Common Communication Barriers And How To Break Them

Communication is a two-way issue. Effective communication requires participation on both sides. We often see how easy it is for issues to keep others from communicating with us, but we struggle with knowing when the communication issues are on our end.

Fortunately, a lot of what trips everyone up happens on the receiving and the transmitting. These are traps that anyone can fall into, so be mindful.


Let’s start with the top issue. Almost everyone has dealt with this one.

It is not uncommon for the speaker to assume the listener knows more than the listener really does. Rather than ensure that everyone is on the same page, the speaker will intend to convey the highlights of an idea with the hopes that the listener has enough information to fill in the blanks.

Let’s go with an example. Wife grew up an only child. Husband grew up in a litter of six.

Wife: I have to work late. Could you please do the dishes?
Husband: Sure.
Husband does the dishes. Husband does ONLY the dishes.

The couple gets into a fight because she was expecting the counter tops to be cleaned along with the dishes. She never stated this, just assumed it to be a part of “dishes.” Why? Because it was that way when she was growing up.

As an only child, she had to do ALL of the post-dinner chores every night because there was nobody to share them. Cleaning up after dinner meant doing dishes, counter-tops, sweeping the floor, taking out the trash, etc.

The husband grew up only ever having to do one thing because siblings got the rest. In his micromanaged world, you did the dishes OR the counters, OR the floors, OR the trash…no one child did ALL of it.

Be sure to use all of the words necessary to convey every intent in your head to the other person.

Optimism and Pessimism

Our perspective, negative or positive (fine, or “realistic”), filters everything that we take in through our senses. We categorize them as “good” or “bad” ideas in our world, then communicate them accordingly.

We’re probably about as accurate as this old thing. | Photo by kaori kubota on Unsplash

The optimist might read “Job creation stays at 3%” and say aloud “Job creation is still in the positive — holding at 3%.”, but their pessimist friend will hear “Job creation remains stagnant.” From this perspective, they tell people “There was no new job growth.”

What the optimist reported to the pessimist was technically accurate. What the pessimist heard and understood was technically accurate. But, they each took a small step away from the source so that the pessimist’s final statement is technically untrue.

Nobody deliberately lied, but someone may confront the pessimist and point out the inaccuracy. At this point, the pessimist will be confused because they were told about the lack of growth. They will be told that it was a lack of “increase” in growth, not lack of growth. The pessimist may feel foolish and blame the optimist.

We need to be extra careful when transmitting snippets of information. When opinions are similar enough to facts to be confused, it’s easy for that to happen.

The Desire Filter

This skirts delusion. Sometimes, we will so strongly desire an outcome that our ears seem to alter the words that someone speaks so that they match what we want to hear.

In these situations, someone has already made up their mind about a situation. Words people use to describe the situation are just accent pieces…decorations.

My husband is often guilty of this. I was venting about a day job I had. (Fine, it was a full-on bitchfest.) I was pacing, ranting, and using my full sailor’s vocabulary.

Deaf people could tell I was not handing out compliments. | Photo by Nsey Benajah on Unsplash

Every few sentences, my husband would echo back what I was saying, to demonstrate he was listening. However, his echo would make it clear that what he heard was nearly the opposite of what I said. Examples…

Me: And they still use paper records for everything, putting priority on printing over keeping electronic records…
Husband: So, they have a solid copy of everything they need.
Me: No. If they were great with record management, maybe. Instead, they lose stuff constantly and have no means of conducting a quick search for anything — it all has to be done manually.
Husband: Which reduces the likelihood of error!
Me: No. Actually, it increases the likelihood of human error AND makes it harder to fix said errors.

Venting to an optimist can be more annoying than whatever the original stressors are. I broke when I got to this part:

Me: And he only has a success rate of 60%…
Husband: Which is great, right?!

Bless his heart. He meant well. His desire was that he didn’t want me to be working in that environment. Life was easier for him if I worked in a place where competence was rewarded. His refusal to accept how things were really happening made it impossible for him to hear my complaints as bad things. His brain desired for me to be saying good things.

Doomsday pessimists function similarly, just with the negative lens. In 2009, I was quite elated to make Chair of the Board of Community Services for the Middle Tennessee Paralegal Association. I called home to brag. My family was not impressed. They value blue collar work. I was a snob for working in law.

I was asked what this chair position paid. I explained that it was an association position — it didn’t pay. I went on to detail that this is something that only gets offered to a handful of people in an industry. It shows that colleagues value your contributions to the field so much that they want you to be a leader.

My dad: I bet somebody’s getting paid.

*Sigh* Don’t vent to optimists; don’t celebrate with pessimists.

There isn’t much that you can do about someone else’s Desire Filter. The most we can do is make sure that we keep our own in check.

Work Around What You Can

Ultimately, the best communicators anticipate the variety of roadblocks and try to use the proper words that eliminate the issues. They don’t assume the listener knows anything, they leave optimism and pessimism aside for the neutral facts, and prepare to have to come at an idea from multiple angles.

But, not every listener is ready for every message. That Desire Filter is tough to get around. Ask anyone who has ever staged an intervention.

Many thanks, and Best Blessings,

Neth W.

If you find value in what I share, please consider buying me a ko-fi to help supplement my writing habit.

Related Journaling Prompts: Do I filter what I hear? Do I use the right words to say what I mean? Do my filters impact how I communicate to others?

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