lost a loved one to an accident on February 14th (and unfortunately it does happen), you might become very emotionally defensive if someone told you that everyone (!) should celebrate Valentines Day. We can't always tell what someone else's "hot spot" might be. We've all seen examples of what can occur when hot spots are brought up. The emotional reaction can overwhelm the ability of the message receiver. For that matter, a high emotional state can also overwhelm a message sender's ability to present their message clearly.

Emotional (Sex) hot (Religion) spots (Politics) can (Sex) be (Religion) a (Politics) severe (Sex) barrier (Religion) to (Politics) effective (Sex) communication (Religion) between (Politics) people!

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The Point (Finally)
Effective communication is often a lot of work. Most people out there simply assume you'll understand them. They may not know any better or may not care enough to make sure that their message *really* gets through. The best way to overcome these barriers is through feedback - simply restating their words in a different way and confirming that that's what they meant. When they confirm that your understanding is correct, respond!

"If I understand you correctly, you've finished reading this post and now you're ready to move on to the next thread, right? OK, thanks for your time!"

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