Overcoming Noisy Communication

Noise hinders communication. It’s so obvious that I hesitate to say it. But it is often something that is overlooked when we are planning communication activities with stakeholders.

Noise, in communication terms, means any interference that makes it harder for the stakeholder to firstly receive, then interpret the message and its meaning. Communication noise can have a profound impact on our perception of our communications – we can believe that we are doing far better than we actually are.

Project communication management is especially important, because we need people to understand what we are talking about and take the relevant action so they can engage their teams or do a particular task. If your message is not understood, that can put your project at risk.

There are 3 types of noise to consider in communication, and the first one is something you’ll instantly recognize.

Physical noise

Physical noise is relatively easy to understand – noisy rooms, traffic, other conversations and so on. If you’ve ever had a conversation with someone who is driving, you’ll know that the background noise can make it really hard to be understood and to understand what they are saying too.

Let’s take that one for granted and look at two other types of noise that we should consider when we are communicating at work:

  • Psychological noise
  • Semantic noise.

Let’s look at both of those in more detail.

Psychological noise

What is psychological noise?

Psychological noise is where we bring preconceived ideas to conversations, such as stereotypes, reputations, and assumptions.

Psychological noise arises when we have our own biases prior to receiving information. And that’s normal. Everyone does.

Human beings don’t behave as robots. It is impossible to simply send, receive and process purely factual information alone. So there will be psychological noise, it is inevitable.

Examples of psychological noise

Here are some examples of psychological noise:

  • Someone says: “I’ve got a new project for you,” and you start worrying about whether they need it done this week and how you will fit it in.
  • Someone says: “Here is some data I’ve gathered,” and you discount their research because past experience has shown you that they are unreliable so you stop listening.

Psychological noise at work can also be being distracted by chat messages in a meeting, thinking about other things while in conversation with others, letting your mind wander during a webinar, worrying about house and family things while at work, and lots more.

What can you do about psychological noise?

As a sender or receiver of communications, our brain will often, and very quickly, kick into an automatic mode leading to unconscious bias. The next time you see a well-known politician on television try to recognize what you are feeling about them at that moment – what bias is at work?

As communicators we need to realize that this is happening. Noise in the communication process is inevitable because we all bring our past and current experiences to what we hear and see. So what can we do about this unconscious bias, this psychological noise?

Well, we can be mindful. You may have come across the idea of mindfulness. It is about being fully present in the current situation; being aware of the context in which you are communicating, and being aware of your emotional state.

As communicators, we also need to have an awareness of the various different perspectives that others might have, of a situation. Remember that listening is also part of communicating.

Read next: 20 books on communication in the workplace

Semantic noise

What is semantic noise?

Semantic noise occurs when grammar or technical language is used that the receiver cannot understand, or cannot understand clearly.

This means that the ‘decoding’ of the message is made far more difficult for the person receiving it. Semantic noise occurs when the sender of the message uses a word or a phrase that we don’t know the meaning of, or which we use in a different way from the speaker.

You might have been in a presentation when a speaker is using complex jargon or images of which you have little or no understanding. Or perhaps when a speaker has used a word or phrase that has a very different meaning to the people in the room, sometimes resulting in a wave of muffled giggles in the audience.

[Elizabeth says: I was in a workshop once when the non-English speaker who had the floor said ‘lingerie’ instead of ‘laundry’ and made the mistake several times before anyone corrected him. Not quite what John means but it still resulted in giggles.]

Semantic noise is usually due to our failure as the sender of the communication. We have not understood who our audience is and what they know. The type and nature of audience is what should determine the language, and any jargon that we will use.

What can you do about semantic noise?

Here are some considerations for reducing semantic noise.

  • The length of our messages, are they long and rambling? Remember, less is more!
  • Watch out for your grammar. Mistakes can be so distracting.
  • Share only the information that is relevant. Often we overdo the facts and forget to engage the emotion.
  • Explain technical language. Do not assume knowledge!

So, if you care about your communications with stakeholders, consider where there might be noise in the communication process and then take steps to reduce or eliminate it wherever you can, bearing in mind the principle ‘Seek first to understand, then be understood’.

Next steps

  • Download a communication plan template so you can be more mindful of how your are managing workplace communications, especially on projects.
  • Look at the meetings you have got booked and consider how you can reduce physical, psychological and semantic noise in those sessions.
  • Review these practical tips for communication in teams.

A version of this article first appeared in 2017.