Effective communication skills are essential to life in the office. So what do you do if you’re having trouble following along in meetings or find yourself asking people to repeat themselves all day long – in other words if you suspect you’re one of the estimated 1 in 8 American workers with hearing loss?
As with other workplace challenges, a little strategy can go a long way. Take a day or two to observe your workday with fresh eyes. When do have the most trouble understanding? What situations make you uncomfortable? What can be improved upon? Then take a look at our four hearing helpers of technology, people, workplace optimization, and meeting management to formulate a plan of action to make your work life work for you again.
Hearing Helper #1: Technology
Modern technology has done wonders for people with hearing loss. If you do just one thing to help your hearing loss, we recommend getting your hearing tested by a licensed hearing professional and trying out hearing aids if a loss is identified. (Even if one isn’t, it’s a good idea to get a baseline hearing test by age 50 as this makes it easier to identify changes down the road.)
There’s no need to feel embarrassed. Modern hearing aids are tiny – some even fit so far inside your ear only your doctor is likely to notice – and many can connect straight to your phone and other electronic devices to stream sound directly to your ears. Better yet, they are programmed to cut through the clutter of noisy office situations to focus on what you need to hear.
There are also other technologies that can help. Assistive listening devices are useful in presentations and large meetings when you can’t sit next to the speaker (for example, when you’re stuck at one end of a long table during a meeting). Simply place a small transmitter near the source of the sound and it will filter out background noise as it transmits sound directly to your ears.
If phone calls are a problem for you, consider a phone amplifier. Inexpensive models can add 40 decibels or more to your calls while reducing background noise, while more sophisticated devices stream phone calls straight to a set of hearing aids.
Hearing Helper #2: People
It may be intimidating, but it's important to share your hearing loss with your boss. Approach it as you would any other medical problem and let him or her know that you are seeking treatment. Share the specific ways it impacts you and propose solutions. You may also wish to speak to human resources to see if workplace accommodations, such as the aforementioned assisted listening devices, might be available for you.
It can also help to share ways your coworkers can better communicate with you, such as making sure they have your attention before they launch into a conversation. But don't worry if you’re not ready to be fully open about your hearing loss at work. Opening up to one close coworker or assistant with whom you can “compare notes” after meetings can help ensure you always have the full picture.
Hearing Helper #3: Workspace Optimization
Numerous people chattering and creating background noise, the everyday experience in an open plan office, can be a nightmare for people with hearing loss. If available, an office with a door you can close to reduce noise is ideal. If not, make acoustics work for you by sitting in a corner, away from noisiest areas such as the copy machine. Keep the area well-lit and position yourself so that you can see approaching coworkers (nothing's worse than realizing a conversation has literally started behind your back!).
Pay attention to your meeting spaces as well. Look for conference rooms with good lighting (or simply open the shades) so that you can easily view speakers and get the full visual context of the conversation. Sit close to the main speaker and keep your back to the window.
Hearing Helper #4: Meeting Management
Good meeting management helps keep everyone on track, including those with hearing loss. Ask organizers to limit attendees to essential staff where possible and to send out agenda items and essential documents before the meeting begins. Designate a secretary to keep notes and send out a meeting summary upon completion.
Finally, the model good communication habits you wish others to follow. Speak clearly and loudly and address individuals by name when appropriate. Wait for others to finish their thoughts before jumping in. And of course, speak up if you’re having trouble hearing or following a conversation. You might not be the only one!
Hearing loss doesn’t mean changing careers or being held back. By approaching hearing loss with a game plan, you will only improve upon your current level of communication – and performance at work.