The best communicators aren’t listening to words

When I met underground mining engineer Jayne Finch at a speaker coaching workshop I ran for Women in Mining WA, I was impressed by her warmth and welcoming presence. She paid attention to what I said and there was a care in the way she asked me to repeat things she didn’t understand.

Jayne clearly possessed one of the most critical qualities of a good speaker: attentiveness.  Her voice also had a beautiful resonant tone which, if you’ve ever listened to the radio or taken a yoga class, you will know affects how much you want to listen.

I later discovered Jayne was influenced by years as a jazz singer, which no doubt taught her good breath control and annunciation, and from childhood had always tried to build rapport with those around her.

But Jayne taught me something else about what makes a skilful communicator.

I really wanted to be a mining engineer, but…

Mid-workshop (i.e. one hour after I made the above judgements) Jayne announced she was deaf. The context was recalling a poignant life moment using the “Hero’s Journey” template* I created to help speakers succinctly share a story about a challenge they have faced, what they learned, and the message they’d like to share with the world in their next presentation. Jayne said:

I really wanted to be a mining engineer but didn’t think I could because I was over 30, a woman and deaf.

Let’s put aside the notion that a woman over 30 who can’t hear can’t consider a career in mining (which is a story in itself). Instead I want to draw your attention to the fact Jayne hadn’t heard a single thing I had said during the first hour of the workshop.

As you’ve probably guessed Jayne was lip-reading. She was also paying a great deal of attention.

If we could all lipread it wouldn’t matter if the Skype microphone worked or not

My speaker coaching with Jayne continued via video call with Jayne in Kalgoorlie, I in Perth. As often happens on Skype, Jayne and I spent several minutes trying to work out the sound. We mouthed, “Can you hear me?” at each other.

Needless to say, Jayne was fine. She didn’t need sound to understand me because her lip reading was exceptional. I, however, was absolutely dependent on it.

It was my lack that meant Jayne and I couldn’t communicate without a proper Skype connection.

I felt as if I had turned up in Latvia expecting to be understood in English (because shouldn’t everyone speak English) and discovering the first person I meet speaks Latvian, Russian, and German (but no English). If I want to be understood, it is clearly up to me to find a way to be understood.

If I had written this article in hieroglyphics, would it be your fault you couldn’t understand, or mine for not writing in a way my readers can understand? Is it up to Jayne to master lip reading so she can understand me, or mine to communicate so she comprehends?

The dis-ability isn’t deafness, the disability is not being able to understand

Jayne described a conversation with a fellow engineer who is deaf (Jayne’s only deaf friend, incidentally). “Not a sound was uttered,” she said. “In fact, I forgot Faye was deaf.”

I tend to think of deafness as the problem. But the real challenge for someone who can’t hear is understanding what is communicated. If everyone could lip read and sign, would deafness be a disability?

In 2009 I shared a flat in London with a girl called Kate who worked in disability services. Kate used a phrase that was frowned upon in Australia: “the disabled boy”. This was in stark contrast to Australia where it was considered correct to put the person before the disability. In Australia we would say “the boy with disability”.

Kate’s response to my quizzing was:

Geoff isn’t disabled because he uses a wheel chair. He is dis-abled by society.

By ‘the disabled boy’ she meant the boy who is dis-abled by the fact we don’t live in a world with ramps (or rocket-powered chairs) and that Geoff can’t participate in sports he loves.

If Geoff could live the life he wanted (not the one forced on him) where is the dis-ability?

I’m lucky to live in an era with computers set for finger typing. If I landed on a planet where they used toes, or elbows, to type I would certainly be dis-abled. (As I found out at contact improv dance jam recently where due to injury I asked fellow dancers to dance with me, without using toes, fingers or their left knee. Needless to say we struggled).

Diversity creates a rich society, not a gesture of equality

In The Difference Makers Alicia Curtis and Nicky Howe write that “diversity is about what makes each of us unique…it is a combination of the visible and invisible differences that shape our view of the world, our perspective and our approach”.

The VisAbility building (formerly Association for the Blind) in Victoria Park, Western Australia) is specially designed for the visually impaired. It’s also a really well-designed structure. Good use of space, signs are clear, taps in the bathroom easy to operate.

Oliver Sacks wrote many stories about aphasics – those who can’t use or comprehend the language of words, often after stroke or other injury to the brain – who learn to understand other people by their expression, body language and the context.

Jayne has this same capacity to read faces. She also understands verbal language.

I can tell a lie a mile off. I’ve often said to colleagues, “Your mouth is saying one thing, but your face is saying something completely different.” Because I am “lip-reading” I think of it as “face-reading”.

Her colleagues laugh realising they have been called out. Perhaps they didn’t even know there was a discrepancy between what they thought and what they said.

Imagine a meeting where everyone speaks the truth, and where people speak up when they don’t understand something

Jayne began her speaker coaching work with me intending to talk at the Women in Mining WA summit about the power of vulnerability. Her message had been that we must ask for help with our weaknesses, because it’s only when others know we need help that they can provide it.

But by the end of the conversation, we were asking – what if you asked for what you need because you are a human being with something to contribute?

For more about speaker coaching and finding your story please get in touch at

*The Hero’s Journey was coined by Josef Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. It describes the quintessential human journey within every myth, every story – and even Star Wars.

Published by rachaelwest

Strategic Speaker Coach | Founder | Engineer

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