“Fake it until you make it,” a common phrase most of us have heard at some point in our lives. While I don’t remember when I first heard these words, I do recall receiving this advice multiple times early in my career from colleagues and mentors of all ages. As I’ve gone through my twenties and now in my early thirties, I’ve come to realize this phrase highlights that most adults don’t know what they are doing or where they are going in their personal or professional lives. But part of “adulting” means not letting our cluelessness show and appearing we’ve got it together.
Personally, I find this advice to be misguided: I’ve been faking that I hear everything for the past 27 years, with varying degrees of success. When my ears failed me it has led to completing a project wrong, a missed a deadline, and sometimes even an angry or frustrated boss. Like many with or without hearing loss, I don’t always know when I mishear, but those times in which I knowingly struggle, would these unfortunate incidents have been avoided had I spoken up?
Living with hearing loss is no small feat. In an ideal and perfect world, people’s differences would have no bearing on how others perceive them and the opportunities they are afforded. The reality is that not everyone has gotten the memo that we should treat others, regardless of our differences, with the same level of respect as we expect for ourselves.
With that said, here are my tips for navigating hearing loss in the workplace:
1. Confidence is contagious
To disclose or not to disclose, and when? Unfortunately, there is no right answer.
For me, I typically disclose sometime during the interview process, to either to ask for an accommodation, such as video calls, or in response to a question about my interests (I volunteer a lot in the hearing loss community). This often provides an easy transition into discussing how my hearing loss has shaped me into the person I am today.
When speaking about my hearing loss I highlight the strengths and capabilities my hearing loss has given me, rather than leading with the deficits and weaknesses I have because of it. “It's not what you say, it's what people hear,” as communications expert Frank Luntz succinctly puts it. It’s all about how you frame your hearing loss. People respond to and feed off of positive energy, so if you focus on discussing your assets with a nonchalant attitude, it’ll put the person receiving the information at ease. This approach is not meant to take the seriousness out of the conversation but simply take into account how messages are framed and received.
Transparency is a two-way street. By the time an offer is in hand, your manager and HR should already know about your hearing loss and should be discussing workplace accommodations. While it's understandable that disclosing is uncomfortable and there is always a lingering fear of discrimination, withholding it can also set a bad first impression regarding trustworthiness. It can raise questions as to what else will you hide out of fear of repercussions.
The bottom line: The bigger deal you make of your hearing loss, the bigger the concern is for the potential employer. Keep it simple, upbeat and focus on the positives. Confidence is contagious, so if you’re confident, they will be too.
2. Don't be afraid to speak up
In a perfect world, people, once told what they need to do, wouldn’t forget or mess up. But the reality is oft-times we need to repeat and reiterate the same messages and instructions multiple times before someone gets the hint. This applies to those (friends, colleagues, family) accommodating our hearing loss.
For me, my biggest compliment and frustration is the same: People forget I have hearing loss. Apparently, I fake hearing so well they forget, so kudos to me for a job well done. On the flip-side, when they deviate to their bad, non-hearing-friendly habits, like mumbling, covering one’s mouth when talking or soft speech on a conference call, the loser is me unless I say something.
If it's an important call or meeting where it can’t wait, speak up, as you’re likely not the only person in the room struggling. Sometimes in client meetings I’ll pass a note to a trusted colleague or manager and ask if they are, too, having difficulty, and that oft-times leads to a quick resolution.
3. Shake it off
If the same colleague is consistently the perpetrator of bad behavior, approach them in a non-confrontational way. No matter how nicely you put their non-hearing loss-friendly habits, the receiving party will undoubtedly feel bad and possibly even attacked. While it's annoying as the person with hearing loss to always have to point out when you’re having trouble, relationships matter, so approaching the topic delicately is always advised.
The best advice I have is to try to have a sense of humor about it. Keep it light and upbeat and move on quickly. The less of a big deal you make it, the less of the elephant in the room your hearing loss will be, and more willing colleagues will be to accommodate you.
Article by Laura Friedman.