Barriers to Effective Communication

Man in a suit touching a brick wallAlthough communication plays the most crucial part in our relationships with the people in our lives, the average person does not communicate well. Problems with communication can lead to difficulties at work and to loneliness and distance from family and friends. Much of the work therapists do with the people we work with in therapy will involve improving their communication skills, whether directly or indirectly. I will share with you what I have learned from my practice as well as from experts that may be helpful in this task.

“One of the key elements in learning communication skills is to discover how to protect oneself adequately while reducing unnecessary defensiveness,” writes communication expert Robert Bolton, PhD. This is a very important concept to understand when assessing our clients’ communication patterns. Why do we feel the need to protect ourselves when communicating? Psychologists and communication experts point out that we are riddled with fears, most of which are learned. We often fear:

  • being judged negatively,
  • failing to measure up to some imaginary standards,
  • being laughed at,
  • appearing stupid when we misunderstand someone,
  • expressing emotion and losing control, and
  • letting someone gain power over us and use it against us.

When we feel fear, communication is impaired. To avoid being misunderstood, we say nothing; to keep from losing control of our emotions, we suppress them and don’t communicate them; and in order to be liked, we say what we think others want to hear.

Several road blocks to communication are designed for self-protection, though they serve as unnecessary barriers.


In order to cope with fears we often make assumptions about what is going on with the other person. Though sometimes our assumptions are correct, communication can break down further when they are not. It is important to test the accuracy of our assumptions. While a speaker intends to convey one message, the receiver may perceive another. The stressful interaction that results from this misunderstanding can feed and justify original fears. As therapists, we can try to identify these assumptions in a transference relationship and test them out in the sessions in an effort to minimize them.


Insensitivity, or lack of empathy, is the failure to accurately perceive the feelings of others. Insensitivity is often caused by an unwillingness to risk caring about someone else, or it may come as the result of being preoccupied with something else and not being present in the moment. Lack of awareness, poor listening skills, and the need to draw attention to oneself may lead an insensitive listener to divert the concerns of others by switching the conversation’s focus back on the listener or on someone other than the person talking. At other times this disregard for the speaker’s concerns can happen because the listener is uncomfortable with emotions that are being stimulated by a conversation. As a method for dealing with uncomfortable feelings, someone may use logical arguments and reassurances. While these may be coming from a caring place, they inevitably make the other person angry and frustrated. There are many topics and conversations that create tension and anxiety; as therapists, we need to identify these for our clients and help them stay with their feelings so that they might learn to tolerate them better. Awareness of what is difficult to tolerate is the first step.

Labeling and Judging

Labeling and judging are methods for creating mental order and gaining control over emotions. Labeling can be disabling, as is the case when communication is marked by putdowns and name calling. Judging another person can include name calling, diagnosing, and praising. Carl Rogers once said that “one of the major blocks to interpersonal communication lies in our very natural tendency to judge–to approve or disapprove of the statements of the other person.”

Providing Solutions

The final road block involves providing solutions. This can be a major road block within a highly emotional conversation. In this case, giving advice can imply that it’s not OK to express emotion and that it is necessary to enter a more rational stance. This can make the other person feel more and more angry. Offering solutions can also come across as moralizing, prying, and giving direct advice. A healthier and more effective approach is to just let the person be in whatever emotional state they are in and to move through the necessary emotions until the situation feels calmer.

Effective listening is a skill that few possess. Much of our education and training as therapists is spent on learning how to listen, and we refine this skill as we continue in our practice. It is important to start with monitoring our own listening styles before becoming attuned to our clients. Then, by by pointing out what we observe in the sessions, we can help people be present for the important people in their lives.

© Copyright 2010 by Irina Firstein, LCSW. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • maurice

    July 16th, 2010 at 12:35 PM

    I’m currently in high school and just can’t seem to have any friends.yes I have problems communicating but then there was one incident back last year after which I have not been confident about talking to anyone and thereby making friends.I am sometimes mocked at but I really wish I had friends.

  • laura F

    July 16th, 2010 at 11:00 PM

    I used to be a very shy person and was not at ease communicating with others.that is when i decided that enough was enough and that I needed to break free.I took up a course on self-confidence and communicating and now I’m much better at putting across my thoughts without any fear.

  • LD

    July 17th, 2010 at 11:47 AM

    I know right off the bat that a big barrier to me effectively communicating with other people is letting that old saboteur defensiveness get in the way. It is not that I necessarily always think that I am right- I know that this is not possible. I just don’t like for others to perceive that I am wrong. That really pushes my buttons and I don’t like that someone may think that I don’t know what I am talking about. Not sure why that bugs me so much but it does and I know that when I get to feeling this way than that really puts up obstacles to me being able to have an adult conversation with others. In my head I am willing to acknowledge that I could be wrong but I don’t like for others to see that and it drives a wedge between us.

  • Steve

    July 18th, 2010 at 6:25 AM

    Trying to protect yourself and your opinions is what ultimately gets you closed off from hearing what others have to say.

    Communication is about so much more than just talking- it is being actively engaged in listening to what others say and being willing to accept it as truth.

    Those who are poor communicators tend to have the talking part down pat, but they sure can’t listen and hear for anything!

  • Iris

    July 19th, 2010 at 4:52 AM

    I guess after reading this I see that one of my own biggest road blocks is making asusmptions about what others are going to say or do before fully hearing them out and letting them get to the crux of what they mean and what they are really trying to say. I know that this is wrong but it is one of those automatic responses that I have had for years so naturally I can’t get that to go away overnight can I? I know that this is going to be a work in progress for me!

  • Mike

    November 27th, 2011 at 9:39 PM

    Several years ago I had the same problems. I was making assumption about what others are going to say and think about me. But thanks to my friend my self-esteem got up. And I’m not afraid to speak out anymore. There’re always going to be people judging me. But I am not a gold coin, everybody should like.

  • annyomus

    April 23rd, 2013 at 7:35 AM

    i am perfectly normal

  • Serena

    August 29th, 2014 at 10:43 PM

    I second that! I think communication is all about creating commonness! Till the time we fail to create or share a common link and idea, we remain in a conflicting situation. We best express ourselves in front of friends; all because they share common beliefs… we have to be agreeable for that perfect communication. But this is just the basic, thank you article for suggesting best tips :)

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