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3 Barriers to Effective Communication in Our Diverse Society

Being a successful communicator begins with understanding the barriers to effective human interaction. In reality, people misunderstand each other for a wide variety of reasons, and these misunderstandings can occur between people who are culturally similar as well as those who are different. However, there are some unique issues to consider when people from different cultural backgrounds come together. 

Two attendees at the 2019 NECAs a professional speaker and consultant, my primary area of focus is helping people improve their ability to communicate in culturally diverse settings. Being a successful communicator begins with understanding the barriers to effective human interaction. In reality, people misunderstand each other for a wide variety of reasons, and these misunderstandings can occur between people who are culturally similar as well as those who are different. However, there are some unique issues to consider when people from different cultural backgrounds come together. Specifically, there are 3 problems that commonly occur: stereotypinga lack of understanding and judgmental attitudes.

Stereotyping

The most significant barrier to effective multicultural communication is the tendency of human beings to stereotype, or more specifically, to categorize and make assumptions about others based on identified characteristics such as gender, race, ethnicity, age, religion, socioeconomic status, body type or nationality. Whether we realize it or not (and we often do not – this is what is known as unconscious bias), we all stereotype and make assumptions about others at one time or another. Most of us do this on a regular basis. Some of the more blatant and destructive examples of these assumptions include job interviewers who reject certain candidates based on racial or gender stereotypes (such as the ethnicity of a name on a resume), teachers who assume that certain students are less likely to succeed because of where they come from, or store owners who harass people from particular racial or ethnic groups.

It should be noted, not all stereotyping is so blatant. More subtle examples include shying away from people who are culturally different (this is the essence of affinity bias, which is the human tendency to gravitate toward those we perceive to be most like ourselves and therefore, away from those we perceive to be less like ourselves), or assuming people will behave a certain way based on their race, gender, place of origin or position within an organization. Bottom-line, whether it is blatant or subtle, stereotyping can have an extremely negative impact on communication and human interaction. 

A Lack of Understanding

Another major barrier to effective multicultural interaction is the lack of understanding that is frequently present between people from different backgrounds. Because people may have differences in values, beliefs, methods of reasoning, communication styles, work styles, and personality types, communication difficulties can occur. In order to communicate effectively, each party must have a clear and accurate understanding of the thoughts, feelings, ideas, values, styles, desires and goals of the other person. But because of the differences between communication partners, this understanding is not always gained. This is compounded by the fact that many of us are not very effective at getting to understand the ways in which others may differ. Empathy, which is the ability to understand the world from another person's point of view, is an important multicultural communication skill. Unfortunately, in our fast-paced, technologically focused world, we don't often take the time needed to truly understand where our colleagues are coming from. 

Judgmental Attitudes

The final major barrier to effective cross-cultural communication includes the judgmental attitudes many of us have when it comes to interacting with people who are different. Most of us would like to believe we are open-minded and accepting. But in reality, a great many of us find discomfort with those who are different in terms of values, beliefs and behaviors. We may then evaluate those values, beliefs and behaviors in a negative light. This is the essence of cultural bias, where we evaluate good and bad, right and wrong relative to how closely the values, behaviors and ideas of others mirror our own. Put simply, to effectively interact with people who are different from us, we must suspend judgment about their ways, and try to understand them from their perspective. However, for many of us, this is much easier said than done.

In my next post, I will proffer specific steps you can take to reduce these barriers to effective communication and enhance your ability to communicate, resolve conflict and build powerful relationships in diverse organizations and communities.

Dr. Tyrone HolmesDr. Tyrone Holmes is a professional speaker and coach who has facilitated over 1,500 keynotes, training seminars and classes that have taught participants to connect with others despite their differences, to effectively articulate their messages, to connect with diverse audiences and groups, and to reduce unconscious bias. Dr. Holmes will be speaking at the upcoming CGMP Summit on May 18 and the 2020 NEC to be held May 19-21, 2020 in St. Louis, Missouri.  Dr. Holmes' most recent book, Making Diversity a Competitive Advantage: 70 Tips to Improve Communication, is a tool we can use to build powerful connections in diverse settings. Visit his website at www.DrTyroneHolmes.com.

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