Communication Frustration

black Image of scales on white background with the words, "calibrate the scales" overlaid. As with any set of scales, the scales of justice must, from time to time, be recalibrated. Total balance is never achieved, but all in the criminal justice and legal systems must strive for it as much as possible.

It is an irony with the world that whereas knowledge and understanding have increased, so too has an inability to communicate.

Another irony is that although humans have managed to expand the capacity for rapid global communication we often fail to comprehend what is spoken in the same room.  Explanations for this phenomenon, as well as concrete strategies that can be undertaken to avoid communication frustration, abound.

To understand why communications are often frustrated and how to overcome these difficulties, there is a need first to understand how communication occurs.

What IS Communication?

Because communication involves the exchange of information between people (Wallace & Roberson, 2009) it is important to consider how people may perceive what is said or written in different situations.  Often two people can listen to the same speech but hear different messages (Wennergren, 2008).

In a study of audio listening versus audio with visual cues, researchers found that the group receiving visual cues correctly interpreted the audio at a far greater rate than those without (Fraser, Gagne, Alepins, & Dubois, 2010).  This indicates that what is seen is as important as what is heard.  One reason for this is that in an audience situation, it is not uncommon for people to become distracted by something said other than by the speaker.

In criminal justice organizations, understanding this paradigm can mean the difference between life and death.  Often when police officers are being addressed as a group it is in response to some emergency situation when tension tends to run high.  If some in the audience do not give their rapt attention, they could fail to comprehend important information.  This difference in simply hearing versus listening could result in needless injury even death.

The Johari Window is especially useful to criminal justice organizations in uncovering not only the components of communications, but also the barriers that could arise, along with strategies for overcoming these.  For instance, this simple tool illustrates that communication is affected by four areas of knowledge.

Anytime someone communicates a message to others, there exists information

  1. known to all
  2. known only to the sender of the message
  3. known only to the receivers
  4. unknown to all.

Messages are interpreted according to known information.  For communication to be effective, the interpretation must be accurate and agreed upon by all (Wallace & Roberson, 2009).  This can be achieved only when those present hold the same views and have the same knowledge.  Thus police organizations need to maintain effective communication both on formal and informal levels so that each person will have equal access to vital information.  This helps to explain why,

“more-decentralized communication networks are faster at solving complex problems [than] centralized” (Wallace & Roberson, 2009, p. 40).

Formal Versus Informal Communication in Criminal Justice

In organizations, criminal justice included, formal, and informal channels of communication each come with certain advantages and disadvantages.  Formal channels allow uniformity, but tend to restrict the free flow of information that helps organizations maintain solidarity.  Conversely, informal channels permit this free flow of information but tend to restrict uniformity.  What is needed, of course, is balance if supervisors are to glean the advantages of each to the benefit of all (Wallace & Roberson, 2009).

Regardless of the form of communication, there exist certain barriers to understanding that must be overcome.  Among these are Emotional, physical, and semantic barriers.  As noted in the study by Fraser, Gagne, Alepins, and Dubois (2010), one such physical barrier is hearing loss, to give an example.  Another example of a physical barrier would be technical difficulties such as equipment malfunctions.  Emotional barriers usually stem from personal experience and this can cause communication to either breakdown or be nonexistent.  An example of an emotional barrier would be low self-esteem (Wallace & Roberson, 2009).

Barriers to Effective Communication in Criminal Justice

However, one of the greatest barriers to effective communication involves semantics, that is, the understanding each individual affected by the communication has of certain words and phrases.  In every profession there are terms and expressions that hold meaning; the criminal justice organization is no different.  However, whereas certain terms and phrases hold meaning for the mass of officers, those same words and phrases may hold a different meaning or connotation for others.  This can cause problems when speaking with the public or even within the organization if words are not carefully chosen (Wallace & Roberson, 2009).

In fact, according to the Journal of International Diversity, “The closeness of the sender’s background with the receiver’s helps determine how closely the receiver understands/interprets the message intended by the other party (Waltman & Wagner-Marsh, 2010, p. 93).  In other words, when two people come from similar social backgrounds, the likelihood of being properly understood increases; conversely, if two people are dissimilar, the likelihood of miscommunication increases.  This is something to keep in mind when addressing any audience whether it is one person or one hundred.

A final barrier to communication exists that involves the ability to listen.  Anyone who has ever had to listen to a boring speaker can attest that in such circumstances, listening is difficult.  Even when a person know that this speaker has vital information to present, if the speaker is dull or uninteresting, listening becomes a major task.  This is natural considering humans tend to be poor listeners anyway.  Of course, other similar reasons for difficulty in listening could include a boring topic, outside stress (concern for an ill family member, financial worries, or other such situations), external distractions, and emotional bias (Wallace & Roberson, 2009).  On this last reason, much has been written in recent years because of growth in international relations, even on local levels of criminal justice organizations (Lauring, 2011).

Naturally, it is one thing to be aware of the problems and causes that can arise in communicating effectively, but to benefit from this awareness one must be able to formulate and affect strategies for overcoming deficiencies.  This is of the greatest importance in policing organizations for again, lives are often at stake.

Strategies for Improving Communication in Criminal Justice

Two of the best strategies for overcoming the difficulties in communicating are…

  • active listening
  • feedback

By developing active listening habits, one can better understand what is being said and through feedback, one can determine if what is communicated is correctly received.

Never before has the need for law enforcement officers to develop good listening skills coupled with strategies for understanding been greater.  The boom period of the 1990s when prison populations exploded and Parole and Probation programs were downsized is over and many offenders are returning to the streets without strict oversight programs.  This has created a void in social structures related to these former offenders and that void is increasingly being placed on the shoulders of street-level law enforcement officers (Smith, 2003).  Hence, there is a greater need for these officers to develop skills not as needed in the past.


The book, Written and Interpersonal Communication lists “10 Keys to Effective Listening” that can be summed up by a few simple principles (Wallace & Roberson, 2009, p. 52). These are:

  • Be patient
  • open-minded
  • and care

As for feedback; this is a two-way street.  One would provide feedback when listening to another and should request feedback, often by way of additional clarifying questions, after providing information.  Anyone tasked with the job of communicating would need foremost to keep in mind the goal of any communication, namely, to convey accurate information.  By following these simple steps, anyone can eliminate the frustration of poor communication.

You May Also Like to Read:


  • Fraser, S., Gagne’, J., Alepins, M., & Dubois, P. (2010, February). Evaluating the effort expended to understand speech in noise using a dual-task paradigm: the effects of providing visual speech cues. Journal of Speech, Language, & Hearing Research, 53(1), 18-33.
  • Lauring, J. (2011, July). Intercultural Organizational Communication: The Social Organizing of Interaction in International Encounters. Journal of Business Communication, 48(3), 231-255.
  • Smith, L. J. (2003). The organizational environment and its influence on state criminal justice systems within the united states and the offender re-integration process. Criminal Justice Studies, 16(2), 97-112.
  • Wallace, H., & Roberson, C. (2009). Written and Interpersonal Communication: Methods for Law Enforcement (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentis Hall.
  • Waltman, J., & Wagner-Marsh, F. (2010). Adapting for Diversity: Overcoming Key Communication Barriers for Human Resource Professionals. Journal of International Diversity, 1(4), 92-104.
  • Wennergren, A. (2008, March). The Best Listening Environment in School According to Hard-of-hearing Pupils. Journal of Disability Research, 10(1), 29-48.

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