Hearing Loss in the Workplace: An In-Person Meeting

Hearing loss can make communication in the workplace challenging, but there are strategies for success. In a recent talk on hearing loss in the workplace at Goldman Sachs, I highlighted the strategies and tips I use for one of the most difficult workplace situations — an in-person meeting. I share the portion of my talk on this topic below. Please add your suggestions in the comments.

Living With Hearing Loss | A Hearing Loss Blog

How to Handle An In-Person Meeting With Hearing Loss

The first common hearing challenge in the workplace is one that you have probably all experienced — an in person meeting. Depending on the size and location of the room and the number of people attending, this can be a very difficult experience for someone with typical hearing, let alone someone with hearing difficulties. Let me outline some strategies for success.

1. Arrive early. When attending an in-person meeting that you are worried will be a hearing challenge, always arrive early. This lets you be strategic about picking the seat that will boost your chances for success. Sitting in the center of the table usually works best so that you are physically close to as many speakers as possible.

2. Avoid sources of extraneous noise: Make sure you are away from any sources of background noise like the air conditioner or any other electronic equipment that can hum.

3. Control the seating arrangement. If you can organize the seating, place the person or people hardest for you to hear directly across from you at the table so you can see their face for lipreading. Most people with hearing loss use some sort of lipreading or speechreading in every conversation, even if they are not aware they are doing it. I am very good at it now and can sometimes even “hear” a side conversation from across the table if I try.

4. Request a microphone. Ask the organizer if a microphone can be used at the meeting. This benefits everyone and will minimize interrupting and cross talk if people need to use the mic to talk.

5. Ask for written notes. Try to get the agenda ahead of time and the primary speaker’s notes if they will share them. After the meeting, ask to borrow a colleague’s notes to fill in any blanks you might have missed.

6. Utilize assistive listening technology. Remote mics like Roger Pens help bring distant sound directly into your hearing aids during a meeting. Speech-to-text apps also work well. Some like LiveTranscribe are very accurate, but only work on Android phones. Others like Otter work on all platforms and have the ability to produce a transcript. IMPORTANT: Check with your company before using a speech-to-text app to make sure it is in line with company policy.

Disclosing Your Hearing Loss Makes Seeking Help Easier

Many of these suggestions are easier to implement if you are comfortable letting people know about your hearing issues. Disclosing your hearing loss is a personal decision, but as I learned in my own life — and believe me it took me a while to learn this — it is almost always better to be up front about it.

Let me give you an example from my equity analyst days. I was still in my denial phase — wearing my hearing aids only when I absolutely needed to and not disclosing my hearing loss openly or advocating for myself as I do today. I was in the process of initiating coverage on a large retail company so I flew to Chicago with my associate to met with the CEO and other members of management.

We gathered in what had to be the largest conference room known to man. It must have been the boardroom. The CEO had a cold so he announced that he would sit on the other side of the table from me so I would not get sick. This was very far away.

A second problem was that for people with hearing loss, some voices or pitches are often easier or harder to hear, depending on the specific type of loss. For me, the CEO’s voice was in the worst possible range. This was not going to work, even with my hearing aids in. I had snuck them into my ears in the bathroom before the meeting.

I had a decision to make. I could keep quiet and fake it, but then I wouldn’t get the information I needed for my work. Or I could come clean. There really was no choice, so I decided to be honest.

I told the CEO that I had hearing loss and that it would be difficult for me to hear him if he sat so far away. I said I would take my chances with his cold, but would really like to hear what he had to say. I moved closer and the meeting went on. I got the information I needed and all was well, but at the time, it seemed like a big personal risk to mention my disability in front of my colleague and these important clients.

In the end, it had not been such a big deal and moving the seating around was a simple fix that made all the difference. It made me wish I had been braver about revealing my hearing loss in other situations too.

Readers, how do you handle an in-person meeting at your workplace?

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24 thoughts on “Hearing Loss in the Workplace: An In-Person Meeting

  1. Often, at a meeting I do most of the things you’ve suggested however it’s not always successful. Can’t always turn of the extraneous machine noises for instance. I’ve resigned myself to doing what I can while (trying) to accept what I cannot.

  2. For me, acknowledging what is beyond my control and on the other side of that same coin – acknowledging what IS under my control are the two constants in every encounter I have with another person or persons. As I have said before, my weakest effort is declaring up front my needs.

    This is a great post. It underscores the common theme each of us with any level of hearing loss must face every day. I don’t have business meetings anymore but I do meet with friends and I seem to be seeing medical providers more and more recently. The medical community are among the poorest communicators on the planet. Mumble mumble! I have to constantly lay down the ground rules. To their credit they try enthusiastically. On the up side, these encounters are usually one to one..

    Well, I seem to be rambling again. Great post Shari.

    • I totally agree……..I worked in the medical field, and I have a hearing loss . All my patients that had hearing loss were given extra attention by myself as I understood what they were going through. Now I’m retired……I’m sick and tired of providers talking to their computer and not directly to me. I find most doctors and nurses to be quite understanding when I tell them , but I have also encountered people that had attitudes , or even lose their patience. Yes I say something, especially given the fact that I empathetically treated people at all times, and I wish the same for myself. People must not be embarrassed, and speak up.

      Great post Shari. I appreciate what you do.

  3. This is a great post. I have found myself doing many of the same things that you do: get to the meeting early and make sure that I’m seated in a location that allows me to hear most if not all of the people who will be in attendance. When it’s a meeting in my conference room, i try to use the smallest room available and also make sure that the rumble from the HVAC is kept to a minimum. Because I’m not able to separate out individual speakers when more than one person is speaking at the same time, I will oftentimes say something like, “there are so many good ideas being discussed here, it’s a shame that all of us are not hearing what the others are saying”. Invariably, this silences everyone and we go back to speaking one at a time.

    Shari, thanks for doing this. You write about my life.

  4. Hi

    I use ALT in meetings. I have a Roger pen and mic system that I couldn’t be without.

    I also make a point of telling people up front not to all talk at once and to those who don’t know me I make sure that they know to face me so I can fill in gaps by lip reading.

    • I also use ALT…but, I use that portable microphone and amp, which helps enormously.
      I also wear a button that says, “I can’t hear you if you don’t face me”…and…”I’m hard of hearing,,please speak slowly”.
      Unfortunately, telling people to not all talk at once, doesn’t work. They don’t listen. They don’t get it and they don’t really care…sadly.

  5. Very helpful post and responses. I would be interested in hearing what ideas are being used to hear best in a group meeting where some attendees are on the phone (conference call). Thank you!

    • Great question. If possible, use a video conference call service like Skype or Zoom so you will have lipreading cues. It is also important to ask the people on the line to speak directly into their phone (not on speakerphone) if possible when they speak. That helps with the clarity of the sound. I would love to hear other ideas as well. Thank you for the question.

  6. Excellent advice, Shari. My story sounds similar to yours. Denial for many years followed by being very up front after finally getting hearing aids. I always arrive very early for in person meetings – stressful in itself – but find that for some attendees gather in a waiting room and then are shown to the meeting room together. At that point I ask where the Chair will be sitting and try to make sure those with the most challenging voices are not sitting in line with me at the table. I do find my Roger Pen invaluable at all meetings. I don’t like making a fuss but have discovered it is better all round if I can actually make out most of what is going on.

  7. Sometimes it is necessary to decline participate for reason of hearing loss. I just had to say no to a invite to aunt’s 97th birthday. It is being held in restaurant (Dark, Noisy). Passing up company of family and good meal hurts. Gave her personal visit and best wishes. She really didn’t want to go because can’t hear there either.
    Decisions like this have to be made often. Last week a trade meeting was in town. I participated in past, good people, important subject for survival of the farm. Only went to trade show, not seminars this year, as not worth when can only understand maybe 10% of words. A month ago a group of fruit growers met at a brew pub, Extremely difficult with echo, I was unable to be part of discussion.
    Have tried Roger system and, but was incompatible with 20 year old cochlear implant. Hope new technology comes available for those with severe hearing loss. For now will have to find other ways to accomplish tasks than verbal communication.

    • I am sorry for your struggles. It is not easy. Have you tried any speech to text apps like Live Transcribe or Otter? They can be very helpful when acoustic conditions are tough. Thank you for sharing your experiences with the group.

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