In December 2006, while developing a leadership programme for Airbus, I met an executive whose youngest son was born without hearing. Through this man and www.WebSourd.org, a French-language webite that he founded to offer online sign-language translation services, I became familiar with the silent culture of deaf people. As I immersed myself in their visual, intensely expressive language, I realised that through their "handicap" deaf people had developed certain communication skills more thoroughly than most hearing people, which made them uncommonly effective at getting their point across. Thus a radical experiment was born: to work with deaf people as communication consultants for our corporate clients.
To improve your "hearing", consider some of these lessons from our experiences:
- Look people in the eye. During one conversation I was struck by something a young woman had said, so I started to write it down in my notebook. Suddenly the atmosphere changed. I looked up and saw the woman frowning angrily at me. I asked her, through an interpreter, what was wrong.
"You are being very rude," she replied. "Why?" I asked, totally lost. "Because you cut the conversation," she responded, explaining that when I stopped looking her in the eye, I also stopped our communication. "I apologise," I said. "But what you just said was interesting, and I didn't want to forget it."
Her answer was quick and sharp: "No, Bruno. You don't write to remember. You don't remember because you write!" I was incredulous. "What are you saying? That because you didn't take any notes during this meeting, you will be able to remember everything?" Calmly, she answered, "That's correct. Since I don't write, I'm more present in the interaction and I can concentrate more. And the more I do it, the better I remember."
Ten days later, when I met this young woman again, she was able to recall not just everything we covered in the original meeting, but also the colour of my shirt and tie, and even how many chairs were in the room. From that day on, I stopped taking notes during meetings and interviews. Since then, my memory has improved.
- Don't interrupt. Deaf people follow a very strict protocol: Only one person signs at a time. If another person tries to interrupt, the others in the group shake their right hands to signify to the "interrupter" that he or she must wait until the "speaker" is finished. This approach to communication, which at first feels slow, is in fact extremely efficient because there is much less misunderstanding to explain or recover from. Consensus and agreement are arrived at more quickly than during a typical raucous overlapping conversation.
By communicating sequentially, a deaf person ensures that he or she first understands the other speaker before trying to be understood. Try this the next time you're in a business discussion: let the other person finish what he or she has to say, then silently count to three before responding.
- Say what you mean, as simply as possible. Deaf people are direct. The deaf tend not to hide behind soft language, struggling to find the most diplomatic wording and hoping that the listener will be able to discern what they "really" mean. Deaf people reveal not only their thoughts, but also their feelings, both positive and negative, more clearly than hearing people do, as they express them with their whole bodies.
Similarly, the deaf are often far better than hearing people at finding the most economical way to convey their message. For example, I wanted to tell one of our deaf trainers about my last trip to India. I didn't know the sign for India, so I was forced to improvise.
I tried drawing maps with my finger, and then tried to come up with gestures for cultural symbols. Suddenly, I saw a light in his eyes. With a big smile, he took his index finger and placed it between his eyebrows – his sign for the familiar Bindi adornment – asking me to confirm.
- When you don't understand something, ask. Because sign language is a constantly evolving language new signs emerge all the time. Consequently, even if they use the same national sign language, two deaf people from different parts of the same country will use words unique to their region. Aware of this, deaf people feel completely at ease saying "I don't know" or "I don't understand."
Those of us with hearing aren't nearly as willing to admit confusion or lack of comprehension. We often sit silently in meetings, while our colleagues use acronyms or technical jargon we don't grasp because we think asking for clarification is a sign of weakness. Ironically, we'd rather leave a meeting clueless than risk being perceived as stupid. A better approach, which encourages people to speak up, is to ask each person, individually, whether he or she would like clarification about anything that has been discussed.
- Stay focused. The deaf cut themselves off from any distractions, they don't multitask, and they focus their attention entirely on the conversation. In a recent meeting with some deaf people, I presented a new workflow chart. I gave them each a document outlining the programme, planning to elaborate on it as they read the material. One of them stopped me and asked if they should first read, then discuss or first discuss, then read. Doing both at the same time was impossible to them – and of course, despite what we try to do, it is also impossible for us.
Overall, the most inspiring thing about communication with deaf people – and the behaviour most worth emulating – is their incredibly strong desire to exchange information efficiently and without adornment.
This desire is so strong, in fact, that it often highlights how feeble, misguided, and wishy-washy our own attempts at dialogue are by comparison. It turns out that the people who are truly handicapped in communication are not necessarily those with a physical disability.
- Bruno Kahne is senior consultant at AirBusiness Academy, a training and research consultancy in Blagnac, France, serving the aeronautical industry. The New York Times Syndicate's Global Business Perspectives.