I was born with a hearing loss. As a kid, I wore hearing aids in both ears, and as one might imagine, the teasing was merciless. I will never forget my first day of high school as a 13 year old, walking into my first period history class and Sam, a boy on whom I had a crush, saying loudly, “Hey look! It’s the deaf girl!”
Wearing hearing aids was not high on my list as a teen, and I did not wear them all through my undergraduate days, though I could have used them in those 100+ people lecture halls. The moment I realized I didn’t care anymore that I have only 60% hearing in one ear, and 68% in the other? The day I became a parent. I didn’t want to not be able to hear my son calling me, or be able to hear school performances (microphones and large echoing gymnasiums are not my friend when it comes to being able to hear). Now, I don’t care who knows: I sometimes struggle to hear.
The reality? According to the National Institute for Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/statistics/pages/quick.aspx ), one in eight people in the United States aged 12 years or older has hearing loss in both ears, based on standard hearing examinations.
That being said, in the spirit of creating increased awareness, I offer a few tips for the workplace that may help all people have better heard conversations:
1. Ups and Downs. Avoid conversations in stairwells where heels are clacking, many people are using the stairs at the same time, and you are unable to look at the person to whom you’re speaking.
2. Flush First! Please do not have work-related conversations while in the restroom. It’s uncomfortable for many reasons, poor acoustics aside.
3. Music/Other Background Noises. Conversations or presentations where people are speaking with music in the background can make it difficult to hear. Consider this when having work conversations or designing training programs or eLearning courses with music accompanying audio.
4. Whispering Woes. If you need to share some information that you don’t want everyone to hear, don’t whisper in the cubicle; find a place to have the conversation privately so that you can speak in a normal tone and volume.
5. Phone Ps & Qs. On conference calls, hold each other accountable for practicing good phone etiquette, such as: muting the phone when not speaking, saying your name before stating your comment (not all people can differentiate voices easily), and not having side conversations that mute the speaker’s voice.
6. ABCs and 123s. A simple way to ensure people are getting the right information is to, where possible, say numbers and letters in such a way that there is no mistaking them. For example, B and P (or S and F) may sound alike via the phone or even in person, to someone with a hearing difficulty. Why not say, “B as in Boy, P as in Popsicle?” Consider numbers: Nine-five-two, fifty-six-oh-three. I have to ask, did you say “5 – 6-0-3, or 6-6-03?” When giving directions, say, “get off the elevator on floor 5” rather than “fifth” floor.
7. Check In vs. Call Out. If you are aware that a person on your team has a hearing loss, check in with him/her on occasion to see if how things are working is in a way that they can hear. It’s not necessary to single out the person in a meeting by saying, “Gabriella, can you hear?” (This happens more than one might think.)
8. Face Time. On occasion, I am asked, “Are you ok? You look mad.” I had a boss ask me this after a conference room meeting filled with many attendees, plus those on speaker phone. I was so surprised. Actually, I had been concentrating so hard to hear that apparently my brows were furrowed. I work very hard not to do this now; I am not always successful, but at least my boss understood that my face meant, “focused” and not “furious.” Have you ever learned a foreign language? Had to concentrate so hard just to understand what the speaker was saying? That is my reality, particularly in situations where acoustics are poor, or the setting is made up of many competing sounds. Which leads me to #9.
9. Be curious. You may be amazed the things you learn from someone who has a physical difficulty. For example, I often hear BETTER than others in a crowded cafeteria where I am facing the person to whom I’m listening, because I read lips. I will never forget the graduate advisor who thanked me for teaching him about what a person goes through to get accommodation when he/she can’t hear in a university setting. I never thought about it that way before, and it reinforced my resolve to never be ashamed to say, “I’m having trouble hearing you. Can we have this conversation when we get to the bottom of the stairs?”
Yes, I have a hearing loss. Yes, I am listening, and I want to hear you and be successful in my working relationships. Will you hear me?