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What Do You Mean By That? Overcoming Communication Barriers

How to avoid misunderstandings

communication barriersCommunication is a lot like humor. While I may think a joke is funny, you may not. The most successful comedians have learned what will make most of the people laugh. A lot of that has to do with “frame of reference.”

And that same “frame of reference” can lead to a distortion in communication. For example, we all have different ideas of the perfect holiday: some reminisce about their large-extended family gathered around the dinner table, others do not. These “different meanings” are why one partner’s ideas of what makes a perfect holiday may be different from the others.

An area where this often causes problems is “casual attire.” Some people think this means a pair of slacks and a sweater, while others picture a dressy T-shirt and jeans. These “different meanings” may be caused by what they’ve read, what they’ve heard or where they’ve worked previously. The result is that “casual attire” becomes unclear communication. While this instance can be easily remedied with a written dress code, other misinterpretations can be more problematic.

Communication can become distorted for many reasons; these are a few communication barriers to watch out for:

  • Assumptions: When we base our thoughts or opinions either positively or negatively on the other person’s gender, age, education, position, etc. Prejudging people can lead to misunderstanding what they are trying to communicate to you. For example, you doubt the person behind the Geek Squad desk at Best Buy because it’s a woman who looks like she’s over 50
  • Troublesome Concepts: When we use the incorrect word to express our meaning, for example, using man to refer to all human beings implies a lesser status to women. While this may not be intended using words like this can cause distortion.
  • Recreational listening: When we do not appreciate the importance of the message, we may listen as if we were listening to the television in the background. We’re not really paying attention. When this happens it’s easy for misunderstandings to occur.
  • Mixed signals: When we send a nonverbal message than is different than what we mean to convey. For example, smiling and nodding while listening to something when we disagree. Women tend to do this more often than men.
  • Different meanings: When an “image” means one thing to the speaker and another to the person who’s listening. For example, when two people are making plans for the best vacation ever. The problem is that one person thinks skiing in Vermont is the “best” vacation, another person thinks going to Hawaii is the “best” vacation. In a business setting, when a supervisor says “give me frequent updates” they may mean several times a week, however the person receiving the message may think that “frequent” means once a week. This can create problems.

One of the ways to avoid misunderstandings is to make sure you clarify what you think the person means. For example, I understand you want frequent updates – how often does that mean once a week or every few days? That way everyone’s expectations are the same.

Communicating clearly isn’t easy. Often our assumptions get in the way when we’re interacting with other people. We “tune out” when we think something isn’t important. Or we smile when we disagree to make the other person feel we hear them. But, being aware of the possible pitfalls makes it easier to avoid misunderstandings.

About Annette Richmond, MA

Annette Richmond, MA, CARW, CCELW, is a Certified Resume Writer, Certified LinkedIn Profile Writer, and former recruiter. Her career advice has been featured by Huffington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Forbes, Business Insider, Monster, Vault, and WSJ. She helps motivated, senior level professionals tell their unique career story. She also serves as executive editor of career-intelligence.com.


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