Barriers to effective communication

NLP techniques

It seems to me that the most obvious of the barriers to effective communication is the inability or unwillingness of people to indulge in plain speaking.


The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place

George Bernard Shaw


Gill Millicent is a wonderful woman but, with a little pressing, I believe she would agree that she is not the best communicator in the world.

She finds it very difficult to speak in a frank and straightforward fashion, and that seems to be so even with those to whom she is closest.

The outcome of that is that, unwittingly, she creates embarrassment and awkwardness for herself and those around her.

Her reticence appears to have been passed down from her parents who have similar difficulties with effective oral communication.

Barriers to effective communication – an unwillingness to ask

None of them will go into a shop or store and ask for an item that they cannot see.  

They will quickly scan the aisles and if the item cannot be located, that is an end to it.

Usually they will leave complaining that nobody stocks this or that any more.

When Gill married some years ago, her husband, Ivor, was perplexed and bemused by her behaviour when they were out shopping.

“It’s no good; they don’t have it here.  Let’s go somewhere else.”

“Hang on a moment”, Ivor would say.  “Let me ask an assistant.”  

Nine times out of ten an assistant would direct the pair to a section of the store where the item could be purchased immediately, or would tell them who else was selling it and where to go.

Even now Gill finds it difficult to speak up when she cannot find what she wants in a retail store.

Barriers to effective communication – inability to speak one’s mind

When the communication involves her parents the situation becomes even more complicated.

Typically, Ivor and Gill invite Gill’s parents to stay with them for a couple of days over the holidays and, given their now advancing years, arrange to transport them.

Ivor finds it the most frustrating time.  Most years one or both parties get the times completely wrong.

Take last year.  Ivor asked his wife what time her parents wanted to be collected, and she said “Around 1 o’clock.”

So Ivan allowed around 3 hours for the 150 mile trip.   70 miles or so into the trip, Gill’s mobile rings.  It is her mother.  “Traffic bad?”

“No”, replies Gill.  We’ll be there around 1.  “But we were expecting you an hour ago” says mother irritatedly:  “We’ve been sitting here for ages.”

Barriers to effective communication – mind reading

“Well,” Gill exclaimed, just after she’d rung off, “mum didn’t say they wanted to be picked up early.” 

“What did she say?” asked Ivor. 

“Well, nothing”.

“Nothing!  Did you ask her when we were to pick them up?”

“No – but she never likes to leave early.”

“Obviously this occasion was different.  Why didn’t you just ask her.  It would have saved all this trouble?”

Stony silence.

Are you familiar with this sort of conversation?  Does it happen in your household or in your workplace?

Gill and her parents, as is evidenced by these experiences, engages in mind reading.  When we think we know another person’s intentions or motives without having asked or been told, we are in NLP terms, mind reading.

In other words, we are guilty of distortion.

Barriers to effective communication – using our own map of the world

When we mind read in this way we are endeavouring to use our own map of the world to interpret what we believe another person is thinking.

So we are, in that way, projecting our own values and perceptions and this usually has very little to do with what the other might be thinking or doing.

It is the reason that there is so much misunderstanding and miscommunication in the world.  

Many people will not – and I think this is especially so in England where I live – say what they mean.

For some reason they seem to be more comfortable speaking vaguely and guessing at what others might mean without clarifying it there and then.

Be unambiguous and remove barriers to effective communication

In my profession as a lawyer I cannot tolerate ambiguity.  

So if I don’t understand what someone else is attempting to communicate to me, I ask endless questions until I do understand.

Likewise, if I am not sure that another person understands me, I endeavour to use a different form of words until they do.

There is nothing wrong about plain speaking and there is nothing to be ashamed about.  

Many people will be grateful for your candour, although there is no need to be rude.

Some occasions may call for tact and discretion and it is quite possible to achieve that at the same time with careful use of language.

It will very much depend upon the situation.  

If my wife wishes to wear a hat to an event and asks me what I think, I might well say (if I don’t like it or think it unsuitable), “Perhaps that is not the best one for today, but what about that lovely blue one” or whatever.

If I am presenting a case in court, the situation is entirely different.  

It is absolutely vital that I put my case to the other side’s witnesses clearly and unequivocally so that they have an opportunity of dealing with it.

Clearing barriers to effective communication

If I don’t state clearly what I mean, the answers will be of little use.  

If I am prosecuting someone accused of stealing and I believe he is lying, at some stage during my cross-examination of him, I will put to him directly:  “The truth is that you stole these items and your evidence before the court today is a cock and bull story.”

Now, I have no doubt at all that these will be words he doesn’t want to hear.  

But they are clear and unequivocal and no-one will be in any doubt what my case is.

We are used to plain speaking in our household and no-one takes offence.  

There is little point in asking an opinion of another family member if all we are seeking is personal gratification.  The opinion is useless.

Being candid removes barriers to effective communication

After some filming recently, I asked my younger daughter – who has good media experience – what she thought of the first takes.  

She responded, “It was quite good, but you can do much better!”

I am so glad that my daughter is able to give a frank opinion to me in that way.  

I value her views and I will work on the areas she considers to be weak.

How would it have benefited me if she had replied, “Oh, it was great dad.  You were wonderful?”  

They might be words we all like to hear but the opinion would have been worthless.

Barriers to effective communication – first, identify the outcome

So when you are endeavouring to communicate with another, identify first the outcome you wish to achieve.

Next time Gill wishes to collect her parents for the holidays, she needs to consider (i) when it would be convenient for herself and Ivor to do so and (ii) tell her parents (clearly) what would be good times for them and ask the parents (clearly) if that is suitable for them.

There is no need to pussyfoot around the question.  Ambiguity will assist no-one. 

It is one of the greatest barriers to effective communication. 



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