Overcoming perceptual barriers to communication

In this series, we discuss The Seven Barriers of Communication. This post is dedicated to perceptual barriers. Stay tuned as we discuss each.

Some barriers to communication are obvious, like physical obstacles and language differences. Others, like how we carry ourselves and interpret others, can be much harder to detect. Perceptual barriers to communication are more difficult to recognize and decode precisely because they take place internally. Sometimes, we don’t even realize we’re creating them.

Unfortunately, human beings aren’t objective observers walking around the world able to extract the “true” nature of one another. How we perceive and interact with the world is greatly shaped by our economic & social status, the culture we grew up in, our level of education, etc. Sometimes called “conditioning,” our understanding of the world and how we choose to act in it are formed over years of reinforcement based on our individual environments.

This conditioning can lead us to make assumptions, form stereotypes, or misunderstand others whose life experiences differ from our own. While we know bringing together diverse worldviews in the workplace helps inspire creativity and innovation, it can also create communication issues when we mistake our individual expressions for universal truths.

Examples of Perceptual Barriers

There are two basic types of perceptual barriers:

  1. Perceptual Filters i.e. the personal preferences, values, attitudes, origins, and life experiences that create the “filters” through which we view other people, events, and information.
  2. Triggers and Cues i.e. the nonverbal clues, such as body language and facial gestures, that affect how people perceive what we say.

Let’s walk through a quick example of how these barriers can play out:

Andy has a new idea for a marketing campaign that he’s really excited about. She needs his teammate Beth’s design skills to come up with a formal presentation for his boss. However, Andy heard Beth recently criticizing a similar campaign done by another company.

As he approaches Beth to share his idea and ask for help, he has already convinced himself that she won’t like the campaign, causing him to use defensive language and body gestures. As he tries to explain why his idea is so great and her previous criticism of a similar campaign was wrong, she interprets his bid for help as arrogance and feels he’s belittling her. Even though she likes the campaign idea, she would rather not work with someone who speaks down to her, so she says she’s too busy and suggests he ask another designer for help. Ultimately, the project suffers because Beth is the agencies best designer, and Andy’s boss rejects the idea.

When we assume that people won’t understand or agree with us based on our (often false) ideas about their background, sense of taste/style, or perceived interests, we can unconsciously sabotage ourselves.

Overcoming Perceptual Barriers

When in the workplace, it’s important to address perceptual barriers to facilitate greater team collaboration. Here are a few things you can do:

Challenge your own assumptions. We all form beliefs about one another, and it would be impossible to walk around your office approaching each person as an entirely blank slate each and every day. However, you should never leave those beliefs and assumptions unchecked. Instead of assuming your reasoning for feeling one way is correct (even if it has been before), try examining how people and situations around you might be interpreted differently if they were looked at from someone else’s point of view.

Practice positive body language. The nonverbal aspects of your interactions with others (such as posture, eye contact, and body stance) can communicate a lot about how confident, interested, or engaged you are in a conversation or topic. Because body language can be easily influenced by stress or tiredness, it’s important that you stay in tune with how your physical behaviors could be misinterpreted. Practice positive body language when communicating with others to ensure that you aren’t unintentionally disrespecting those around your or sending a wrong message.

Final Thoughts

Something as simple as the volume of someone’s voice, the stance of their body, or the expression on their face can drastically change how other people perceive their message, regardless of the communicators intent. Similarly, where someone grew up or how they were raised can change how they interpret a joke or generalization, again, regardless of the communicators intent.

Above all, it’s important that we empathize with one another by trying to understand how others could view things differently than we do. All of us walk around day to day with beliefs and opinions that contradict those around us. By breaking down and questioning our assumptions about others, we can bridge the communication gaps that arise because of our natural perceptual differences.