What Can Sign Language Educators Teach Us About Communicating at Work?

For the last year, two smiling British women have been our special needs daughter’s top pick on YouTube Kids. They move to the music and sign in Makaton sign language while covering popular songs with kid appeal – from the classic “Wheels on the Bus” to Katy Perry’s “Firework.” And their approach has surprising application to workplace communication.

Many of the children they work with are not hearing impaired but have other communication challenges and Singing Hands has helped them make huge strides in expressing themselves. So much so that they were awarded MBEs (in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List 2021 for Services to Children and Young People with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities). This award is prestigious – just a few steps below “knight” in the British system.

As a Christmas gift, we booked a Zoom sing-along call for our daughter with Singing Hands. Little did we know that the strategies they used to build rapport over Zoom would also be a masterclass in communication – equally applicable to the workplace.

“[T]he strategies they used to build rapport over Zoom would also be a masterclass in communication.”

During our time together, I was as mesmerized as my daughter. As I reflected on the interaction afterward, I realized why. Suzanne and Tracy had displayed broad strokes of communication genius. After 45 minutes, they felt like lifelong friends – and they had just accomplished that via Zoom!

The strategies that Singing Hands used to create a sense of relationship reads like a list of communication “do’s,” particularly so when communicating with those who are highly expressive of traits associated with the estrogen/oxytocin system.

  1. Use their name. Tracy started the conversation by greeting our daughter by name and asking for the names of her siblings so they could specifically include them, as well as both parents, in their “Hello” song. As they addressed our daughter throughout the call, they continued to use her name.

    This can have the same effect in business. Particularly when working with someone who is high in estrogen-linked traits, use their name when responding to emails. (A friend who is very high in traits associated with the estrogen/oxytocin system recently commented, “I try to remember that all of us wear an invisible sign that says, ‘make me feel important.’”) Even a brief “thank you, Michael” can feel more personal.
  2. Ask questions. The US-UK difference provided a great opportunity for this. When they introduced a frog before a song, Suzanne asked whether American frogs made the same “ribbit” noise as British frogs. At the end of the call, they asked about the weather. We opened our front door to show the huge snow piles outside. They didn’t just acknowledge our response and move on. They took time to let us know that it was raining in London.

    When meeting with colleagues, make sure to show enough interest in what the other person has to say; ask questions and get them to talk about their ideas and opinions. Respond in kind and share something about yourself. Show care here that any story you tell is short, builds connection and doesn’t feel like verbal one-upmanship.
  3. Repeat back the main points. When our daughter mentioned her favorite holiday (Halloween), both Suzanne and Tracy – almost in unison – repeated back, “Halloween, Halloween.” This occurred several times when we brought up various topics.

    At work, paraphrase and restate the other person’s main points, especially when they’re high in estrogen-linked traits. Not only does this show that you want to understand. It also helps ensure that you understand correctly and can prevent having to correct misunderstandings further into a project.
  4. Value the relationship over being “right.” After Suzanne and Tracy donned pirate hats and explained the set-up for their pirate song, our daughter grabbed her Santa hat. Suzanne instantly commented, “oh yes, Santa can be on the ship, too.” It wasn’t a detail that mattered and would have slowed momentum to discuss whether Santa actually fit into the pirate ship theme.

    When working with a colleague who is high in estrogen-linked traits, avoid arguing every little point. You don’t have to give in on aspects that are important to you, but selectively moving past small things – even won’t you don’t agree – can build relationship before tackling any larger points of disagreement. When you know in advance that compromise will be necessary, pick your battles and prepare by thinking of all possible outcomes that would meet both your needs and those of the other person. “Win-win” scenarios will resonate most strongly with those who are high in estrogen-linked traits.
  5. Use eye contact and facial gestures. For us, this was the key to building connection over Zoom. Suzanne and Tracy were close to their respective cameras and had them positioned so that we could easily read their facial expressions and observe the signs they used. They were focused on us for the full length of the call, watching our reactions, smiling and nodding as we spoke. (This was accompanied by a steady chorus of “well done,” “brilliant” and “absolutely” which reinforced the eye contact and facial gestures.) How could we not want to adopt them into our family by the end of the call? They made us feel special and important.

    On video calls, it can be disconcerting for others if you’re looking down the whole time so that your colleagues only see the top of your head. Whether you are in person or on a video call, look at the person speaking, nod or react positively if they say something surprising or humorous. When someone is high in estrogen-linked traits, they like to collaborate, want to feel valued and included, and often read between the lines. Use eye contact and facial gestures to make sure they know they have your full attention.

The Singing Hands founders are likely naturally high in estrogen-linked traits themselves and have also honed their communication skills through years of public appearances. But the basic strategies they use are easy to implement, regardless of your preferred approach. If the tips above aren’t natural for you, jot them down on a sticky note and refer to the ideas during your next meeting or video call.

Connecting more effectively with those on your team can improve both morale and outcomes. If you need a little inspiration, check out Singing Hands UK on YouTube. Thank you, Suzanne and Tracy. Well done.