It’s happened again. Once more, I didn’t hear the oven beeper and instead of a fruit cake for the bake sale, I’m left with a charcoaled brick. When will I learn that that buzzer is no use to me at all? You see, it’s not just that I am absent minded from birth. Its also that I have lifelong partial hearing loss. There are certain pitches I just cannot and never have been able to hear.
When I look back on the impact my hearing loss has had, its not just a litany of burnt offerings that I see. I also see the child who didn’t understand why the noise of a busy classroom was so distracting. I remember the teenager who felt isolated in gaggles of girls when she just couldn’t follow any of the conversations around her. I now understand why everyone else knew the lyrics to songs at gigs when I just mouthed along in the hope that no-one noticed how uncool I was.
It wasn’t until I was in my mid-thirties that my hearing loss was diagnosed when my new-born daughter passed her hearing test and I failed. It was some years later that I conceded that a hearing aid may help. The first time I put it in, I couldn’t believe how loud the birds were and had to ask one of my kids if the computer always made that noise when Windows opened up. But by then, I was too used to ‘my hearing’ to stick to using the aid long enough to retrain my brain to hear in this new way. To my family’s constant annoyance, I haven’t got a new one since the dog had a chew at the last one.
And that’s not just because I am absent minded. It’s also because I think my hearing loss is part of who I am and the person I have become. Looking back, I think it also explains why I am so passionate and concerned about enabling good communication. Because I know only too well how frustrating it can be to be on the receiving end of incomplete, inconsiderate and non-inclusive conversations.
I am a firm believer that every lived experience brings an experience that has helped us to live- and may help others to learn. My lived experience of partial (and undiagnosed) deafness has, I have realised, taught me so many important lessons about how we don’t just use sound to communicate. There are clues and cues that are available to us all, if only we know how and where to look. We indicate our intentions through our body language and our facial expressions. We demonstrate our desire to engage by how we prepare for meetings and what space we open up for others. We reveal our reliance on systems when we spend more time interacting with them than the people who are within that system.
The problem is that all too often, people do not take the time to consider all these different aspects to communication. We think that we communicate using words alone. This can be exclusionary not just to those of us who struggle to hear but for so many others – those who get into tangles with the written word, those whose first language isn’t English, those for whom certain words are trauma triggering, those for whom certain environments are inaccessible due to physical or socio-economic restrictions, those who are not versed in the jargon that others speak. To name just a few. How have you reflected on and adapted your communication style to include them?
One of the many messages from our pandemic times that I hope you have heard is that good – and bad – communication can have a huge impact on us, our workplaces and our communities. We have all had to learn about different ways to connect and communicate. We know that one size does not fit all, that online may work when previously we thought impossible, that face to face may be more hassle but sometimes oh so necessary and that hybrid is so very hard to make work as you are trying to communicate in two entirely different worlds. But now we ‘getting back to normal’ are we giving enough space and time to reflect on what we have learned and then adapt our practices round it?
Some people are. I am hearing more and more of leaders and teams who are so concerned about how they connect and communicate with each other that they are taking time and giving space to reflect on what they have learned. If they are really brave, some are even creating protected and creative places to try to regain what they have lost by way of personal connections during the time when the only means to connect were electronic. I am lucky enough to work with some of them, to help them reflect on what they want, to listen to what they need and to enable everyone hear from the whole team about how they might take things forward in a more inclusive, human and considered way. It is a wonderful thing to bear witness to.
Yet for every one organisation that is taking the time to do this, there are a hundred who are not. And that’s understandable. Time is such a precious resource and there are so many other things we can and need to fill it with. But before you move on to whatever you think the new normal is, can I ask you to think about what the old normal was for people that you serve, work with and care about. How do they hear what you were saying? How do you listen to what they need? How do you connect and communicate with each other – and does it work for you all?
If ever there was a time to talk about how we talk, it is now. I for one am enjoying hearing the babble of conversation that is starting about this but I would like the volume to be turned up a little. I am hard of hearing, after all. What could you do about it? Let’s talk about it sometime soon. I can’t wait to hear from you.