“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw.
Good communication is critical. From healthy relationships to business bottom lines, it’s necessary for success.
But if that’s true, then WHY is it so difficult sometimes?!
The answer: communication blockers and all the struggles that come with them.
Read on to learn about communication blockers, their impact, and what to do instead.
Simply put, communication blockers are anything that interrupts the effective expression of thoughts and feelings between people.
They cause the original message to be misunderstood or ignored.
Communication blockers can cause feelings of frustration, defensiveness, and disappointment.
“Always” and “never” statements are common communication blockers; we’ve probably all done it, likely during an argument. It happens when we apply our feelings about a specific situation to a person’s overall behavior.
These types of statements are usually an over-generalization of a person, not a realistic characterization.
E.g. We’re upset that our spouse forgot an important conversation we had. We say, “You never listen to me!” or ‘You’re always so forgetful!”
This may put the receiver on the defensive, which can lead to further disputes. It also can cause them to feel shame or guilt, which may cause total withdrawal from the conversation.
Alternative response: “When you forget our important conversations, it makes me feel frustrated and unheard”.
Instead of trying to hurt the other person, this lets us assertively state the problem and how it affects us.
Passing quick judgments about someone when they’re telling us something can make people feel insecure and hurt. It signals that we aren’t safe people to talk to.
E.g. Our friend tells us they’re upset their relationship ended. We point out everything they did wrong to contribute to the breakup, “Maybe if you hadn’t been so needy, they wouldn’t have left”.
Alternative response: “That must be really tough for you. It’s normal to feel this way.
Instead of being unnecessarily mean, this shows empathy.
From dating to legal issues, advice can be useful. But typically, that’s only true when we ask for it.
Getting advice without asking can be irritating. Normally, people are capable of problem-solving (or already know the solution) and just want support.
E.g. Our friend is telling us about their strained family relationship. We say, “You should go to therapy”.
We might view our advice as a hard but necessary truth. However, it’s also arrogant for us to assume we know what’s best for someone else. This can make them feel judged or defensive.
Alternative response: “Do you want advice, or for me to just listen?”
Giving this choice shows that we care about their well-being, regardless of our personal opinions.
Interruptions are the most literal type of communication blocker on the list.
Whether in a work meeting, telling an exciting story to friends, or trying to express difficult emotions to a partner, being cut off can be annoying.
Aside from annoyance, interruptions signal to the speaker that their thoughts aren’t as important as ours. This can lead to insecurity, frustration, and an end to the conversation.
E.g. Our child is telling us how they feel about chores. We cut them off by saying, “I don’t care how you feel about chores, everyone has to contribute around the house”.
This response invalidates their feelings. It sends the message that we’re not willing to listen, and they can’t share their true feelings with us.
Alternative response: Since we don’t want to interrupt, we can show we’re listening by:
- Making eye contact (if culturally appropriate)
- Saying “Go on, I’m listening” or other encouraging statements
If needed, we can ask for clarification when they’re done speaking.
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” “Good things come to those who wait”. These are all platitudes, and they’re useless.
They hold little meaning and are disingenuous. They indicate that we couldn’t be bothered to provide a thoughtful reply, or truly consider what was said.
E.g. Our friend is telling us about their financial trouble. We say, “Well, you know what they say, money can’t buy happiness”.
Alternative response: “I’m sorry you’re going through this. It sounds really destabilizing. I’m here for you”.
We can’t force people to feel gratitude when they don’t. The best we can do is be supportive.
There are some discussions we’d rather avoid. But ignoring someone when they’re saying something that makes us uncomfortable isn’t helpful.
E.g. Our partner is trying to talk to us about slitting house cleaning duties. The subject stresses us out, so we lightheartedly say, “A little mess never hurt anyone” and change the subject.
Alternative response: “I know this is important to you, and I’m willing to listen. This topic stresses me out, so after we’re done talking I’ll need some alone time. This will help me regulate my emotions, so we can talk about the next steps in a productive way”.
*Note: reasonable discomfort is different from harassment or abuse. We’re not obligated to listen to someone if they’re belittling us, or otherwise being harmful. *
Communicating can be tricky, even when we mean well. But good listening skills, empathy, and a non-judgmental attitude help us avoid communication blockers and understand each other better.