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Potential maximisation: Tactics of persistence

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Social, academic or professional success is never without setbacks. Persistence through times of adversity requires taking risks and being resilient until the rewards flow.

There are many positive stories of individuals living with deafness and the families and professionals that support them. The words “resilience,” “perseverance” and “determination” are common. Most describe Persistence as an attribute or a virtue (e.g., “I’m resilient and now speak up for myself”). This article will show Persistence is an aptitude – the ability to do things. Action-wise, Persistence can be short-term or long-term.

Short-Term Persistence

Short-term Persistence can assist an awkward conversation or communication breakdowns. The following conversation between Joshua and Andrea is an example. He used deafness-specific conversational strategies related to short-term Persistence.

Joshua had just arrived in Missoula, Montana from Sydney, Australia. A profoundly deaf hearing aid user, he was spending a gap year backpacking through the States.

Andrea’s parents were close friends with his parents. Her older sister worked in a Sydney law firm and enjoyed Joshua’s family’s hospitality there. Her family is hosting a ‘Welcome to America!’ party for Joshua. Andrea, however, was very difficult for Joshua to speech-read. She mumbles and had no interest in Australia. Not the most gifted conversationalist, she was also clueless to his communication needs. But Joshua felt that it was important they talked. He was also very skilled at making people ‘forget his deafness.’

Her friend excused herself. His one glimpse of their conversation speech-read the phrase “Yellowstone National Park.” Yet, he knew very little about America. Quickly, though, these random phrases linked with Yellowstone National Park came to mind:

Yellow (colour) National Park super-volcano geyser camping
Washington State The Flintstones long trip America Rotorua, New Zealand

Every single phrase is a potential conversational topic.

A useful strategy is to personalise this information when starting the conversation. That is keeping the conversational topics relevant to the other person’s interests.

His opener was “I heard you mentioned Yellowstone National Park but missed what you said.”

“No, but my sister lives in (indecipherable).” He then missed that her sister’s home was a five hour drive away from Missoula. Not a good start to a conversation.

He persists, “Is that in Washington State?”

Joshua read Andrea’s disbelief and felt a pang of embarrassment. Another wall: “No, it’s not. It’s in (indecipherable).” Then five people burst out laughing. Momentarily distracted, Joshua missed Andrea’s explanation. He smiled with the laughter as if to say ‘sounds like they’re having fun!’

He then asks Andrea to repeat the location.

Tense, Andrea pays no attention to the laughter and repeats, quite seriously, ‘Montana’. More laughter blurred out Andrea’s voice. He still had no idea where Yellowstone National Park was.

Having missed important flows of information, Joshua struggles. But he maintains eye contact and was honest, “I’m having a little difficulty hearing with the background noise. But keep talking, I want to know more.”

This strategy works well with most people. But, Andrea simply stopped talking. Her face was blank. Lacking social intelligence, she does not know how to deal with the situation.

Joshua kept to his list of possible conversation topics, “Have you been camping there?”
“No, I haven’t.” Another no. Reeling from her awkwardness, she keeps blocking the conversational flow.

Notice something? This conversation promises to be an interrogation. Perhaps this makes Andrea uncomfortable. Yet Joshua uses a highly effective opinion opener, “I was wondering if you could help me here. I haven’t got a car and I really want to go to Yellowstone National Park. How would I get there from here?”

Made to feel her opinion was important, she happily provides advice.

Following her, he asks, “So, what’s it like there?”

She explains a family visit to Yellowstone National Park with her four-year-old nephew.
“Wow, cool.”
“Yeah, it was cool.”
“Did you see any geysers?”
“Yeah!” He smiles. She liked that she made him smile. “My nephew said ‘Mom! There is a whale in the ground!’”

They laugh. After their laughter resides, Joshua self-discloses, “I once saw a geyser in Rotorua, New Zealand.”
Her eyes lit up, “You have been to New Zealand?”
“Wow! I’d love to go to New Zealand!”
“I loved Lord of the Rings!”

The ‘ice broke’ – the reward for his Persistence. Joshua created something out of nothing with his mental list of ideas linked with Yellowstone National Park. Not only did the dynamic change, he knew what she was talking about. Now completely absorbed in a conversation about the film, she found a new friend in Joshua.

Let’s review this conversation. Say Joshua had started the conversation with impersonal information like “Yellow is a nice color.” This would have been disastrous. Andrea wasn’t going to make the effort. Many people don’t. Personalised information, however, is more likely to create a positive emotional response. This helps the conversation to flow.

Many people who are deaf do not initiate, let alone persist, in conversation. Consequently, they may sit alone and curse “It’s just too hard!” Without tactics of Persistence, conversations can be extremely difficult and exhausting. Yet, hearing just one phrase (e.g., “Yellowstone National Park”) can prompt a whole conversation. Be creative with your mental list of possible conversational topics. Risks may fail (e.g., “Is that in Washington State?”) but we can adapt by being persistent (e.g., “So, what’s it like there?”). All good conversationalists use these strategies, deaf or not, until the conversation warms and flows.

Self-talk is crucial for Persistence. Joshua could have been very confused and disheartened. But he focused his energy on that list. He did not worry about his embarrassment when getting blocked with “no” and cold body language. As we saw, Andrea eventually enjoyed the conversation when she opened up and said something funny.

Long term Persistence: The 3,000 Hour Rule

Long-term Persistence is explained in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success. Gladwell quoted the neurologist Daniel Levitin. The human brain needs 10,000 hours of practice “to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world class expert – in anything” (p. 40). For example, Mozart produced his first masterpiece when he was 21 years old after many years toiling at his music.

Ten thousand hours is a lot of time. Remember: this rule applies to world class performers. Gladwell’s message, however, was that Persistence with a craft or a profession develops specialised knowledge and skills. Gladwell’s idea can also be applied to mastering deafness-specific conversational strategies. 

I speculate that 3,000 hours of social interaction is needed to master deafness-specific conversational strategies. Every conversation, with whomever and wherever, is clocking up time. The more experience, the better. With the guy at the corner store, different teachers, your friends, the stranger asking for directions, people you don’t like and those you love – anyone. Continual practice improves your understanding of what works and what doesn’t. Above all, you will eventually feel comfortable with many different people. 

The maths of my 3,000 hour rule is simple. With one hour of social interaction per day, it will take about eight years to master deafness-specific conversational strategies. With two hours per day, just over four years. With three hours per day, just under three years. That’s not to say that life will be miserable drudgery in this time. As we saw in Joshua’s conversation with Andrea, fun can be had when mastering complicated tasks. As the old adage states, “it’s not work if you enjoy what you do.”

Persistence is the fifth of eight themes that create Potential Maximisation. The following exercise will assist your practical application of Persistence.

My last column asked to list many random words for “Darwin, Australia.” Use this list to create a role-play exercise. The Yellowstone National Park conversation can guide you. Get your child to use their words/phrases to create a conversation about Darwin. Say “no” to the first three questions, like Andrea did previously. Then reward them after the fourth question. This will be ideal practice for real-life situations.

The following question prepares you for the next theme: Goodness of Fit.

Question: What are your child’s talents and weaknesses? Talk with your partner, family, friends and educational professionals. Ask them to be specifically truthful.

“What fire does not destroy it hardens.” – De Profundis, Oscar Wilde

Next: Tactics of Goodness of Fit


  • Gladwell, M. (2009). Outliers: The Story of Success. Melbourne, Australia: Penguin Books.


The contents of these columns are copyright of Dr. Paul Jacobs (PhD). All rights reserved. Reproduction of all or any substantial part of the contents in any form is prohibited. No part of Dr Paul Jacobs’ material on Potential Maximisation may be distributed or copied for any commercial purpose without expressed approval by the author.




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