Overcoming Communication Barriers



Today I went out to get some exercise by running to pick up a few things at a local store.  Many times on my runs, I am able to open my mind and ponder over life and work problems.  During this particular six mile run, I was stopped by a young lady in a car.  When she caught my attention, she waved me to her car.  Upon approaching, she made it clear that she was mute.  She was highly agitated but I waited to see what she was going to do next.  She pulled out her iPhone and opened a web page that had a store address on it; she was obviously lost.  This store was next to where I was headed.  I thought “no problem” and proceeded to give her directions.  She stopped me and motioned that she was also deaf.

I immediately switched to panic mode and thought:

  1. How am I going to help this poor lady?
  2. I looked in her car (which was very clean and new) and wondered if I should offer to ride with her to the store:
    1. Was I willing to take the risk that she was a serial killer trying to get me into her car? No!
    2. Was there a pen and paper visible that I could write the directions on? No!
  3. Could I speak slowly and use my hands to direct her to the store? Perhaps, but I do not know sign language!

Taking a gamble on the latter, I slowly talked her through the turns while pointing to the road ahead.  Luckily, there were only two turns to get to the store.  She used her hands and repeated what I had shown her. She thanked me with sign language (I do know that sign) and was off.  The good news is that when I reached my destination, her car was in the parking lot.

I started thinking on the way back from the store about the many communication barriers project managers often face on a project.  For example:

  1. Language differences
  2. Co-location of project team members
  3. TAWAU (The acronyms we all use)
  4. Cultural differences
  5. Psychological drivers
  6. Barriers caused by varying perceptions of reality
  7. Barriers caused by differing levels of understanding and comprehension

This experience made me think about the importance of breaking down communication barriers on projects.  I like to believe that I positively impacted that young lady’s day by finding a way to communicate with her.  It is the responsibility of any project manager to adjust how we communicate by understanding the needs of our audience. I often say that “understanding” is the first step for “improving.”

Language Differences
Trying to communicate with someone that is deaf or mute is difficult.  Another example is working with someone that does not share your first language.  I have struggled with understanding people whose first language is not English.  When faced with this barrier, you may have to communicate in writing or use images to facilitate better communication.

Co-Location of Project Team Members
When working on projects that have team members in different locations, it is very hard to pick up on the non-verbal forms of communication.  Consider how much information we convey with a smile or a frown.  When you are on conference calls, you miss out on this important form of non-verbal communication.  My suggestion is to use video conferencing where possible to convey this non-verbal feedback.

The Use of Acronyms
You should stop and take count of how many times a day you or someone on your team uses acronyms.  If someone new joins the team this could really be an obstacle if your corporate culture is driven by the use of acronyms.  You could create a “cheat sheet” as a project tool that could be used to help new team members transition on the team more easily.

Cultural Differences
I work for a company based in Ireland.  I joined this company after spending most of my career working for US-based organizations.  One of the biggest lessons I learned about the Irish was that using surnames to address them is in very poor taste.  I was only told this after being with the company a year while out at a pub.  Imagine my embarrassment when I thought back to all the times I had done this on calls and in person.  In my mind it was easier to use surnames and common in previous companies I worked for when addressing individuals on calls that shared the same first name.  Now that I have learned this I try to address team members by their first name and first initial of their last name.  I would encourage you to understand cultural differences when you work on projects that have project team members in other areas of the world.

Psychological Drivers
You can learn a lot about project team members during the course of a project.  What motivates these individuals is very important to know.  One of the best examples is recognition.  I am motivated by doing a good job and being recognized for the hard work needed to achieve positive results.  I do not mind how this recognition is given; it could be verbal 1×1, verbal in a team setting, email, or corporate reward structure.  There are team members that cringe at the thought of being publicly recognized and are not motivated by recognition.  They may be motivated by time off in lieu, money, or many other factors.  It is important to understand what motivates your team members so that you do not accidentally use a form of recognition with them that is unwelcome.

Barriers Caused by Varying Perceptions of Reality
All of us synthesize our decisions through a lens of past experiences.  Depending on our experience level and the environment in which we grew up or currently live, our decision making processes are quite different.  There have been times that I struggled with understanding why someone could not move past a specific issue.  It was not clear until they let me know that this issue was something that they had previously encountered on a project and had a very negative outcome that directly impacted their employment.  As soon as I understood this barrier, we worked together to articulate the risk associated with the issue and clearly document mitigation activities.

Barriers Caused By Differing Levels of Understanding and Comprehension
Not all project team members have the same education level and comprehension speed.  It is important to take the time to understand what each individual brings to the project and how best to utilize those skills for successful delivery.  On one project I worked, one of the development team leads was especially good at working through logical timeline facilitation activities.  Typically these sessions would have been facilitated by the project manager.  On this team the project manager was new to the role and was not comfortable standing in front of the team facilitating this activity.  I instead approached the project manager about giving the team lead the opportunity to demonstrate leadership skills by giving him the opportunity to run the session.  I immediately saw relief on the face of the project manager and he was actually excited to approach the team lead with the request.  The team lead agreed and felt like he had been recognized as someone that could do something more than just lead developers in writing code.

The key takeaway from this article is the importance of taking the time to identify barriers you may face on your project and determine the best strategies to communicate effectively.

A special thank you to Jerry Johns for acting as my editor on this article!