Communication Barriers and How to Overcome Them

January 2022 This is my first article in a series I’m calling Be a Better Leader. Each month in 2022, I will share with you some useful tips and tricks on leadership that I’ve learned through the years.

There is no shortage of resources on leadership in the world. Books, magazines, Ted Talks, blogs, vlogs, websites, flyers, Prezis, Power Points and the list goes on. So, what makes this article any different than all those others?


Other than occasional witty banter, nothing you are about to read is something that hasn’t been said a thousand times before in a thousand other places. But do you know what will make this particular article different? You. You’re here reading it because you want to learn something. What makes this article different is what you will do with this information after you read it. No difference will be made by these words. The difference will be made by your implementation of these practices to make you a better communicator and leader.

The Blueprint of Communication

Aristotle is remembered by history as a pretty smart guy, and he summed up the blueprint of communication over two-thousand years ago. His summation applies almost the same today as it did in his time. Are you ready? This is a hard concept. You’re going to want to write this down. According to Aristotle, communication has three components: the sender, the receiver, and the message. Now that’s an earth-shattering revelation, right?

Aristotle and his blueprint of communication
Aristotle and his blueprint of communication: Sender, Receiver, and Message.

There is no fluff in his analysis, but here’s where the modern era pokes holes in his simplicity. He’s right about the physical parts of a message—if I write instructions on a card and hand it to you, we’ve technically met Aristotle’s definition. The card says, “Go do X-Y-Z.” I’m the sender, you’re the receiver, and the card is the message. Now, is that all you need to go do X, Y and Z? Maybe, but maybe not. We don’t live in Aristotle’s world anymore, and what may have worked back then has become an extremely nuanced skill that few possess in the modern era. One key unlocks this skill. To be a good communicator, you have to learn to listen.

Good communication begins with intentional active listening by both the receiver and the sender. When your staff is speaking to you, don’t get in their way. Don’t let your thoughts, opinions or agendas interrupt active listening. Hear them. Whether working with one person or a thousand, a good communicator will listen to their receivers by paying attention to both the spoken and unspoken signals that indicate whether the message is getting through. Communication then becomes a two-way process, not just instructions on a card. Both the sender and the receiver have responsibilities to make the message happen, and never overlook constructive feedback from the receiver to help guide you as the sender.

Aristotle leaves out the details, particularly three critical caveats that are needed for good communication. Those are intent of the sender, clarity of the message, and perception of the receiver. If you want people to trust you and value your presence, you’d better trust them and value their presence. When a sender is not actively listening to their receiver, that’s when communication barriers pop up.

Common Barriers of Communication

I am inundated with weekly calls from someone out there who is worried to death about my car’s extended warranty. You probably receive these calls, too. Do you hang up instantly once you hear that pre-recorded voice, or are you an empath that politely waits to tell the person that finally picks up no thank you? If you wait for the spiel to finish and let them down easy, you’re a better person than me because I either prank them or hang up pretty quickly.

"We've been trying to reach you concerning your car's extended warranty..."
“We’ve been trying to reach you concerning your car’s extended warranty…”

Why do we hang up?

It’s because the caller on the other end has not and does not make any attempt to break through the barriers to effective communication and deliver their message. Here are some of those barriers they commonly ignore, and tips on how to work around them.

Lack of Common Ground

The person calling knows nothing about me except that I probably have a credit card and I obviously have a phone since I answered it.

How to overcome it: The more you know about a person, the greater is the common experience that you share, and the easier communication becomes. Before you can lead others towards a goal, you must first seek to understand how they see themselves in the world you are trying to create. Getting to know your staff and letting them get to know you allows for an opportunity to meet on a common ground. Make efforts to learn the entire employee professionally, not just the part that gets the work done. When staff feels cared for, camaraderie, teamwork, and commitment are the result. Your communications will be much stronger when bound by mutual respect rather than authoritative fear. Leaders must be careful here to understand where the boundary lies between getting to know your employees and becoming buddies with them. Beware of the pitfalls!

Pro Tip

Pro tip: People tend to express who they are as well as their likes by what they display in their work areas. Pay attention to what they display and recognize common inroads.

Lack of Sincerity

The caller is only interested in making a sale. They are not concerned with any long-term satisfaction with a product or service, or that I even need their service.

Fitting a puzzle piece that says "trust" into a wooden puzzle.
Without trust, there can be no sincerity.

How to overcome it: It is difficult to lead without earning trust, and without trust, nothing you ever say will be sincere. A lot of ingredients go into building trust, but it starts with being present. Being present isn’t a skill. It’s a commitment and it takes sincerity. Make other people a priority, set aside distractions, listen to understand their point of view and, most of all, demonstrate that you care. The sender must care about the message and care about the receiver of that message. Otherwise, there is no point in passing it along.

Pro tip: Your staff may not need you all the time. But when they do need you, they need all of you. Be present and learn to recognize when you need to step in and when you need to step back.

Lack of Authority

The caller is hired simply to make the calls and read a script. They know nothing about what I drive or it’s current condition. There is a good chance the caller is unqualified to answer questions of substance about the product or anything about my car.

How to overcome it: Ideally, a leader should know what they are talking about. However, there will be times when the leader is not an expert in a subject or simply doesn’t know the answer. What becomes important then is the willingness to learn along with the staff and be coachable. If I tell you, “I know nothing about astronomy, but I’m leading a star party this Friday night and I need you to be there.” I essentially just told you this is my program, I don’t know what I’m doing, and you’re going to be there to help make me look good or we’re going to look bad together. You’re probably thinking, ‘this is going to be a disaster’. But if I say, “I can’t tell the difference between the Big Dipper and the moon, but I’d like to have this event and I need your help. Let’s research how to host a star party, find an expert to help, and put on a good show.” While the leader’s technical skill in this area may not be high, their ability as a good communicator maintains their authority while engaging you in a potentially interesting and worthwhile learning experience.

Pro tip: Don’t be a know-it-all and know when to seek help. If you don’t know an answer, don’t make one up. Find out. Nothing erodes authority and trust faster than a leader who is consistently wrong.

Lack of Clarity

The caller may exaggerate, blur the truth, or fail to mention weaknesses of a product to land the sale. They have made no attempt to earn our trust or prove they are being honest about the benefits of their product.

Glasses focusing on a blurred landscape
How clear are your instructions?

How to overcome it: Your words create your world. Trying to hide part of a message or twist the truth leads to fuzziness and confusion on the receiving end. Leaders who are good communicators can reshape the perceived reality of any situation by choosing the right words, so reduce the fluff, get to the point and be clear with your intent. It’s vitally important to think through your thoughts before putting them into words because the next thing out of your mouth could have a lasting effect on the relationship with your staff, be it good or bad. Leaping before we look gets us into trouble all the time.  Think it through and listen first before speaking. Leaders who care about their messages and care about their receivers and communicate with clarity.

Pro tip: When communicating electronically, use every tool at your disposal to ensure your spelling and grammar are correct. Message clarity is easily lost when the receiver has to wade through a mire of mistakes. If grammar isn’t your strong suit, don’t feel embarrassed to recruit a proofreader.

Poor Presentation Skills

Callers may badger people or argue with them, be bored because this is their hundredth call of the day, distracted, unprepared to answer the simplest of questions, or barely there at all. The listener tunes them out with ease.

People sleeping in a meeting
Are your presentations putting your audience to sleep?

How to overcome it: There is no magic formula for this one. Presentation skill is simply practice, practice, and more practice. Even if you’re terrified of public speaking, accept any and all offers to address groups. Recruit your family to be a practice audience. Present your topic to your pets (sounds silly, I know, but it works), or use a mirror and speak to yourself. Also, anticipate the weak points of your discussion and develop responses to potential tough questions. Master the art of research and becoming an instant expert when needed. If you sound like you know what you’re talking about, you’re halfway to a good presentation.

Pro tip: If you have a script, presentation, or speech to give, read it out loud to yourself. Your ears will pick up problems with clarity and errors in grammar more than your eyes.

Lack of Receptiveness

The caller is not receptive to any of your needs outside of making the sale and getting your credit card number. Any discussion that isn’t leading toward a sale for the caller is wasted time.

How to overcome it: Much like in real estate, where you’ll hear location repeated three times as the most important tenet, communication has a mantra, too: timing, timing, and timing. If you’ve gotten to know your staff, you know when they are the most productive and when they struggle. You’ve learned most of their strengths and weaknesses. Using these clues, you also can surmise the best time to tell them important information and dole out important tasks. Time is especially valuable in the workplace, so work with the times you know your staff to be the most receptive.

Pro tip: Learn to be succinct. Articulate your points in the most uncomplicated manner possible for best results.

Call Environment

Callers disrupt our personal or family time, often calling during the dinner hour. This intrusion into the home environment generally makes people less receptive to their message than if they were to receive that same message in an e-mail or mailed flyer, for example.

Woman yelling at her phone
“I think I caught you at a bad time…”

How to overcome it: As stated above, timing is everything. If you drop a massive change bomb on your staff at the end of a workday or right before a weekend, chances are you just ruined their off time, and there’s a greater chance the important details will be lost in the noise of life outside of work. Unless it’s dire to pass the message along, it’s likely better to wait until you have the receiver’s full attention. A good communicator recognizes opportunities to get the most bang for their buck to get a message across with the least amount of disruption. Sometimes you have information that just can’t wait, and everyone needs to be brought in quickly. Be aware of possible diminishing returns in message reception if your timing is off.

Pro tip: Choose the right delivery method for the type of message you’re sending. Face-to-face meetings are expensive in both time and dollars, and not always necessary when a call or e-mail would suffice. Be efficient and considerate of your audience with your communication methods.

The Take-Away

Even with all these barriers to good communication, companies still invest millions of dollars into this business model of cold-call selling for an extended warranty you may or may not need. That tells you that even with these barriers, this method still works. Now, step back and think how successful these calls could be if they made any effort to overcome these communication barriers. They may convince you to buy an extended warranty after all!

Think about how successful you could be if you found ways to get over communications barriers with your staff. Here’s a challenge for you: Next time one of your staff makes a mistake, before you deliver your reprimand I want you to really scrub how you communicated your expectations to them. Were your instructions clear? Did you send a mixed message? Did you give partial information? Did you expect them to just “know” what you wanted?

Sometimes the mistake they made is actually yours from poor communication. If it was your fault, own it, then let the employee know you own it and help them fix it. You’ll see an instant improvement.

In February, I’ll share with you one of my favorite leadership topics: Coaching and Mentoring! Until then…

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