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How Being a Deaf Coach Improved My Listening Skills

  • POSTED ON MARCH 29, 2023
Deaf coach meeting with a client on the computer

I have been blessed to have been trained and coached by the pioneers and luminaries of the Co-Active coaching world. Laura Whitworth, Henry-Kimsey House, Karen Kimsey-House, Eric Kohner, Cynthia Loy-Darst, and others all contributed to my expertise as a coach. Yet none of them were as powerful as deafness in turning me into the brilliant coach I have become. Without hearing loss, I never would have learned how to fully embody the Co-Active model — and I wouldn’t have the listening skills at the depth I do today.

Becoming Deaf: A Life-Changing Experience
I was diagnosed with ovarian and endometrial cancer in 1998. Committed to surviving, I undertook the most powerful treatment protocol available at that time. It was successful, but I paid a huge physical price. Over the course of nine years, I completely lost my hearing due to the neuropathy engendered by my chemotherapy treatments.

Denial and Wonder
Becoming deaf terrified me. How could I possibly coach people if I couldn’t hear them? Initially, like most people facing hearing loss, my primary coping technique was denial. My entire professional life was predicated on being able to hear. My perspective at that time was, “Dead and deaf sound the same to me.” While that was physically true, it also described my emotional ableist understanding of the experience of deafness.

Because I was afraid and embarrassed by my increasing deafness, I became Wonder Woman: “I wonder what my client just said.” “I wonder what just happened; I think I missed something.” “I wonder how long I’m going to be able to pretend I can hear people.” Wonder is powerful when it leads to curiosity. Unfortunately, it frequently leads to denial in the face of hearing loss.

The Struggle for Self-Acceptance
Losing my hearing was a moment-to-moment, constant experience of forcing myself to notice what I couldn’t be with. It took me several years to finally accept my hearing was never going to get better. During that time, I was stubbornly trying to fake it, pretending I could hear better than I could, and frantically praying for my hearing to be restored.

Due to my own internalized ableism, I could not accept myself as whole if I couldn’t hear. This took a toll not only on me but on my clients as well. They couldn’t understand why I wasn’t listening to them the way I used to listen to them. They knew something was wrong, but they also knew it wasn’t safe to discuss it with me.

This was not only hard on my clients, but it was also painful for me because my top value is connection. Hiding the truth from clients, friends, family, and most importantly myself took a huge toll on me. I felt lonely, angry, and disconnected much of that time. I put a smile on my face and pretended all was well, but stomping on my most important value taught me how important it is to honor our values.

The Importance of Self-Management

Most people consider self-management to be not talking about oneself or sharing one’s opinions and experiences with their clients. In many instances, this is appropriate. However, not being honest and sharing the truth of my hearing loss was poor self-management on my part. Thankfully, I now see appropriate self-disclosure and honesty as the hallmarks of self-management as a professional coach. While I’m proud of most of the work I have done as a coach, I will always regret my denial and fear when I first started losing my hearing.

The Power of Creativity and Resourcefulness

Thankfully, I learned to adopt a new perspective. Deafness taught me the true meaning of “naturally creative, resourceful, and whole.” I learned to be creative and use technology to assist me in listening to clients. Skype had just been developed, and I introduced all my clients and supervisees to web-cam coaching years before the pandemic forced everyone onto Zoom. Lip reading allowed me to continue coaching despite my hearing loss. 

As my situation was constantly and unpredictably worsening over time, I learned to “dance in this moment” every single day. I became resourceful in making every environment work to support my hearing rather than to accentuate my hearing loss. After much resistance, I also learned to ask for help so that I could better serve my clients. Empowered relationships and designed alliances all benefit from asking for help. In a relationship, none of us can be fully successful if we can’t rely upon each other.

I learned that my own personal wholeness includes my deafness. Rather than denying it, I learned to partner with it and make it work not only for me but for my clients as well. We all face limitations, be they physical, mental, or societal. Learning to acknowledge them, work with them, and squeeze productivity out of them makes them useful rather than disadvantageous. I am thrilled to be a role model for my clients and students in this regard.

The Role of Curiosity in Coaching

Curiosity became essential to my professional and personal survival as I lost my hearing. I had to learn to ask questions about everything. I knew nothing about deafness, and I had to learn to live in a very different way. I had to be curious about resources that could benefit me (people and technology) and the impact of my deafness on the people around me and myself. Most importantly, I had to be deeply curious about what my clients were really saying beyond the words they were using to express themselves.

Before I lost my hearing, I did not realize how much is communicated non-verbally. Being interested and curious about that layer of communication brought a previously unknown depth to my coaching. This was accentuated by becoming an expert at listening at Level 3 and consistently using my intuition. I compensated for not hearing every word by reading my clients’ body language and listening to their tone of voice. I listened with my entire body, not just with my ears. I started paying attention to all my body sensations. Level 1 often gets a bad rap when it comes to listening, but skillful use of your Level 1 listening experience will also add depth to your listening abilities.

Once I became truly curious about what was happening in the moment and what was being communicated by my clients, my favorite question to ask myself and my clients became “what can I learn about myself and others in this situation?” Deepening my learning naturally led to my taking more skillful actions, which in turn led to more learning and unexpected successes. As I was able to actively apply the Co-Active model in my own life, I also became adept at helping my clients live more Co-Actively.

Adopting a New Perspective

Several years after my hearing deteriorated, an Israeli Co-Active coach introduced me to cochlear implants and coached me to overcome my denial about the extent of my hearing loss. Yet again, I had to learn to adopt a completely new perspective. Thanks to my bilateral cochlear implants, you’d never know I am completely deaf today. I have been fortunate that both medical technology and internet technology have allowed me to fully participate in the hearing world.

Teaching myself to hear through my cochlear implants was a transformative experience. I realized if I could reprogram my brain to hear, I could reprogram my brain to do other things I previously thought were impossible. In this way, deafness has changed my whole approach to life. Rather than be stymied by my limitations, I now use them in the service of attaining my goals.

Since I lost my hearing, several clients and students have said to me, “You’re deaf yet you hear so much more than I do! How do you do it?” I reply, “You can hear but you were never forced to learn how to listen. Deafness trained me to be the listener I’ve become.”

Embodying the Co-Active Model

Now, I suggest people actively practice being deaf. Turn off the sound on your TV and don’t enable closed captioning. Notice what you pay attention to when you can’t hear. Even better, get a partner and have them talk to you for 15 minutes but have them only mouth the words. See what you understand. Pay attention to what you’ve missed. Practice listening until you are fluent in lip reading and non-verbal communication. Fluency takes years of practice. But so does becoming an expert coach. Welcome to the journey!

Judith Cohen Profile Photo
Written By

Judith Cohen  

Judith Cohen (MCC, CPCC, MSW) is a Master Certified Coach and has been a member of the CTI Faculty for almost thirty years! Judith was hired as the first CTI Certification Examiner in 1996 and is still passionately committed to training Co-Active coaches and bringing Co-Activity into the world. Judith became totally deaf in 2007 due to her cancer treatments in 1999. Now binaurally cochlear implanted, she hears normally once again. She listens to clients and students with the extraordinary skill, sensitivity, and depth she gained from retraining her brain to listen through her implants. She is passionately committed to training her hearing students to listen in the way that she now does. Judith is also a T-Group facilitator at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. For three years, she was the author of CTI’s only advice column for coaches, “Ask Judith” and she also wrote (with input from Rafael Boker), “Decoding the Coaching Genome: Understanding the ICF Core Competencies.” She is an engaging motivational speaker focusing on change, leadership, and resilience.  

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