10 Barriers to Connecting with Others


We know rudeness gets in the way of relating to others at work. But even common, well-meaning responses can block us from connecting with others. Being present and truly listening enhances collaboration with others, improves our leadership abilities, and helps us make meaningful connections with those around us. What can we do to improve our ability to listen and connect with others at work?

10 Common Barriers to Connection

Here are ten common ways we prevent ourselves from being present and truly listening to others. This list was originally compiled by empathy expert Holley Humphrey. Which of these do you find yourself engaging in most often?

  1. Advising: “I think you should…”
  2. One-upping: “That’s nothing; wait’ll you hear what happened to me.”
  3. Educating: “This could turn into a very positive experience for you if you just…”
  4. Consoling: “It wasn’t your fault; you did the best you could.”
  5. Story-telling: “That reminds me of the time…”
  6. Shutting down: “Cheer up. Don’t feel so bad.”
  7. Sympathizing: “Oh, you poor thing…”
  8. Interrogating: “When did this begin?”
  9. Explaining: “I would have called but…”
  10. Correcting: “That’s not how it happened.”

We know these barriers well – some may even feel automatic or helpful. They are so familiar we hardly see the invisible walls they build between people. How can we remove these barriers and genuinely connect?

Removing the Barriers

Spark empathy by listening for the feeling or need the person is experiencing in that moment. Try to paraphrase their words and speak to the feeling or need they are expressing. This shows respect for the other person and helps them feel heard and understood.

For example, a coworker shares with you that they hardly slept all weekend because they were so worried about a presentation Monday morning. Which response will make them feel heard? A) “It sounds like work has been so stressful for you lately that it’s hard to relax.” or B) “Relax! It could be worse! Maybe you could try meditating.”

While neither response is wrong, the first response would show a deeper level of listening to your coworker. This kind of response encourages your coworker to share more about their experience which strengthens your connection.

Something to Try: “Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There”

Notice if these barriers have become automatic reactions in yourself and those you interact with regularly. The next time you are listening to someone at work, resist the knee-jerk tendency to respond with one of these barriers. Instead, try to just be present with the person. As the Zen saying goes, “Don’t just do something, stand there”. If you notice these barriers show up in the conversation, listen carefully for the person’s feeling or need.

Danielle Metzinger is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Short and to the point. Very good. It is really disturbing when I tell someone something and they tell me what I should do (like I am an idiot, and they are unaware of my limitations), when someone says to meditate (hahaha… but when she was stressed, and I gave the same advice, she didn’t like that), when you tell someone something and whatever you say they criticize (my mother), when you try to one-up someone (I was telling a co-worker I was sorry about her brother’s passing, when he comes another co-worker, interrupting us and talking about how sad she was when her elderly mother died — huh?), or how about “everything happens for a reason or “god will take care of you,”, or the lack of understanding that your issues are more than theirs when they compare, or the statement that it could be worse, blah, blah, blah….

Danielle Metzinger

Exactly right, Deb! Thank you for sharing those examples. This kind of interaction is so automatic and so unhelpful to others. Hopefully we can have greater awareness of these patterns and begin to change them.

Patty W

I loved this article. It is a great reminder of some of the things we can say when attempting to display our understanding that can injure a relationship. I don’t believe that anyone says these types of things in an attempt to devalue or disregard what a person is saying to them, but that’s how it feels to the receiver. Thank you for the reminder.

Alexis Camins

In some parenting circles, they refer to something called broadcasting, where you simply state what you are seeing – without judgement or opinion “You look really upset.”, “You look disappointed about that last comment.”, “Talking about this is getting you excited”. It validates the person’s experience and let’s them know that you are listening and are tuned in to what is happening.

In my experience, it works on kids . . . and adults!