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.
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?