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Lessons of Silence

What the deaf can teach us about listening — and making ourselves heard.

In December 2006, while developing a leadership program for Airbus, I met an executive whose youngest son was born without hearing. Through this man and, a French-language Web site 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 realized 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. The idea was not to teach our clients sign language — although some of our deaf trainers remain convinced that such training would resolve many problems — but to help them adopt communication skills from the deaf world that would make them better colleagues and managers.

When they interact with one another, deaf people act in ways that let them communicate more rapidly and accurately than hearing people. Some of these behaviors are simple and obvious, but it’s remarkable how often hearing people do the opposite. To improve your “hearing,” consider some of these lessons from our experiences and training sessions.

1. Look people in the eye. In my initial meetings with deaf people, I used an interpreter. That in itself was a strange situation: looking at one person while listening to another. 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 the 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 apologize,” 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 color of my shirt, tie, and even how many chairs were in the room. From that day on, I stopped taking notes during meetings and interviews. And indeed, since then, my memory has improved.

2. 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, ideally one in which there’s some tension — let the other person finish what he or she has to say, then silently count to three before responding. You will find that, in the long term, slower is faster.

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  1. Nora Ellen Groce, Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary
    Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard
    (Harvard University Press, 1985): An analysis of how culture creates the perception of handicap, through an investigation of the high rate of deafness in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.
  2. Oliver Sacks, Seeing Voices (Vintage, 2000): A study of the visual language of signs.
  3. American Sign Language Browser Web site: An online, video-based signing dictionary developed by Michigan State University.
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