17 Types of Verbal Communication Barriers

There are so many different verbal communication barriers — it’s a wonder that we can understand each other at all. Discover the major problems that bedevil your communication. with others.

Written by Murray Johannsen. I welcome connections via LinkedIn or directly from this website.

An example Miscommunication one result of a subtle communication barrier.

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What Are the Barriers To Verbal Communication?

Several different barriers can rear their ugly head during a normal conversation. As a result, some articles only present five communication barriers. Others, like this one, are more comprehensive.

Encoding and Decoding Barriers

Image by: Mk2010. Coke bottle-shaped barcode on a Coke can.

Encoding refers to the hidden process of taking thought and turning it into language. Decoding occurs on the receiver side when you take language and turn it into thinking.

Passive Listening

One-way communication is associated with PASSIVE LISTENING — a less than perfect way to consume verbal information. However, there are better ways available.

Ignoring Nonverbal Communication Signals

Another reason this is important is that meaning is not always conveyed solely in the words. In fact, a great deal of meaning is communicated either in the situational context or in the nonverbal elements associated with the body.

For example, let’s say you are having a meeting with someone for the very first time. As you walk into the conference room, you notice that the person has chosen the head of the table. Contrast this with another person who chooses a chair at the side of the table and indicates that you should talk to them from that position. You should pick up that one person is indicating a conversation of equals, while the other person, is setting up a situation where they clearly want to be the dominant party.

Cultural Barriers

Fourteen thousand Chinese performers adorned with 15,153 different costumes were performed during the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China, on August 8, 2008.

Culture also has a great impact on nonverbal communication. One nonverbal element is people’s understanding of time or chronemics. For example, in one culture, business meetings may start and end on time. In other cultures, they never start and never finish on time. More subtly, some viewed time as a line — it has a beginning and an end. And you hear people speaking of a timeline. Still, other cultures perceive time as a circle with no beginning or end.

Proverbs and Idioms

Proverbs are sayings existing in culture for decades or hundreds of years. Those within the culture understand them instantly. But for those outside the culture — total confusion. The words “lure the tiger from the mountain” would have no hidden meanings to the average American. While to the average Chinese, saying, ” It was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” produces confusion. Some sayings can confuse someone raised within a culture. One example I like is, “Don’t cry over spilled milk.” This means one should let go of the negative emotion associated with a bad experience. Oh, and don’t ruminate about it.

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Wrong Choice of Medium

People often send the message but fail to consider whether that. People often send a message but fail to consider whether that message should best go out verbally, written, or by electronic media. It’s prevalent in today’s organizations for people to default to firing off an email. In reality, they should pick up the phone or call the meeting. How much time do you waste every day reading and answering unnecessary emails? I thought so, way too much.

Bad Timing

Timing is important. The right message at the wrong time means that the message is often left unheard, unread, or ignored. Consider the morning coffee ritual. Many managers have to have one cup and two before they are ready to tackle the day’s problems. And, of course, all of us have regretted bringing up a problem when our boss is in a lousy mood.

Missing The Nonverbals

Image by: VasoniVasoni

“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said – Peter Drucker.

It’s easy to miss nonverbal information — few people routinely process it. A major mistake here. For if you watch your face and gestures, you can pick up meaning not said. Most people signal both understanding and confusion with facial expressions. And you can get an idea from reading face if a person agrees or disagrees with you. And you can understand when people tell the truth and when they’re lying. Finally, paying attention to nonverbal expressions when providing feedback is essential.

Semantic Confusion

Confusion by Adi Ron. One of the most fundamental communication barriers. And one resulting from other factors.

Semantic confusion results from differences between the sender and receiver’s meaning of an idea or concept. Many communication barriers exist at this very subtle level. For example, when I say the word, and you hear it, we may signal that we understand it, but these understandings are different.

One story that illustrates this comes out of World War II. In the early days of the war, British and American military officials wanted to talk about strategy. The Americans wanted to it table it, as did the British. An argument broke out between the two groups. To the Americans, “table it” meant to post-pone the discussion. While to the British, “table it” meant talking it over now.

Abstract Versus Concrete Language

This critical communication barrier relates to the nature of words themselves. Concrete terms have a high image content. Concepts such as a chair, table, glass, and mirror belong in this category. With an abstract word, we can’t quickly form a mental picture when we hear it, so it’s easier to misunderstand each other. Commonly misunderstood abstract words include: democracy, freedom, free market, love, and so on.

Differences in Depth of Understanding

At a subtle level, individuals can also misunderstand each other due to the associations and richness of meaning surrounding a particular concept or schemata. To illustrate, a word such as neurotransmitter has a great deal of meaning if you’re a neurophysiologist. But to a person in business, the term has superficial or no meaning.

Jargon and Slang

Jargon is a professional language. Most occupations and professions have a unique set of language people outside those disciplines that the rest don’t understand. For example, there are over 80,000 words in English describing the human body, medical maladies, or diseases. These medical terms can be found in Dorland’s Medical Dictionary. Here, you’ll find words such as dopamine, serotonin, nephritis, cirrhosis, microtubules, and myocardial infarction.

One commonly experienced communication barrier originates from jargon in a business where we have three or four people sitting in a meeting who are using words each other barely understands. The engineer is clueless about marketing. Marketing doesn’t understand finance, and nobody understands the software guy.

Slang is the language of the young. It’s for those who love new words, especially those that like words the old cannot understand. Slang’s easier to understand if one understands the context. A classic example of this is the use of “bad.” Until Michael Jackson’s song in 2004, it was understood as “not good.” However, his song by the same title changed the word’s meaning in standard English.

Metaphor, Analogy, Simile, Allegory

Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569): The Tower of Babel

Metaphor is a method for decreasing confusion and lowering barriers to communication, but it also introduces inaccuracies. For example, there is an engineering term known as “nominal.” This important term partly explains how high-quality products get made. Let’s suppose you’re not exactly sure about what it means. We can simplify understanding by using the metaphor of shooting an arrow into the bulls-eye at the center of a target — that’s nominal.

Sometimes, government leaders do this when they want to communicate a complex concept more simply. An example was a concept promoted in the 1980s by the Reagan administration known as the Strategic Defense Initiative. A simple metaphor explained that one wants to have a nuclear umbrella (missile over the house (country) to prevent the nuclear rain (other missiles) from landing on you. In other words, one wanted to have the ability to shoot down a missile with another missile. Or using an analogy is like throwing a rock to intercept a rock thrown at you.

Cognitive Dissonance

This occurs when new information that conflicts with existing beliefs and causes a certain amount of anxiety. Rather than dealing with the stress, it’s easier to ignore and suppress the latest information.

This is a huge reason for a high level of returns in business. For example, let’s say you go out and buy a new suit. But your best friend says it looked ugly in that suit and got ripped off. So to reduce dissonance, you take back the suit and ask for your money back.

Or, you might believe in low taxes. However, the city government wants to increase taxes to pay for new schools. So, instead of accepting the logic associated with a new school, it’s much easier to discount that information and reject the argument.

3 Limits To Paying Attention

Believe it or not, attention is a very scarce mental resource. Besides being scarce, we might allocate what is available to the wrong channel. For example, we may focus on the visual when we should pay attention to the audio. Or we may have withdrawn our attention to focus on our internal thinking instead of listening to what the other person is saying.

You will find that one of the major differences between great communicators and average ones concerns how they process nonverbal and verbal communication. Average communicators pay almost no attention to nonverbal communication cues. In fact, they engage in a particularly weird type of one-way communication called verbal self-talk.

There are five significant constraints. Together they produce a choke point that prevents us from learning — all types of learning the things we need to know to prosper and adapt in this century.

Selective Attention

Selective attention is directing our attention to the things we like while ignoring the things we don’t. But it’s also more subtle than that. Selective attention focuses on relevant information while filtering out irrelevant information. 

So far, so good. However, when this filtering occurs unconsciously, all sorts of problems arise. In fact, most of the information flowing in through the senses stays unconscious. In other words, the mind selects what “I” pay attention to and what “I” don’t. And that prioritization function may not work so well. 

There are currently three theories of selective attention to explain how this works.

Serial Informational Processing

Image by: Tashaila Nichole Meyers. A water fountain on Gilbert Road, at the North entrance to downtown Gilbert, Arizona

Few people know how to focus their attention to reduce this communication barrier. And so we end up missing crucial verbal information. And because attention is a scarce resource, most people pay no attention to the nonverbal information available.

If you can process language streams simultaneously, that’s called parallel processing. On the other hand, you’re processing information serially if you can only process one language stream. So how many language streams can the mind process? It turns out that most people can’t process information streams in parallel. It’s one reason multitasking is so hard to do.

However, some people can do a pretty good job of fast switching. This occurs when you jump attention back and forth between two conversations catching the essence of what each person is saying.


Filtering is a subtle cognitive mechanism typically running outside of conscious awareness, so we discount or even forget information not consistent with our existing beliefs.

Distractions, Distractions, Distractions

Has this ever happened to you? Despite your best intention to stay focused, you get distracted. Distractions they’re are everywhere.

Your number one culprit? It’s none other than your phone and how it’s set up. I have seen students looking at three screens simultaneously (laptop, phone, and notebook). They try to do work on one, but the others keep interrupting.

To Improve Attention

Below are some methods to decrease the numerous problems of attention. But, it must be said, some of these simple-sounding techniques are difficult to do.

  • Increase the strength of your focus gradually       7. Memorize stuff
  • Create a distraction to-do list                                         8. Read long stuff  
  • Build your willpower                                                            9. Stay curious
  • Meditate                                                                                     10. Practice attentive
  • Practice mindfulness               11. Perform
  • Exercise (your body)

The Ego Defense Mechanisms

National Prtg. & Engr. Co. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde poster. Story by Robert Lewis Stevenson. A story about the two sides of the Ego: a good side and a bad side

There are many of these. Discovered by Sigmund Freud, they share a common function — to reduce anxiety. The key thing to understand is that these mechanisms run unconsciously (repression) or consciously (suppression). But the key thing to understand is that they distort cognition and often are associated with negative emotions such as anger.

Information Transmission Problems

Image by: Stefan Andrej Shambora. High voltage transmission towers and lines.

Transmission of verbal information between two or more people is subject to:

  • Distortion,
  • Deletion, and
  • Additions.

The one that always occurs is deletion. For example, let’s say your manager comes out of a meeting lasting for two hours. You ask, “What happened?” They give you a thirty-second to 1-minute summary — deleting a considerable amount of information.

People don’t always remember the details, and so they will fill them in — this is called addition. Few of us likely remember what we did on our eighth birthday. But if asked, we put together a pretty good story. Distortion is a bit different. Maybe they were talking about apples in the meeting, but what was transmitted about the meeting was a discussion on oranges. Both are fruit, so distorted information still contains some element of truth.


We take the communication of meaning for granted. Most of the time, it works well enough. However, there are numerous communication barriers, some visible–most invisible. These must be dealt with if you are to understand and be understood.

This major verbal barrier communication barrier creates numerous misunderstandings in typical conversations. It refers to cognitive processes in both the sender and the receiver. In one-way communication, the sender dominates, and the receiver acts passively, so very little verbal feedback is available to the sender. This lack of feedback prevents you from checking to ensure the communication is correctly understood. And, of course, written communication is a one-way medium.

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First Published on June 14, 2014. Last Update: October 11, 2023

Work Skills For the 21st Century