Communication among humans is always imperfect — something always falls through the
cracks. You may hold meetings, write memos, report regularly on your work progress, and
something will still get lost — a broken link in the chain of communication, or just a tiny
gap. But, undeniably, inevitably, something will always get lost in the process.
Every time we talk or listen, there are things that get in the way of clear communication,
interfering in the process of the receiver getting the message from the sender, i.e.,
interference, selective perception, information overload, emotional disconnect, subjective
filters, and source credibility.
I'll talk now about some common sources of interference, other than the obvious
physical ones, such as background noise, room temperature, tiredness and so on, since
physical barriers to effective communication are usually the easiest to overcome.
Selective Perception is the tendency to either under-notice or over-focus on
information that causes emotional discomfort or contradicts our own beliefs, which is a form
of perceptual defense. Selective perception can also introduce bias into the communication
process, since people are more sensitive to things that are significant to them.
Information Overload. We have all been in situations when we felt that
too much information was coming at us, feeling overwhelmed and even unable to retain
any information at all. Sometimes it is not just the quantity, but the type of communication
that can be overwhelming. Information that is new to the receiver or too complex can cause
overload or saturation. To prevent that, the sender should break up the message into more
understandable bits or steps, reducing the amount of information to be absorbed at a time.
Emotional Disconnects. Most parents know how frustrating it is to try to have a
rational conversation with an angry teenager. It's a moment of emotional disconnection.
They're just not available for listening. Adults too, experience emotional disconnects that
affect the chance of successful communication. For example, when a person is feeling
stressed or anxious, an expressed concern is more likely to be misinterpreted as criticism.
Also, criticism intended to be constructive may be perceived as a personal attack by an
employee in a highly emotional state.
Subjective filtering. Our personal experiences color the way we view the world and
how we communicate. Each one of us has a particular set of filters based on our experiences
and values. The more similar people are in lifestyle, experience, culture, and language, the
more similar their mental filters are likely to be, and the less distortion will occur;
and vice versa: the more different lifestyles, culture and so on, the more confusion will
intrude their communication.
Source credibility. When we are trying to communicate, the validity of the message
received is unconsciously associated with its source — the sender — or rather, how credible
the sender is perceived to be. If the receiver doesn't trust the sender, they will view the
message itself with skepticism or suspicion. On the other hand, if the sender is trustworthy,
the receiver will be more likely to believe or accept the message. In other words, the
trustworthiness of a communication is heavily influenced by the perceived credibility of the
source of that communication.
Here are some simple guidelines. I should warn you — they are simple to understand, but
sometimes not so easy to put them in practice:
Look at the speaker, make eye contact, and turn your body toward them to indicate that they
have your full attention.
Note the body language of the other person. If they are angry, frustrated, frightened, or
emotional, you will see the signs. Do not simply disregard them and assume that they are
going to be able to communicate effectively. By asking if it is a good time to talk you will
give them the opportunity to check themselves and focus on being receptive.
Don't allow yourself to prepare a response before the speaker has finished their remarks.
Let them finish and keep your mind open and free of judgment until the end.
Ask questions to verify or confirm what you heard the speaker say, and ask for clarification.
Then, wait for the speaker to confirm or to correct your understanding of their message, or
Ask questions to make sure your listeners understood your message as you intended.
To managers, active listening can be time-consuming, because it interrupts your work and it
can be emotionally demanding. But the time and energy you invest on active listening will pay
The main reason active listening has a huge impact on communication — besides preventing
misunderstandings — is that it conveys to any speaker that their opinions matter to you, which
allows them to feel more self-confident and proactive. They, in turn, will become more
emotionally involved and will also listen actively. Nothing is better for a productive work
environment than for everybody to feel at ease knowing that they are being listened to — it
makes everybody feel respected and appreciated.