Say your employee is in a conference room out of earshot, and you want to know what he’s saying. You need to know the basics and do your homework—which means practice. I’m a self-taught lip reader; I’ve been hard of hearing since birth. A person who hears normally needs to know how the sounds are made as well as how the lips are shaped to produce the sound. For example, the “th” sound: If the tongue comes out of your boss’s mouth and the lips are rounded, you can assume the “th” sound is coming out. Then you sound out the word in your mind.
To get better at this, practice at home, looking at a mirror. See how you shape sounds and watch yourself sound out words. After you start mastering words, you’ll soon begin to understand what the person has said in terms of larger sentences and complete thoughts. It’s also important to study the emotional aspects of the face—that is, not just looking at the lips. The most telling emotions are anger, happiness, and sadness. Believe it or not, recognizing those basic feelings informs your recognition of words. When a person’s speaking on the phone, I watch the overall mannerisms and how the person reacts during the conversation.
Once I get the gist of a conversation, it becomes that much easier to follow. I just look at the entire face. With practice you can teach yourself to learn what your boss is saying from across the room. Just don’t let him catch you staring at him. Avoiding that’s a different skill altogether.
• Wenig is a professional lip reader.