Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

communication guidelines

September 28th, 2005

I had a cool job today. It was a balanced group, roughly even numbers of deaf and non-deaf participants, and a wonderful team. She fed me an incorrect number once, but also a vitally important concept that I’d missed emphasizing adequately. I backed her up on a few things too. Let her have a couple of nice long turns, too. 🙂 Such teamwork isn’t an unusual element of interpreting – what made these examples stand out so much today is that they were the only things we had to worry about!
This was the group’s third meeting. Prior to the beginning of the second meeting, one of the Deaf participants approached me, asking what I thought about how it went the first time. She had some concerns (having noticed some things), and so did I. She asked me to exaggerate the processing time when she addressed the group regarding turn-taking norms. I did – not 100% consecutive, but long enough that there was no way the non-deaf participants could ignore the fact of something being said that they couldn’t understand.

The message was simple: use your eyes as much as your ears. When you see a Deaf person’s hands moving, they are talking! You’ve got to give the interpreter a chance to catch the gist before they can start actually speaking an English interpretation. A few examples were given of particular times when deaf/non-deaf speakers had overlapped in the first meeting (putting the interpreter in the awkward position of having to choose among equally unpalatable options: blatantly ‘interrupt’ by speaking over the non-deaf person; wait – and make the deaf person wait – until a suitable pause to ‘break in’ (which may or may not happen, or if, when it does, might be so far removed from the content as to appear anachronistic); or continue interpreting from spoken English into sign whatever the non-deaf person is saying, thus ‘interrupting’ the Deaf person’s thought process and – still! – ‘making them wait.’
However, the beauty of this group was that this one detailed instruction, given plainly and with reference to situations that participants remembered, was all it took. Today there were no issues with turn-taking, only concern for meaning. And the meaning-making process was on display insofar as partipants were aware when the interpreters were negotiating something and could inquire or clarify as they saw fit. We were an acknowledged part of the process but not in control of it, because all participants had learned the bicultural framework and skills necessary to manage the technicalities of working between two languages.
Under what circumstances does the difference between 30 and 60 days matter? Today, it did matter because the context was the provisional extension of deadlines. How much does it matter whether physicians actually grasp the fact that being in the dark for a deaf person means that they cannot communicate (or, at least not well, unless they are already skilled with tactile signing such as the deaf/blind use)? This was crucial, and needed particular emphasis in the form of cultural mediation. A simple statement that “I can’t communicate in the dark” is merely puzzling for someone who doesn’t perceive the necessity of light in order to talk.
While the choice as to whether to provide a feed or not, correct an error or deem it minor enough to not affect overall meaning, or to read the situation as needing to have its flow maintained and mistakes fixed later are routinized, they often occur below the surface of consciousness because there are simply too many other things absorbing attention. Because all those typically competing factors were not requiring attention today, the basic choices at the heart of our job were made more plain, more visible, more open to observation and discussion: during the meeting if participants felt it necessary, and afterwards as a source of feedback and connection among deaf and non-deaf participants, and between all participants and the interpreters.
Sweet! 🙂

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