• Dr. Andrew Kitchenham

Communication Barriers

Last week, I presented some information on the role of negotiation in mediation. This week I would like to discuss the role of communication in mediation.


In their (1988) book, Getting together: Building relationships as we negotiate, Roger Fisher and Scott Brown outline barriers to communication and ways we can improve communication. Communication is complex but it is extremely important in all aspects of our workplace and personal lives. We all have experienced the emotion of clicking with someone when we first meet and we feel an instant connection that leads to a strong rapport with the other person. As well, we have had the same experience with someone with whom we feel no connection and, at times, contempt for the other person. Sometimes it is their body language or what they say or the way they present themselves; the point is that we do know how to build a relationship when we make the connection but there are reasons that inhibit our getting past that initial feeling when we do not click and there are ways to improve that communication—whether we want a relationship or want to walk away from the person.


Barriers to communication include the assumption that we do not need to talk to the other person about an issue, communicating in one direction so that we tell the person something rather than open up for discussion, and sending mixed messages. All three of these barriers can be easily addressed and are well within our ability to change. Let’s look at each barrier and unpack what they look like in communication.


We assume there is no need to talk. This one is probably the most common as it happens so often and when we believe that there is no need to check on agreement since the acquiescence would be obvious. For instance, Bill works in an office with Bob in an advertising firm. Bill was given the opportunity to work with another project team and he agreed even though the project leader stressed that Bob should also be invited. Bill believed that Bob would not want to work with the other team so he did not consult him. When Bob found out that the project leader had invited Bill and him to the project but Bill said he was not interested, Bob was very upset. When Bill was confronted Bob, his reply was that he did not think Bob would want to work with certain team members as he knew that Bob did not get along with two or three of them. He also stressed that he was trying to save Bob from any uncomfortableness and only had Bob’s best interest at heart. In the end, Bob felt resentful and coerced and was certainly not persuaded by Bill’s reasoning.


We communicate in one direction. Many conflicts have their genesis in the fact that people do not understand that effective communication is not one way and that there needs to be a two-way interaction so that both transmission and reception occur. With the Bob and Bill example outlined above, if Bill had gone to Bob and mentioned the offer, they could have discussed the situation and ensured that each was listening and talking with particular attention to understanding. In that manner, Bob would have felt that the communication was open and respectful and Bill would have understood whether Bob was interested or just wanted to be consulted. Either way, the two of them would have participated in a fulsome and open discussion that went back and forth rather than just through direct transmission.


We send mixed messages to the other person. All communication should be consistent in that what I say to one person on Monday should be true for another person with whom I speak on Friday. What often happens is that the person gives one answer to someone related to a shared item and then says something different to another person. This mixed message occurs for several reasons which I will outline with our Bill and Bob example. Bill could have several short-term and long-term goals or interests that contradict each other so his message might convey a different message to Bob depending on which interest he is thinking of at the time (i.e., we communicate about mixed interests). For example, Bill’s long-term goal is to leave the company in a few years so he is trying to expand his background experiences to be more versatile and marketable; however, his short-term interest might be to see how he would like to work with a new team without the pressure of leading the project team. What he indicates to Bob is not a big deal to Bill because he believes that his short-term goal would not bother Bob since it would be a temporary arrangement. Bill could also convey his message differently depending on to whom he is talking (i.e., we address ourselves to multiple audiences). For instance, Bill might tell the head of the design team that he was very excited to be part of the project and was looking forward to working with such a talented team but what he tells Bob is that they were really looking for an entry-level employee to learn the ropes rather than someone with Bob’s vast experience while he might tell his wife that the design leader begged him to be part of the team even though he really wanted Bob to part of it—and all of these scenarios could be true for Bill. In a last possibility, we might send a mixed message because of an emotional reaction that might not be related to the situation (i.e., our mixed emotions may send out confusing signals). Bill might have just had an argument with another colleague about a similar scenario when Bob came to him about being excluded from the design team invitation. Bill’s reaction, based on his still harbouring emotions like anger or confusion from the previous exchange so he reacts much more flippantly towards Bob even though he truly saw Bob as a mentor to him.


In the end, miscommunications at work or at home occur because communication was either not existent or was wrongly directed. I have presented several ways that communication can go awry. Next week, continuing Fisher and Brown’s work, I will discuss how communication can be improved.


Further reading


Fisher, R., & Brown, S. (1988). Getting together: Building relationships as we negotiate. Toronto, ON: Penguin.


#Conflict, #ConflictMediation, #Communication

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