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Hearing Loss and Politically Correct Leadership

A little over a dozen years ago I was diagnosed with a significant hearing loss.

It appears I have always had difficulty hearing certain tones within the typical vocal range and have adapted to distinguish some sounds without even realizing I was missing them. Wearing hearing aids makes a difference.

I don’t talk about it a lot because I rarely need help from others to manage, and I don’t see hearing issues as a core part of what my life and work are about.

Just this morning I learned that the term “tone deaf” is offensive to some people with hearing disabilities. It had never occurred to me that this might be true. In fact I have used that term fairly often in conversation, training sessions, and in some  blog posts. It is an effective way to express the dynamic when people are unable to recognize how their actions or communication are being perceived differently than their intent. And I was demonstrating the behaviour by using the term.

I am sorry for using a phrase that is hurtful to people. I try to be sensitive to these things and I will avoid using that term in the future.

I know some would push back at least a little here. It’s a common phrase that is rooted more in music than in disability, and the typical usage is pretty harmless. There’s certainly no intent to hurt or offend and (from what I can tell) many hearing impaired people don’t object to it. 

So why should I use a less familiar term?

It’s not about political correctness. It’s about compassion and priorities.

It’s also not just about this particular phrase, but every example when well intended language gets in the way.

There are things I want to say, messages I want to deliver, and ideas I want to share that matter quite a lot to me. I believe in them and I think a lot of people, especially leaders, should consider my words and apply the ideas to their lives and leadership.

If my tone, terminology, or timing is off-putting to some people they won’t do that. They will either refuse or simply be unable to take in my messages because I’ve turned them off with something that is far less important to me. What I want to communicate is lost to some people I’d like to understand it.

That’s bad communication.

And blaming your audience for not receiving your message because they are sensitive to something you did that got in the way is arrogant and ineffective. It means you are protecting an insecure ego instead of accomplishing your purpose.

Sometimes we needs to get over ourselves and out of our own way.

Too many leaders allow their intended impact to get sidetracked (or sabotaged) by fighting for the wrong things. We allow ourselves to be distracted defending things that aren’t that important to us, but are meaningful to others. We dig in our heels and think we are showing strength when we are really just throwing the acceptable grown up version of a toddlers tantrum until we get our way.

Take notice of the things that you react strongly to, or that get a strong reaction from others. Challenging people, even offending them, about something that is truly core to your mission and beliefs can be excellent leadership. 

Losing your audience over something unnecessary is bad leadership.


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