Articles > Tone deaf, blind to impact

Tone deaf, blind to impact
Globe & Mail, June 27, 2008

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

Have you ever been in a meeting when someone said something completely off topic or insensitive and you thought: "Whoa, where did that come from? He completely missed the point."

Or have you witnessed someone doing a presentation who was completely oblivious to his or her audience's lack of interest and wondered: "How could you not see that everyone is asleep?"

Call it what you will: Tone deafness. Emotional obtuseness. An egomaniacal fascination with the sound of one's own voice. Or just plain stupidity.

However you describe it, it's on the rise. Overloaded employees, too tired and with too many things racing through their minds, may lose their ability to edit themselves or properly analyze situations before they rush in to comment or act.

So, just as the musically tone deaf can't discriminate between notes, the tone deaf in the workplace can't discriminate between their own appropriate and discordant words and behaviour.

Whatever the cause, it is an irritating attribute that can seriously undermine career success. It can even be a career killer.

Take a meeting I recently attended at which a staffer vociferously trashed what everyone else in the room knew to be their boss's favourite project, one to which they had all devoted killer hours. Although his comments elicited an Icelandic chill, he blithely continued on with his tirade.
His boss was not amused and later told the staffer that his job was in jeopardy if he didn't improve his communication skills.

We've all experienced this kind of obtuseness: the highly paid executive vice-president who complains to his personal assistant that he lost $2-million in the market meltdown; the manager who boasts about his weekend conquests with the girls; the MBA who just got a promotion and is already lobbying for another one.

Sometimes, the obtuseness is not an inability to read social situations, but an inability to edit oneself, expressed in a kind of verbal promiscuity.

I know a woman who, at best, can be described as an acquaintance. The last time I bumped into her, I was with a group of people she didn't know. When I asked how she was doing, she told the entire group, in excruciating detail, about her husband's affair.

It turned out that one of the women in the group, a vice-president looking to hire a new director, had just received this woman's name from a recruiter as a possible candidate. That encounter was enough to make the vice-president drop the woman's name from consideration.

People may joke about hearing too much information, but not everyone finds it funny. Most workplaces have at least one staffer who shares too much, whether about their sexual relationships, their illnesses or their kids. They never ask questions about anyone else's life; they are too busy talking about theirs. They leave everyone in their wake feeling uncomfortable at best, emotionally hijacked at worst.

Why are some people seemingly unable to adjust their behaviour to the situation? Tone deafness can stem from a variety of causes.

Some people, such as the staffer who trashed his boss's project, simply don't read emotional undercurrents well and fail to adapt their behaviour accordingly. They can't see what is clear to almost everyone else in the room.

Sometimes, it is a case of anxiety and lack of self-control. I've heard many blabbers rue the fact that they shared something too intimate with co-workers, saying that their mouth just took over.

But often, the root cause is what sociologist Fred H. Goldner labelled pronoia - delusions of admiration.

Pronoid people think everyone loves and admires them. Like their paranoid counterparts who think everyone is conspiring against them, pronoids mishear and misinterpret what others say to support their own world view. This makes them not only office bores, but a challenge to manage, especially when it comes to trying to get them to "hear" negative feedback.

Take, for example, a trainer I hired to deliver a workshop. When she finished the day, she called me and said: "It was great. They loved me."

Unfortunately, my client had also just called. She said the trainer was mediocre and had been given clear feedback. Thinking there must have been some kind of miscommunication, I gave the trainer a second chance.

It happened again. There wasn't a misunderstanding - this trainer was obtuse. Her ego was so large that she simply could not process information about her real performance.

The idea that she needed improvement was, to her, an attack on her sense of self. So the only way she could deal with it was to dismiss it.

Career coaches see many people who have job difficulties because, despite repeated performance warnings, they can't process the idea that anyone could possibly be unhappy with the quality of their work.

Indeed, these negative-feedback deniers may even complain that they are being overmanaged by bosses who don't trust them. It doesn't occur to them that they have provoked this management intervention by their own shaky performance.

Another way they deal with this perceived attack on their sense of self is to attack the messenger, saying, for example, that their boss is out to get them or that their co-workers can't be trusted. These people often go from job to job, leaving a trail of confused co-workers.

Is such insensitivity always a bad thing? Not necessarily. Sometimes a tone-deaf person can be useful to have as a team member. Obliviously, he or she will often be the first to acknowledge the elephant in the room - to say the unpopular things that nobody else wants to broach.

Insensitivity can even be an advantage in certain kinds of work, just as sensitivity can be an impediment. For example, in any job that brings a high rate of rejection, such as sales, the ability to not take rejection to heart can be helpful.

Similarly, depending on the profession, you can be too sensitive, to your detriment. I know a number of mental-health professionals who suffered from depression because they couldn't deal with others' pain. They made career moves into policy and administration areas where they were able to distance themselves from negative emotions.

So while the tone-sensitive may be almost too quick to pick up subtleties, their tone-deaf counterparts are too slow, even to what is obvious to everyone else. This can make them a major source of stress to co-workers and bosses.

How you deal with them will be related to the source of their tone deafness. If it's because of an inability to read social and emotional cues, you need to be explicit about your thoughts and feelings. Don't assume that what is obvious to you is obvious to them.

For example, if you want a co-worker to know you are not happy with something, avoid subtleties such as an irritated glance, or a comment like, "This is quite good," if what you mean is "This needs more work."

If the tone deafness is a function of preening narcissism, and an inability to "hear" information that they are not perfect, your choices of getting through are more limited. Indeed, they are most likely to get angry with you and draw you into a battle that nobody will win.

So, instead of focusing your energies on trying to shape or change their behaviour, you will be better off learning to manage your own reactions.

For example, when someone relentlessly goes on about how wonderful he or she is, don't get angry about such displays of self-importance; simply change the subject back to a work problem. If there isn't one, excuse yourself and walk away. Ironically, because these people are so self-obsessed, they may not even notice that you are begging off.

Or if you are feeling a bit mischievous, take a lesson from a friend who found herself saddled with two obnoxious narcissists, one who reported to her and the other who was a colleague. How did she cope? She sung the praises of the staffer reporting to her so well that the colleague hired the staffer away.

If you don't have the stomach for this kind of manipulation, take comfort that these narcissists, feeling underappreciated, are quick to jump ship and become someone else's problem.


1. I've been told by a number of people that I'm insensitive.
2. When speaking to someone, I'm conscious of whether he or she looks engaged.
3. I don't care if people are annoyed or hurt by what I have to say.
4. When speaking to someone, I always think: "What would this person be interested in?" Then I shape my conversation accordingly.
5. People close to me say I often completely miss the point.
6. I'm good at picking up and decoding non-verbal cues in a social interaction.
7. People often interrupt me when I'm talking.
8. I am aware when people I'm talking to look bored.
9. I often feel like I'm the only one in the room who will say the unpopular thing.
10. People close to me are often surprised when I miss emotional reactions in others that were very obvious to them.

Your score: The more you answered No to statements 2,4,6, and 8, and Yes to 1,3,5,7,9 and 10, the more you lean toward being tone deaf.


Worrying that you may suffer from tone deafness? Here are ways to tone it down:

Put yourself in someone else's shoes. Try to see things from others' point of view and consider what they may be thinking and feeling and how they might react to situations before you say or do anything.

Notice nuance. Pay closer attention to non-verbal cues, such as voice tone and body language. What do they reveal? For example, does a person look bored, irritated or engaged? Adjust your behaviour in response.

Edit yourself. Think twice about whether you're about to raise something too intimate or inappropriate before you start to blather.

Think about consequences. Sometimes, people don't point out the elephant in the room for a reason. Before you do, consider whether you are barging into a situation where the results could be explosive, hurtful or offensive.

Learn from others. Pay attention to other people who you consider more tone-sensitive and how they deal with situations.

Seek feedback. Ask people to whom you are close to watch out for examples when you demonstrate tone-deaf behaviour. Ask them to tell you what you could have said or done differently.