Communicating can be more of a challenge than you think, when you realise the many things that can stand in the way of effective communication. These include filtering, selective perception, information overload, emotional disconnects, lack of source familiarity or credibility, workplace gossip, semantics, gender differences, differences in meaning between Sender and Receiver, and biased language. Let’s examine each of these barriers.
FilteringfilteringThe distortion or withholding of information to manage a person’s reactions. is the distortion or withholding of information to manage a person’s reactions. Some examples of filtering include a manager who keeps her division’s poor sales figures from her boss, the vice president, fearing that the bad news will make him angry. The old saying, “Don’t shoot the messenger!” illustrates the tendency of Receivers (in this case, the vice president) to vent their negative response to unwanted Messages on the Sender. A gatekeeper (the vice president’s assistant, perhaps) who doesn’t pass along a complete Message is also filtering. The vice president may delete the e-mail announcing the quarter’s sales figures before reading it, blocking the Message before it arrives.
As you can see, filtering prevents members of an organisation from getting a complete picture of the way things are. To maximise your chances of sending and receiving effective communications, it’s helpful to deliver a Message in multiple ways and to seek information from multiple sources. In this way, the effect of any one person’s filtering the Message will be diminished.
Since people tend to filter bad news more during upward communication, it is also helpful to remember that those below you in an organisation may be wary of sharing bad news. One way to defuse the tendency to filter is to reward employees who clearly convey information upward, regardless of whether the news is good and bad.
Here are some of the criteria that individuals may use when deciding whether to filter a Message or pass it on:
Past experience: Was the Sender rewarded for passing along news of this kind in the past, or was she criticized?
Knowledge, perception of the speaker: Has the Receiver’s direct superior made it clear that “no news is good news?”
Emotional state, involvement with the topic, level of attention: Does the Sender’s fear of failure or criticism prevent him from conveying the Message? Is the topic within his realm of expertise, increasing his confidence in his ability to decode it, or is he out of his comfort zone when it comes to evaluating the Message’s significance? Are personal concerns impacting his ability to judge the Message’s value?
Once again, filtering can lead to miscommunications in business. Each listener translates the Message into his or her own words, creating his or her own version of what was said.
Selective perceptionselective perceptionThe personal filtering of what we see and hear to suit our own needs. refers to filtering what we see and hear to suit our own needs. This process is often unconscious. Small things can command our attention when we’re visiting a new place—a new city or a new company. Over time, however, we begin to make assumptions about the way things are on the basis of our past experience. Often, much of this process is unconscious. “We simply are bombarded with too much stimuli every day to pay equal attention to everything so we pick and choose according to our own needs.” Selective perception is a time-saver, a necessary tool in a complex culture. But it can also lead to mistakes.
Think back to the earlier example conversation between Bill, who was asked to order more toner cartridges, and his boss. Since Bill found his boss’s to-do list to be unreasonably demanding, he assumed the request could wait. (How else could he do everything else on the list?) The boss, assuming that Bill had heard the urgency in her request, assumed that Bill would place the order before returning to the other tasks on her list.
Both members of this organisation were using selective perception to evaluate the communication. Bill’s perception was that the task of ordering could wait. The boss’s perception was that her time frame was clear, though unstated. When two selective perceptions collide, a misunderstanding occurs.
A field study found that managers can expect, on average, to do only three minutes of uninterrupted work on any one task before being interrupted by an incoming e-mail, instant message, phone call, coworker, or other distraction.
Information overloadinformation overloadThis occurs when the information processing demands on an individual’s time to perform interactions and internal calculations exceed the supply or capacity of time available for such processing. can be defined as “occurring when the information processing demands on an individual’s time to perform interactions and internal calculations exceed the supply or capacity of time available for such processing.” Messages reach us in countless ways every day. Some are societal—advertisements that we may hear or see in the course of our day. Others are professional—e-mails, and memos, voice mails, and conversations from our colleagues. Others are personal—messages and conversations from our loved ones and friends.
Add these together and it’s easy to see how we may be receiving more information than we can take in. This state of imbalance is known as information overload. Experts note that information overload is “A symptom of the high-tech age, which is too much information for one human being to absorb in an expanding world of people and technology. It comes from all sources including TV, newspapers, and magazines as well as wanted and unwanted regular mail, e-mail and faxes. It has been exacerbated enormously because of the formidable number of results obtained from Web search engines.” Other research shows that working in such fragmented fashion has a significant negative effect on efficiency, creativity, and mental acuity.
Emotional disconnects happen when the Sender or the Receiver is upset, whether about the subject at hand or about some unrelated incident that may have happened earlier. An effective communication requires a Sender and a Receiver who are open to speaking and listening to one another, despite possible differences in opinion or personality. One or both parties may have to put their emotions aside to achieve the goal of communicating clearly. A Receiver who is emotionally upset tends to ignore or distort what the Sender is saying. A Sender who is emotionally upset may be unable to present ideas or feelings effectively.