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A lot can be communicated very quickly in a business meeting, and no one wants to be left in the dark due to hearing loss. Wearing hearing aids is a great way to improve your ability to understand others in the workplace, but even with these devices it can be a struggle to hear your coworkers if there is background noise, or if people are talking very quickly and interrupting each other. Knowing how to read visual cues such as gestures, facial expressions and body language can help you to gauge what your colleagues are thinking and feeling, so that you stay in the loop in future business interactions.
Laurie Achin, an American Sign Language faculty member at Northeastern University who is also deaf, is a master of picking up on the nuances of communication by studying people’s behaviors. In a recent article in Fast Company, Achin and her colleagues Katie Fitzpatrick and Miriam Horwitz shared a few tips on how to decipher nonverbal displays in business settings. Read on to learn more.
1. The unspoken message: “I understand.”
“Mmm.” “Uh-huh.” [Nods].
For speakers of English, these small verbal or physical signposts are important in indicating to our conversation partner that we are following what is being said.
Katie Fitzpatrick, a sign language interpreter and adjunct professor at Madonna University, says that for deaf people, these unspoken signs of understanding (known as “backchannels”) are even more critical, because sign languages deeply interpret even small movements as important clues about meaning.
In the hearing community, she says, people often don’t give enough thought to how important these backchannels are–but they should. She believes that in business meetings, to prevent ideas from being misunderstood, speakers should take the time to make sure they are receiving nods in response to what they are saying before moving on. Fitzpatrick also notes that these backchannels do not necessarily mean that someone is agreeing with you, but they are simply acknowledging what is being said.
So, whether you are hard of hearing or not, the next time you have the floor at a business meeting, make sure you are receiving these signs of understanding.
2. The unspoken message: “I need to speak now.”
Achin explains that when someone wants to make a point or interrupt the person who is speaking, they’ll start to move around in their chair. They may sit higher in their chair, or move forward with their body to gain the attention of the person who has the floor. But she notes that watching for these cues can be problematic in a virtual group meeting where it’s more difficult to see your colleagues’ body movements. In these cases, Fitzpatrick recommends laying out communication guidelines in advance to facilitate understanding. These may include each speaker taking a 5 second pause for questions at the end of each section, or having a chat feature wherein participants can ask questions and make comments without interrupting the speaker.
If members of your team have hearing loss, establishing these communication norms ahead of the meeting will be especially important to ensure that everyone can participate equally. Achin adds that leaders of meetings can stay mindful of others who may need to speak by scanning the room and using their peripheral vision, rather than always looking straight ahead.
3. The unspoken message: “I have to interrupt you.”
While interrupting in business meetings may not be seen as ideal, Achin says that in deaf conversation, more space is given for potential interruptions. In the spirit of the collaborative nature of sign language communication, leaders of workplace conversations can help to ensure equality and inclusivity by scanning the surroundings and watching for physical cues that someone needs to interrupt but is hesitant to do so.
She notes that you can tell a person is frustrated if their shoulders are “scrunched up” and not relaxed. This makes the body seem smaller, indicating that someone is feeling anxious or uncomfortable.
So, whether you are hard of hearing or not, keeping in mind these visual cues and remembering to use your peripheral vision and frequently scan the room will improve understanding for everyone involved.
Happy holidays from Hearing Health!
With all of the family gatherings and holiday parties, it’s a great time of year to start treating your hearing loss–or to make sure your current hearing aids are still meeting your needs. At Hearing Health in Portland, we offer comprehensive hearing exams, hearing aid repair and wide range of other audiological services to help you experience the best hearing you can. All of us at Hearing Health wish you and your loved ones a happy and healthy holiday season!