What can hearing people learn from deaf people about effective communication? Quite a lot, actually….

John Cradden – 20 February 2014

Learning how to communicate more like a deaf person could improve your listening skills and make yourself heard better at work, according to international business consultant and coach Dr Bruno Kahne.

Dr Kahne, who works as a senior consultant with the AirBusiness Academy, a training and research consultancy in France owned by Airbus, has spent the last seven years researching the communication habits of deaf people, the results of which he has made into a new book entitled ‘Deaf Tips – Powerful Communication’.

To most of us, the idea that we could learn lessons in effective communication from people who can’t hear very well – or at all – might seem like a bit of a oxymoron, but Dr Kahne insists that while deaf people can find it difficult to communicate effectively with hearing people, this is not the case when talking to other deaf people.

“Deaf people are not deaf when they are together, only when they are in contact with hearing people,” he said, and adds that they are better communicators, “passing messages much faster and more precisely than any hearing person”.

In his book, he describes how he set two groups of three people – one group of signing deaf people and the other hearing – the same problem-solving task involving putting together a sequence of six images in the right order.

The deaf group took less than two minutes to figure it out, while the hearing group took well over six minutes – a result that was repeated in similar exercises Dr Kahne conducted with over 1,000 people.

But what makes deaf people more effective communicators? One example, says Dr Kahne, is that deaf people talk one at a time, in a very sequential manner, while hearing people talk all at the same time, and often interrupt one another.

Another example is that during conversations, deaf people tend to “stay focused on the interaction, while hearing people disconnect regularly”.

Hearing people also rarely ask others to repeat things they have said, and never say when they don’t understand something. In deaf culture, Dr Kahne says, “deaf people constantly reformulate and check their understanding, saying when they don’t understand”.

Dr Kahne uses the tips and information he has collected for the book with his day-to-day work with corporate clients, but says the idea is not to teach them sign language, but help them adopt communication tips and tricks from the ‘deaf world’ that would make them better colleagues and managers.

Among the more popular tips in the book are:

* To pay a lot more attention to other people’s body language. “Learning to listen with your eyes, like deaf people, can help you improve your memory,” he said.

* To speak one at a time and without interrupting others, and resolve any conflicts one at a time.

* Be both simple and precise in how you convey information. “This is something that hearing people have a hard time doing,” said Dr Kahne.

“When hearing people try to be simple, they are automatically vague. When they try to be precise, they suddenly become complex.”

* Dare to ask questions. “Hearing people tend to stop asking questions around the age of five, believing that asking questions shows inferiority, weakness or incompetence. Not so with deaf people.”

* Use visual words and stories to help convey specific messages or answer questions.

Dr Kahne says he hopes his book will help bring about a turnaround in how we perceive deaf people by realising that, in finding ways to compensate for their deafness, they have developed communication behaviours that could be useful to hearing people.

“When I came up with the idea in 2006 that hearing people could learn from deaf people, I was convinced that I was not the first one to think that way,” he said.

“I was wrong. The only literature I could find was on ‘what poor deaf people could learn from the hearing experts’.”

He says the response to the book so far has been “overwhelmingly positive” from both hearing and deaf people.

“There are many behaviors described in this book that people already know, even if they rarely apply them.

“Readers report that by reading the book they become more aware of the reasons why their communication fails, and consequently know what to do.”


This article first appeared in the Irish Independent (business section)


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