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Project Management Lessons from the Deaf Community

deaf-community-projectEVA20, the Earned Value Analysis conference in London earlier this year, was a great event. The highlight for me was Bruno Kahne, PhD, talking about his work with the deaf community and how it inspires better communication at Airbus in Belgium.

Bruno explained that we absorb 400,000 words every day – that’s 136Gb of data or four dictionaries. He then explained that in every communication task, the deaf participant came out better than the hearing participant in terms of speed, accuracy and respect for the others in the conversation. He shared six communication tips that hearing people could learn from the deaf community – all of which we can put to excellent use in project management communication.

1. Use Eye Contact

Don’t play on your phone, don’t sneak glances at your watch. People’s faces tell a story. If you are watching, you can work out what they aren’t saying as well as what they are.

Making eye contact can make you appear more trustworthy as well as it being a good listening technique. If your interlocutor thinks you are listening, they will perhaps be more inclined to share additional information that could help your project.

One of the skills that is often considered a subset of good leadership is the ability to listen. Eye contact forces you to focus and the knock on implication could be that people rate your leadership skills more highly. This could be a crucial differentiator on a project, especially when communicating up and talking to your project sponsor.

2 Use Empathy

Bruno said we should put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. He explained that by seeing the other person’s point of view you are able to communicate more clearly and with greater understanding.

On projects, this is essential if you want to get to the bottom of requirements and change requests. Understanding the ‘why’ behind what is being asked for will help you make sure that the solution you are delivering meets both the practical needs and the emotional needs of the customer.

3. Be Simple and Precise

Hearing people, Bruno said, are simple but not precise (i.e. vague), or precise but not simple (i.e. complex). Sign language gives you both precision and simplicity. He gave the example of not having a word in English to describe the point a quarter of the way between full and empty. Then he showed the sign for it, and we could easily understand exactly how full the glass was at any variation.

Go for simple ways to explain your ideas. Keep your written communications short and use the most precise language you can to avoid misunderstandings.

4. Don’t Say Don’t

This is the one tip I went home and put into action straight away. Bruno recommended that we change our language so that we use positive phrasing. Unfortunately, much of what we say is couched in negative language: “I can’t complete that task,” or, “Don’t do it that way.”

Instead of saying, “Don’t kick your brother,” I should be rephrasing it to tell my children to “Play nicely together”. This is because, Bruno explained, that the recipient of the message hears the ‘don’t’ part more strongly than the rest of the sentence. What my boys are hearing is effectively, “Kick your brother.” And they aren’t given any other instructions or tips on how to behave.

While that’s a personal example and not one in a project environment, you can see how that would work in the office. Project managers are responsible for creating a good working culture conducive to dealing with change, and positivity is a huge part of that. If you use positive language and praise where it is due, you’ll inspire that in others.

5. Ask Questions

Bruno explained that continental culture is not one that necessarily asks questions. The deaf community does not hesitate to ask questions.

In project management we too should be better at asking the questions no one else seems to have the confidence to ask, especially, “Why?” Many failing project might be avoided if someone challenged the proposition and tore the business case apart prior to work beginning.

6. Develop a Culture

The point about culture again. Deaf culture, Bruno said, is strong. He defined culture as having:

  • Foundational heroes. In French deaf culture, this is Charles-Michel de l’Épée, a priest who is credited with bringing together the deaf community and founding Sign Language. On your project it could be a charismatic senior manager or your project sponsor.
  • At work this could be starting each week with a catch up of what you did at the weekend or sharing a drink together after work.
  • A sense of time. Are you always on time for your project meetings? What does your office culture allow? In the deaf community, Bruno said, lateness is unheard of.
  • This underpins how people within the culture are connected together. Governance on projects is usually in the form of committees and reporting lines.
  • I can see how many cultures are connected by art, but I’m not sure how that translates to the culture of a project. Perhaps by how much of your communication is graphic? The layout and design of your project reports?
  • Cultures share a common language. Project management is a facet of business that has a whole vocabulary, much of which can seem impenetrable to the outsider. Within an individual project you’ll also have jargon and terminology that relates specifically to that project and would make little sense to someone on another project team.

The challenge with creating a project culture within an organisational culture is to think about how we make sure our culture stays strong, uniting the team, while including the differences and diversity natural within a multi-disciplinary environment.

Communication is such a key skill for project managers that I feel we should be improving in that area as much as possible. That means learning from people who do it better than us, in whichever community or industry those good tips and best practices can be found.

Would these tips work for you with your project communications?

Bruno’s book, which I have on order, is Deaf Tips.

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About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin
Elizabeth Harrin is a career project and programme manager with over a decade of experience in healthcare and financial services. She's also a content strategist, award-winning blogger and author of several books about project management. Find her online at A Girl's Guide to Project Management

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