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Hearing Health Blog

Habits that improve communication with the hearing impaired

calendar-icon November 3, 2022
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The holiday season is almost upon us, and with the seasonal songs, decoration and food, there are also many social events on the calendar. These social engagements with family and friends are often met with anticipation with excitement, but for those with hearing loss, they can also cause significant anxiety.  These events are usually noisy, making communication for the hearing impaired very challenging-despite wearing the most advanced digital hearing aids or cochlear implants. If you have a close friend or loved one with hearing loss, you already know this. But did you know there are certain habits you can form to improve communication with someone that is hard of hearing? The following are some strategies to help you communicate more effectively with your loved ones during the holiday season.

  • When talking, face the person directly, on the same level (sit down with them) and, if possible, in good light. (In dark light, they cannot see your lips, and those with hearing loss will often focus on your lips to assist in understanding what you are saying.)
  • Do not try to talk from another room!  For one thing, even those of us with good hearing struggle with this! And hearing aids are not programmed to hear someone in the next room. This is because most often, we want to hear those of us in the room with us, not two rooms away!
  • This next tip is the most important.  Speak clearly and slowly!  By slowing down, you will automatically speak more clearly and distinctly.  DO NOT shout or exaggerate your speech.  Shouting distorts your voice, and it’s not a fun way to communicate.  So please, don’t shout!
  • If you are initiating conversation, say the person’s name first.  This gets their attention gives them time to shift their focus towards you and receive your message. When we hear well, our brains are very good at filling in words that were missed in conversation.  However when we have hearing loss, our brains are already working very hard to understand speech, which makes filling in what is missed often too great a task.
  • Many elderly people with hearing loss also suffer from cognitive decline.  Please keep this in mind when communicating.  Try to be succinct.  Don’t elaborate too much.  Long, drawn out sentences require not only the effort of listening, but also remembering what was said at the beginning of the sentence.  
  • When talking, keep your hands away from your face, and don’t chew gum or food while talking.
  • It is not unusual for a person with hearing loss to favor a certain ear, or perhaps they have one ear that is poorer than the other.  Please orient yourself accordingly, if possible, sitting on the better hearing side or straight across from them. Hopefully the person with the hearing loss advocates for themselves, but if not don’t be afraid to ask where you should sit so they can best hear you.
  • If you aren’t understood, rephrase what you are saying using different words.
  • Be aware of background noise.  Background noise interferes with speech and often makes it unintelligible.  Turn off or mute the tv or move into a quieter space. If you want to go out to eat, consider where has the least amount of background noise, or go at a slow time of day when few people will be there. Sometimes outdoor seating is favorable because there is less reverberation. However outdoor seating can be near a busy street, so this doesn’t always work. When dining indoors, a booth can often insulate sound, which is helpful. The app Soundprint allows anyone with a smartphone to measure the amount of noise in a restaurant and log that information so that others will know what type of sound environment they should expect before they go out to eat!
  • In group conversations, the subject matter can change suddenly, leaving those with hearing loss unaware that the topic of conversation has changed. You can reacquaint the listener with the conversation by saying something like the following; “John we were discussing the Iowa State football game, but now we are wondering what you think of our basketball team’s prospects”.  Summarizing helps someone who is hard of hearing follow the change of conversation.
  • Be aware of non-verbal signs that indicate someone has misunderstood.  Confused looks or blank expressions may mean they do not understand.  Tactfully ask if they understood or ask leading questions to get your message across.
  • When communicating specific information that must be remembered correctly, such as a time and date you want that person to remember, you may need to ask them to repeat it back to you to be sure they heard it correctly.  If you find this awkward, try to find a way to communicate this type of information in written form, such as email or letter/postcard.  If your loved one is motivated to learn how to text or email, please teach them!!  Email and text are incredibly helpful when communicating important information to someone with hearing loss.
  • For some hearing losses, understanding speech requires much more mental effort than you might know!  And if that person is tired, or feeling ill, they often won’t have the mental energy to keep up that cognitive effort of listening and understanding speech. So please, be patient in these circumstances.

Keep in mind that a hearing aid is and AID, it is not a corrective device.  And due to this, a person with hearing loss cannot just “work harder” at hearing.  Only so much mental effort can be put towards hearing.  And remember, communication is a two-way street.  You, as part of the conversation, must make a concerted effort to be understood.  

Consider if you had a family member with vision problems, or mobility issues that caused them to be confined to a wheelchair. You would obviously make accommodations for that person, by making sure wherever you were going had handicap accessibility, or for those that had vision deficits you would provide your arm to guide them and help them read the menu in a dimly lit restaurant. 

Those with hearing loss should receive this same effort towards accommodation-considerations should be made to enhance communication.   And I can tell you that for your loved ones and friends with hearing loss, there is no better gift than family and friends who are supportive and understanding of their hearing loss.

Thanks for reading!