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Three Barriers To Effective Workplace Communication And How To Fix Them

There are endless reasons for communication breakdowns in business. Here are some of the more common and sneaky ones and solutions to conquer them.

1. Unconscious Competence

“I know what I’m talking about. Why don’t you understand what I’m talking about?”

Unconscious competence is a silent killer of communication.

It can be very empowering to be reaffirmed that you do a particular behaviour or skill extremely well and are recognised for it. However, the more natural and automatic your competency becomes, the more opportunity there is for others to be left behind. When we get so good at something, we tend to forget that the people around us might not share our same level of expertise or passion. What is “obvious” to us may not be to others.


Don’t be so good at something that you inadvertently alienate yourself or cause a breakdown in communication.

The Fix

Focus on strengthening your emotional intelligence. Developing your emotional intelligence can provide you with the self-and other-awareness tools you’ll need to skilfully interpret how your message is being received and how to shift direction when necessary. For example, what are you seeing first – nodding heads or furrowed brows? How can you adjust your message to foster greater understanding?

One of my strengths is having a telescopic perspective, or the ability to see the big picture. That strength serves me very well when I use it in the right context, such as long-term vision and strategic planning. However, it can also not serve me well when I am working alongside people who prefer to look through a microscopic lens and value processes, steps, and certainty. In these instances, I have to slow down and design my communication to take others on the journey of strategy and vision with me while occasionally stopping to make sure they have what they need along the way.

2. Noise

Many different types of noise can interfere with successful communication, especially with our ability to listen. Here are four of the most common:

  1. Physical noise. This is the most common and widely understood type of noise. Physical noise is something that occurs externally, which can cause distraction – a barking dog, a crowded room, loud music, passing cars, etc.

  2. Physiological noise. This type of noise is when there is something happening within your physical body that is not obvious to others and can impede your ability to listen – feeling hot or cold, headache, hunger, fatigue, etc.

  3. Psychological noise. Psychological noise is present when we are mentally distracted, such as thinking about past or future events. Psychological noise can also be linked to our own biases and perceptions, which are largely unconscious. For example, feeling like “we’ve heard this before” can cause some people to switch off mentally. Psychological noise can also be caused by how we feel about the speaker. Conscious or not, our perceptions about a person’s physical appearance or behaviour style can dictate how much mental attention we choose to give to that person.

  4. Semantic noise. Semantics in communication create obstacles that alter the message and make it difficult to understand. This can include ambiguity, slang, euphemisms, or colloquialisms. If the recipient doesn’t understand or misinterprets a message, communication will not be effective.

The Fix

Be proactive about reducing potential noise. If background noise is a problem, try moving to a quieter area. How are you feeling? Are you in the right frame of mind for this communication to occur? Are you fully present, or are your thoughts preoccupied elsewhere? Start with the recipient in mind. Do you have any metaphors, sayings, or language that might cause a lack of understanding?

3. Psychological Safety

Perhaps one of the hottest topics in business today, for very good reasons, is the notion of psychological safety. Psychological safety happens when a positive workplace culture is created. The organisation gives its people permission to speak up, contribute, feel included, and challenge the status quo without fear of backlash.

When psychological safety is NOT present, people can feel stressed and uncertain, and those feelings can lead people to make assumptions, focus on problems, and behave reactively. In this environment, effective communication is nearly impossible. At the most, you might get independent monologues occurring in the same space and time, disguised as communication.


When we do see a high level of psychological safety embedded into a culture, people feel valued, cared for, and empowered. This can lead to engagement, innovation, and a focus on solutions. In this reward state, employees tend to be more open-minded, connected, and trusting.

The Fix

Do a bit of research on your organisation’s current culture and perceived level of psychological safety. Then, set the stage. Create a shared understanding of the business’s vision and direction and why everyone’s input is meaningful. When people feel heard and valued, they take more ownership over their role and are more likely to engage and support the business.

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