How a hearing impairment is teaching me to be a better listener


Many good leaders will say that their success is measured by the actions they -- and their teams -- have taken. And a good many more will say that the opportunity to lead and achieve success started with being a good listener.

Certainly I had heard that before, but I wasn’t really listening. And to my defense, I was legitimately distracted.

Early in my adult life I was diagnosed with having tinnitus, a symptom of a hearing-related problem. The symptom itself is a highly annoying and perpetual ringing in the ears. To explain it, I tell people that it is similar to being in the country on a summer’s night and hearing the symphonic hum of crickets, where there is no discernible beginning or end. (It’s also quite similar to the last 30 seconds of bagpipes in this AC/DC classic.) Now imagine that hum never going away and being present as you work, accompanying every conversation and every waking moment. This is my reality.

But I’m far from unique. Statistics suggest that one in five U.S. adults experience hearing loss that often begins with tinnitus. It is a distraction that presents real challenges. And with nearly two decades of ringing in my ears, I’ve accepted it’s not going away anytime soon.

When I embraced this fact, something surprisingly counter to my situation happened: I became a better listener (partially out of necessity). It also meant coming to grips with the fact that, until this point, I wasn’t the listener I thought I was.   

The good news is you don’t need the distraction of crickets chirping or Bon Scott’s bagpipe coda in your head 24/7 to force yourself to be a better listener. Instead, start being more intentional. Here are five things I’ve learned over the years:  

  • PRACTICE INTENTIONAL LISTENING: This is far different from hearing. Listening is actively processing ideas and making connections to what is – and isn’t – being said. My clients are too kind to question my listening techniques, which may include cupping an ear or getting up and moving about the room to hear more clearly. When we choose to listen with intention versus simply hearing what’s being spoken, we become better problem solvers, and more understanding and empathetic to the stories being shared with us.
  • PUSH THROUGH DISTRACTIONS: Tinnitus, for me, amplifies sounds that are high pitched. That can mask what I’m trying hard to glean and discern. If I focus on this as it happens in my head, it can send me off course and I miss chunks of conversation. So I refuse to focus on it as I did in earlier years with this symptom. My listening challenges aren’t all rooted in audiology. Visual distractions play a key role, too, as I notice people around me, the large TV screen above the bar, or anything that’s moving in my peripheral vision. To combat this, I take off my eyeglasses and look directly at the individual in front of me. Simply put, I can no longer focus on the distractions.
  • ADJUST TO ENGAGE: I’m guilty of occasionally being in casual conversation and nodding along when I don’t hear clearly. This also means I'm not clear on what I’m agreeing with or laughing to, which is just bad form on my part. This is particularly the case when I’m in a noisy, crowded environment. But if I care about the person who is choosing to speak to me, I should care enough to listen. That may require moving to an area that is less noisy or leaning in a little closer as a nonverbal gesture that says I want to hear what you’re saying. Stop nodding along and make the necessary adjustments to be engaged. You have no idea how important that conversation might be.
  • ASK CLARIFYING QUESTIONS: The idea that there are no bad questions sounds good in theory, but to some degree most of us are embarrassed to suggest we don’t understand. When we overcome our fear of asking questions by asking clarifying questions, we put what’s in question into context: “So what you’re saying is…”  “are you suggesting that…” “so how do you see that playing out…” are a few thoughtful ways to have content readdressed that perhaps didn’t stick the first time. We all miss the point from time to time. Asking clarifying questions can help. And it may get you to a comfort level of simply saying – I don’t get it or “could you repeat that?
  • MAKE 'FACE' CONTACT: More than just eye contact, I’ve found that face contact allows better processing of nonverbal cues by paying closer attention to the mouth. As a result, I’ve become adept at reading lips to cross-check what I believe I’m processing. This has proven immensely valuable the more I work with individuals whose native language is not English. I can see how they are forming sounds and words, and that helps us to have smoother and more fluent conversations. Recognizing my nature to be an introvert, averting the eyes has always been easy. But when I look intently at someone, they know I'm dialed in to them and them only.  Conversations of all types reap greater rewards when we’re focused on the one who is talking.

If you want to lead, start by being an intentional and engaged listener.  And if you're currently in a leadership position, assess how strong your listening skills are and commit to becoming even better.

Are you listening with intention or just hearing the chatter and noise around you? What practices do you employ to be a better listener – and thus a better leader? Consider sharing your thoughts, tips and strategies. We can all afford to get better.