Overcoming Barriers to Effective Communication in the Workplace

Communication barriers can very easily turn your harmonious workplace into a hostile one. General confusion, frustration, loss of productivity—these are just some of the ways that communication breakdowns negatively impact businesses of all sizes.

It’s been a rough day at your office.

  • Two supervisors aren’t speaking to each other, and they both insist that the other “knows what he did.”
  • One of your coworkers is anxious because the boss replied to her follow-up email about questions for a client with “I resent your questions.” Is he honestly annoyed by her queries, or did he mean to say that he “re-sent” the questions?
  • You told a (different) coworker that you needed to discuss something with her before she went home, and she’s just now making her way to your desk with five minutes left in the workday. She’s going to be very annoyed when the conversation you two need to have will take 30 minutes.

As you try to stay out of other people’s arguments and focus on your own tasks, you can’t help but wonder: do certain folks here not understand English? Or are they not listening to each other?

Three especially common barriers are:


If a supervisor told you that they needed you to finish something “soon,” what would you consider to be a reasonable deadline for the project? Does “soon” mean “within the hour?” Does it mean “by the end of the business day?” Could it even mean “by the end of the week?” Also, what if the supervisor told you to steal “a few” of your coworkers away from their regular work to team up with you on a project? Should you grab three people? Five people? Seven people?

Bypassing is when two (or more) individuals assume that a word means the same thing to them as it does to everyone else. Slang terms and euphemisms are common sources of bypassing, but it can also be the result of using vague terminology or overly-specific jargon.

Precise language is absolutely critical for preventing bypassing—in other words, say what you mean! Don’t tell one of your employees that you need something done “soon” when you know you’ll need it before noon that day; say, “Please hand this in before noon.” And don’t be afraid to clarify an instruction that you think is too vague, either (“Round up ‘a few people’? So, three or four individuals, then?”). In the business world, it’s generally better to be overly specific than not specific enough.

Inappropriate Usage of Technology

Imagine that you learned that one of your coworkers recently experienced a death in their family. Which would be a more tactful way to react – to stop by their desk, tell them that you’re sorry for their loss, and ask if they need anything or to just send them a text message that says, “HEARD ABOUT UR BROTHER; LEMME KNO IF U WANNA TALK”?


Both examples express condolences and a desire to “be there” for the other person. However, most of us would agree that the first method comes across as a little more heartfelt and sincerer, while the second might seem inappropriately flippant (regardless of the speaker’s intent).

Even though electronic communication can be fast and easy, it’s not always the right medium for delivering emotionally-charged or—in certain cases—time-sensitive information. If you have to tell an employee that they’re being laid off or demoted, don’t do it in an email—speak to them in-person and be prepared to have a serious conversation about the matter.

It’s also crucial to remember that conveying tone and emotion via text can be difficult. Even if you think that something you said is “obviously” a joke, sarcasm, or hyperbole, understand that there’s a possibility that someone could take it seriously and either (1) be offended or (2) assume you’re upset with them. Hastily-written messages can easily come across as needlessly callous or curt, and simple typos or poor word choices can obscure the meaning of a sentence (Consider “No price is too high” versus “No, price is too high.”)

So, before you send that email, always ask yourself if this is a message that can better be conveyed in-person. Proofread comments to make sure your meaning is clear. And if you find yourself embroiled in a conflict with a coworker or supervisor over something said in an electronic message, a face-to-face discussion might very well be the key to sorting things out!

Jumping to Conclusions

Let’s say your supervisor assigned you to complete a project with one of your coworkers, but you heard through the office grapevine that said coworker was unhappy about having to work with you. Would you assume that the coworker had something against you personally? Would you wonder if they thought that you were inferior to them due to your race, religion, gender, etc.? Or would you conclude that your co-worker is just a jerk? And would you confront the coworker about the rumors, or would you simply let your anger and confusion stew, ultimately impacting your ability to work with that person?

Jumping to conclusions means making an assumption based on incomplete data. Often times, when we jump to conclusions, we’re doing so based on both our past experiences and what we think is on another person’s mind. But when we jump to the wrong conclusion, it can create new problems or exacerbate an existing one. Being able to make inferences based on available information is a good skill to have in the business world; however, we still need to be mindful about not going overboard with it.

In the aforementioned example, you really could be in a situation where your coworker genuinely doesn’t like working with you (or dislikes you personally) for whatever reason. But it could also be that the co-worker was disappointed that they didn’t get to work on the project with a good friend, or they were hoping to do it all on their own, or they heard through the office grapevine that you don’t like them, and that’s why they’re unsure about working with you.

By giving that person a chance to explain instead of immediately assuming they aren’t worth your time, you can clear the air—and help promote better understanding and problem-solving techniques.


Bypassing, improper use of technology, and jumping to conclusions can be annoying or downright destructive. Because these communication barriers are surprisingly harmful for how common they are, everyone in your office should be able to spot them from a mile away. Arming yourself with knowledge—and, if necessary, changing your perspective on how you interact with other people—is a good way to fight back and maintain harmony among co-workers and productivity for the business.

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