A few weeks ago, during a coaching training course, my classmates and I were discussing the concept of active listening. How is it practiced? Why is it important? How can you improve it as a skill?
I caught myself thinking, “Strange that we need a lesson dedicated to this. Do people really find this hard? Why do I seem to find this second nature?”
Then I remembered: I don’t have a choice but to be an active listener. As a hearing-impaired person, I have been forced to adapt practices that facilitate listening and understanding. If I am not making a conscious choice to listen, then, quite simply, I am not participating in the dialogue.
According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 466 million people – 5.5 % of the global population – have disabling hearing loss. That number is expected to rise to 1 in 4 by 2050. It is also estimated that 1 in 3 seniors (adults over the age of 65) are affected by disabling hearing loss. If not supported, hearing loss can lead to frustration, loneliness, and social isolation– not things we need more of considering the current world health status. With populations so significantly impacted, the topic of hearing loss merits some serious attention.
I understand the impact of hearing impairment not just from the perspective of a hearing-impaired person, but also as the mother of a hearing-impaired child. I know the challenges of advocating for a loved one with hearing loss. I know what it is like to navigate school settings, social events, and workplaces. I also know how difficult it can be to support a loved-one as they transition to wearing hearing aids.
With my years of experience, I have considered writing a book about the courtesies of communicating with a hearing-impaired person: ‘A Loved One’s Guide to Communicating with the Hearing Impaired’, or something. Perhaps in the future. For now, I simply want to share my tips for supporting your hearing-impaired loved one, from my unique perspective having been on both sides of the challenge.
Tips for Supporting A Loved One With New Hearing Aids
1. Be Patient (and encourage your loved one to do the same).
Transitioning to wearing hearing aids is not without its challenges. You might think that adjusting to wearing hearing aids is much like getting new glasses. It is not. There is an adjustment period to wearing hearing aids, which can be tiring and frustrating for your loved one.
Listening takes a lot of energy and focus. Consider the effort it takes to carry on a conversation in a noisy environment– a party, for example. Now, imagine having to apply that level of concentration all the time. Exhausting, right?
When you first begin using a hearing aid, sounds appear loud and strange, mechanical and unnatural. Even the sound of your own voice sounds strange. This strangeness goes away after some time, but it requires practice. Be empathetic to your loved one as they adjust to their hearing aids.
Especially in the beginning, encourage your loved one to practice wearing their new hearing aids every day. Pick times in the day when it is quiet– no shutting doors or clanging dishes – and be mindful of the everyday noises that we so easily make and tune out. A new hearing aid wearer does not have that luxury. The less noise interference, the more pleasant the experience.
3. Stay Positive
In a research study published in the International Journal of Audiology, attitude is listed as one of the top reasons why people fitted with hearing aids discontinue wearing them. If your loved one is feeling frustrated and resisting wearing their hearing aids, encourage them to have a positive mindset. Remind them of the long-term health benefits associated with hearing health, including enhanced social connection and overall quality of life.
Common Courtesies for Effective Communication
The biggest courtesy you can extend to someone who is hearing–impaired, including hearing aid users, is to limit background noise to create an inclusive environment. In various environments this can look like:
For you, the radio playing lightly in the background adds ambiance but for your loved one, it is not needed at a social event. It may be distracting and make participating in the conversation very challenging. Notice if they become quiet or unengaged and if so, offer to turn off the music.
If watching TV with a hearing–impaired loved one, turn on the Closed Captioning (CC), even if they say it is not necessary. Make the “fuss” for them. Personally, I did not realize how much dialogue I was missing until I watched a movie with CC.
Wind noise is a significant problem for hearing aid wearers as it is extremely difficult to comprehend speech over the loud rushing sound of the wind. Wearing a light hat (beanie/toque) or a bandana/buff covering the ears can appreciably reduce wind noise, allowing users of hearing aids to enjoy conversations outdoors.
In the Car:
Here again, wind noise is a problem. Driving with the window down is uncomfortably loud and not conducive to conversation for the hearing-impaired. Even with the windows up, the sound of the engine, tires, and outdoor wind noise still create hearing challenges.
Seating arrangements can also make a difference in a vehicle. Being hearing-impaired and trying to participate in a conversation with someone looking out the front window of a car is difficult and frustrating. If they are not the driver, the best place for a hearing–impaired loved one is the passenger seat. From there, they can see the driver’s face and turn to face people in the back seat, offering more control and opportunity to participate in a conversation.
Best Practices for Communicating with Hearing-Impaired People
Lastly, the proceeding tips are some general best practices for effective communication with hearing–impaired people:
- Talk to the person face–to–face (not turned away or while moving).
- Do not talk to a hearing-impaired person from another room.
- Say the person’s name to get their attention before starting a conversation.
- Keep your hands away from your face. Many hearing-impaired people have come to rely on lip reading to assist with comprehension.
- If communicating things like telephone numbers, addresses or directions, write them down. Better still: send them via text/email, if possible.
- If someone asks you to repeat yourself several times, try rephrasing what you are saying. Be mindful that it is embarrassing (and discouraging) for a hearing-impaired person to ask someone to repeat themselves again and again.
- And finally: Please skip the jokes. Whether they’re about “digging the crap out of your ear” or that you “must be speaking a foreign language”, it is just so very insensitive.
So there it is. My small contribution to making the hearing world a bit more inclusive for the hearing-impaired. Comment below with any tips of your own for effectively communicating with the hearing-impaired. If you are hearing-impaired yourself, does any of this resonate with you?