Posted on: May 4th, 2012 by Jen Mueller

I felt a sense of helplessness wash over me yesterday prior to the Mariners game against the Tampa Rays.  Never before had I run into such a challenging communication barrier.

Communication Barriers - Obvious vs. Subtle

A Mariners fan had waved me over to the stands where he held a ball, a pen and a notepad.  I walked over to him and he pointed to his ears indicating he was deaf.  Then he showed me a note that said, “I am from Tokyo and I am deaf.  I would like to ask for an autograph for my 2 deaf children back in Tokyo.”


As I read the note, the man gave me a hopeful look.  I looked up at him and just stood there.

I wanted to help this man.  After my recent trip to Japan with the Mariners, I understood the challenges of being in a foreign country and dealing with the communication barriers that come with not speaking the language.  I couldn’t imagine how much more challenging it would be without the ability to hear anything.

I learned sign language in 5th grade and can still fingerspell enough to get by, but how to you sign in Japanese?  The man handed me the paper and pen so I could write a note, but he didn’t understand English.  I tried shrugging my shoulders as if to say, ‘I don’t know what to do?’ He responded body language that suggested he was confused and wanted to know if he should just stay put.

This was a challenge I was not going to overcome on my own.  I gave the man a quick sign to wait right there and ducked inside the dugout in search of one of the Japanese translators who travels with the team.  I explained the situation and hoped that he would be able to at least write a note to the man with an answer to his request.

About 15 minutes later, I glanced over and saw the face of a beaming fan, clutching an autographed ball for his children.


In this example there are two very obvious communication barriers – the language barrier and hearing impairment.  Once they’re identified they’re much easier to address.  The problem for most of us, is that we’re unaware of the communication barriers that face us everyday in the workplace.  The subtle differences between the way you and your colleagues interact could be creating as many challenges as speaking a different language.  For example, what about the coworker who spends 10 minutes giving a project update that should have taken 2 minutes?  At what point did you tune out and miss critical information?  That’s a communication barrier.  If it goes unnoticed and never gets addressed the barrier gets bigger and the problems that come as a result get bigger too.

Your ability to communicate at work plays a large roll in your success.  Avoiding barriers to that communication will reduce your frustration and enable your work to shine.

The good news is that most people want to understand you.  Anyone watching the scene between me and the fan in Tampa, could tell we were both working to solve the problem and doing our best to understand each other.

When it comes to our workplace challenges, clearly identifying the problem is key.  That’s exactly what I address in a new program called “What Do I Say?”  It’s a weekly program that will help you identify barriers to communication, learn how to overcome them and understand why you can’t let your work speak for itself and expect to get ahead.

You’ll lose the feeling of helplessness and become a more confident and effective communicator in just a few months.  Start removing those communication barriers today.