Four obstacles that block team communication

Learn about a conversation model you can use to work through conflict or to solve problems together as a team.

Steffan Surdek
June 28, 2021
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Think back to the last team meeting where you tried to solve a problem together as a group. Did you hop from one topic to the next, or did you end up spinning around in circles? Did you walk out with no clear conclusion?

When one of these scenarios ends up happening, it is usually because there are some things that are getting in the way of the conversation.

In this article, I will introduce you to the conflict resolution model that I speak about in my workshop on the 5 Key Skills of a High Performing Team. This model will help you better understand what is going on in these types of situations.

First, define the issue

To start, every problem-solving conversation you have with your team should be around one issue. The issue is a topic, a concern or a specific problem that needs to be talked about. Before initiating a conversation, it needs to be clear and agreed upon by everyone around the table.

If you do not have one clear topic, the conversation is bound to go all over the place. To stay focused, the conversation needs to stay around that specific issue. But that is sometimes easier said than done. What happens is that we often bump into different obstacles that prevent us from focusing on the issue.

Here are four of the main obstacles that can get in your way and affect the quality of a conversation.

1- Informational obstacles

The first type of obstacle we typically encounter is informational obstacles. This boils down to one question: "Are we on topic?" Sometimes people think they are talking about a problem, but they are actually talking about a related, but different problem.

They are sharing information or opinions that are really about something else. That pulls the conversation away from its original focus.

This is why identifying the issue is key. One trick I like to give is to have the topic visible for everyone when you are talking. That way, when you start to notice the conversation is going off track, you can point back to it and ask: "Are we still talking about this?"

2- Environmental obstacles

Another type of obstacle is environmental. This represents the atmosphere, location and timing the discussion is happening in. These can affect how the conversation will go.

For example, imagine you are in an in-person meeting, but the room is too small and no one is comfortable. That will affect how you are trying to talk. It will cause people to want to get out of there as soon as possible.

Maybe a coffee shop is not the right place to talk about confidential information. People may be more careful about what they share and how they share it in that context. Ask yourself: Is this the right place to have that type of conversation?

When you are feeling under pressure or you have a tight deadline, you may start talking about things too fast. Talking about a problem in 5 minutes rather than taking an hour to understand each other may not be beneficial.

A person's mood can also play a part. If they had a bad day or are not in the right headspace, it may not be conducive to the conversation you are trying to have.

If there are internal politics at play or taboos in the company culture, those are also obstacles. The current context of the company is also important to consider: if there have been layoffs recently and the morale is low, for example.

3- Relational obstacles

These obstacles are around the relationships between the people that are trying to have the conversation. If two people on the team don't get along, it can get in the way of clear communication. Others may try to manage the conversation so they don't really have to speak to each other.

Someone's reputation or title may also create an obstacle. If the President or a Vice-President is in the meeting, people may be afraid to rock the boat. They may not want to say there is a problem or throw another person under the bus.

If two teams or two departments have unresolved issues, that could also affect how people interact with each other. People may come into the discussion with stories in their mind about the other party and their motives.

4- Individual obstacles

Finally, we have individual obstacles. This is about the individual people and the qualities they bring to the discussion. What is the experience and knowledge of the people who are present? Are they the right people to talk about this topic?

For example, having a very senior person in the organization talk with junior hires may not yield the same results. They may not all have the required skill set to engage in the conversation that you need to have.

Sometimes people's emotional intelligence or personal styles are different. A person can say something that seems perfectly fine to them, but that winds up being completely insensitive to others. That will impact how you are able to have the conversation or not.

Values and self-confidence can also play a part. If someone has impostor syndrome, they may not want to speak up and express their point of view.

How to use the model

The goal of using this model is to develop awareness. When you can see what is blocking a conversation, you can also address it. Then you can undo the knot and bring things back on track. It becomes about better supporting the discussion.

The important thing is to choose to practice this together as a team. You can practice by asking everyone to try to call out the obstacles while discussing.

For informational obstacles, it is around focusing all the facts and perspectives being shared on the topic at hand. Is everything about the issue? If not, you can say: "That's a great point of view, but are you sure it's about the problem we are trying to discuss right now?"

Another way I like to do this is: "Are we having the right conversation right now?" Sometimes you may realize you need to talk about a different thing.

With environmental obstacles, it is about realizing that you are not in the right place or the right timing to have the discussion. Then you can choose a setting that is more appropriate.

When relational obstacles are present, it is about realizing how the relationships between people and between groups can support or hinder the conversation. When it hinders it, you can name it: "Right now, I understand each team is seeing this in a different way..."

If you see an individual obstacle, it is OK to name it too. Sometimes, it is about giving space for it and accepting people where they are at.

To dig deeper, you can also learn about our article on the four parts of speech that you can use to make your team communication more productive.


When you are in a meeting, the important thing is to start recognizing when one of these things happen. Be on the lookout for the obstacles as they appear throughout the conversation. Pay attention and listen.

When someone brings up something that is not related to the issue, call it out. If you see people are stressed or in a rush, ask if these are the optimal conditions to be taking this decision.

If you know people have a difference of opinion or an individual obstacle, you can help facilitate their participation in the conversation. The main thing is to manage the discussion by always bringing it back to the issue.

How could you approach your team conversations differently? What results could you create by removing obstacles in your conversations with your employees and colleagues?