Improving Communication When There Is Hearing Loss - WVVA TV Bluefield Beckley WV News, Weather and Sports

Improving Communication When There Is Hearing Loss

Presented by:
ACC ~ The Audiology Awareness Campaign

If you are reading this article, you undoubtedly know the frustration often encountered when communication difficulty arises because of hearing loss. In this article, we will share suggestions that will address many of the issues associated with these frustrations. Often, very minor adjustments by the person speaking and/or by the person listening will greatly increase the ability of the listener to understand what is being said. In turn, application of these principles will make repetition and misunderstanding less common.

If you experience frustration in your attempts to communicate with someone with hearing loss, please understand that they are not trying to make life difficult for you. If you are the person with the hearing loss, understand that others are not trying to make life difficult for you.

One of the most common misperceptions that creates difficulty is that hearing aids will completely resolve the communication problem. No hearing instrument can fully restore normal hearing ability. They can be wonderfully helpful devices, but certainly do not fully repair a damaged auditory system. Thus, there is a gap between desired results and actual results when a person uses hearing instruments and depends on them to do everything to resolve communication difficulty. The suggestions in this article will provide you with important insights that can augment and expand what the hearing instruments are providing. The combination of hearing instrument use and employing these suggestions will produce more beneficial outcomes-a plus for both speaker and listener.

Before getting into the suggestions, it is important to understand that the way we communicate is largely based on long-standing habit. You understand that habits are difficult to change. So, if you want to employ these suggestions, you will need to work very hard at it for a few weeks until you have replaced an old communication habit with a new one. Also, changing a habit is more difficult if the change is only applied to communication with one person. It is much easier if you use these suggestions with everyone. Trust me, others will not realize you are doing anything different, but people whom you didn't know to have a hearing loss will find it so much easier to communicate with you.

Now, on to issues and suggestions:

A. The single most important enhancement to hearing is vision. All of us learned the visual component of language at the same time and in the same way we learned the auditory component. We are as familiar with how sounds/words look as how they sound. Thus, you want to insure that the visual component of speech is available and utilized to enhance hearing. Every hearing-impaired person knows how much easier it is to communicate with someone whose face they can see. The following suggestions will help with this:

  1. Always look at the person to whom you are talking or listening.
  2. If you are the speaker, get the listener's attention and pause for them to look at you before you begin speaking. If you are the listener, stop what you are doing and focus your attention and gaze on the person who is speaking.
  3. Try to insure that lighting is good and that the speaker's face is not in a shadow due to a bright light source behind the speaker.
  4. If you are the speaker, do not obscure view of your face with your hands or other objects, do not chew, and do not look away while you speak. If in doubt, ask the listener if they can see you clearly. If you are the listener, do not look away during the conversation.
  5. If the person with hearing loss is driving a car, they must keep their eyes on the road and cannot utilize the visual component of speech. Depending on the level of difficulty, important conversation may need to precede or follow driving. Alternatives are for the speaker to move closer to and look toward the driver while speaking or use an assistive listening device (speak to your audiologist for suggestions).
  6. Most of these suggestions, of course, cannot be employed with a non-sighted person, so you will need to be sure to employ the following suggestions to enhance communication in those instances.

B. People with hearing loss have more difficulty in noise than do normal hearing individuals-even when hearing devices raise the volume of the sound so they can hear it. The problem is understanding the message in a background of noise. To facilitate understanding speech in a background of noise, it is necessary to improve the signal-to-noise ratio. That is, the relative intensity of the desired speech compared to the background noise must be increased. In addition to noise canceling algorithms and directional microphone technology employed in hearing instruments to help with this issue, it is important to utilize the following suggestions to further enhance understanding.

There are two basic solutions to this that may be used alone or in combination: increase the volume of the signal and/or decrease the volume of the noise.

  1. Reduce the distance between the speaker and the listener. This is particularly important to understanding clearly since the high-pitched components of speech convey the most information but are the weakest sounds of speech. They also dissipate most quickly over distance and are absorbed more readily by carpeting, drapes, acoustical tile and the like. Thus, those critical sounds may not even reach the microphone of the hearing aid to be amplified if you are not relatively close to the speaker/listener and the speech may sound loud enough, but remains "muddled." Ideally, reduce the distance between speaker and listener to 3 feet.
  2. Telling people to "speak up" is not helpful, since vocal effort is based on what the speaker hears and not on what the listener hears. Vocal effort is an automatic, subconscious process and, even though the person initially responds by speaking louder, they will quickly go back to their usual level of speech.
  3. Reduce the level of noise by turning the TV, radio or other sound source down or off during the conversation. Close a door to cut out unwanted sound, move to a quieter area to converse, choose a quieter restaurant for dining and conversation, and so forth.

C. When hearing/understanding speech is difficult, we utilize context to help us "fill in the blanks." That is, if we get part of or most of the utterance, we can often accurately guess what we didn't hear. This happens very frequently. In reality, our brain does not care how much of the message we get by audition, how much by vision or how much from context, and so forth. The bottom line is that we either understand or we do not. The human brain is marvelously adaptive and will utilize any information available to us to facilitate understanding.

  1. If you are the speaker, it is tremendously helpful to a person with hearing loss if you identify the subject of your comment to her/him at the outset. That makes "filling in the blanks" from context much easier. Also, if the subject of the conversation shifts, clue the hearing impaired listener to that fact to make it easier for them to understand you.
  2. If you are the listener, listen for ideas or concepts as opposed to insisting on getting every detail uttered. If the situation dictates that you need to understand some detail, be sure to confirm with the speaker what you thought you heard to avoid misunderstandings. Don't be afraid to guess and fill in the blanks. You will frequently be correct and will find that your understanding of the spoken message involves more than hearing alone. If you haven't a clue as to the subject, ask.

D. Normal conversational speech involves many "shortcuts." We drop sounds, run words together and otherwise corrupt the message. Because we are so familiar with the language and normal speech patterns, we have no particular difficulty understanding. Hearing loss creates an entirely different situation-one that makes such speech sound too garbled to understand. People with hearing loss often bemoan the fact that people speak "too fast" or "run their words together."

Normal hearing people alter this speech style when they are in a difficult listening situation such as a noisy place. They tend to speak more distinctly, fully speaking each sound and placing strategic pauses and emphasis to convey a message that would otherwise not be understood. It is important to understand that a person with hearing loss is always in a "difficult listening situation." Hence, even though your ear does not dictate that you shift to the more precise "difficult listening situation" style of speech, your listener's hearing will be enhanced if you use it.

  1. Speak naturally a bit louder.
  2. Fully form each word, without dropping sounds or running them together with the next word.
  3. Give emphasis to key words.
  4. Pause slightly between words, thoughts and phrases to allow the listener to absorb what you have said. (Filling in the blanks requires just a bit longer brain processing time than normal listening).

E. Each person's hearing problem is a bit unique and specific strategies may be more helpful for one person than another. Nevertheless, the general principles outlined above are fairly universal in enhancing communication. If, after employing the above strategies, you continue to have significant difficulty with communication issues, consult with your audiologist for more specific suggestions tailored to your individual situation.

The extra effort you spend in applying the principles outlined in this article will pay big dividends in enhancing your ability to communicate. Best wishes for more effective communication!

Regina Talbert, Audiologist
Westwood Medical Park
Bluefield, VA 24605

Building #3

 (276) 326-2635 / 326-2636
Fax: (276) 326-2637

Hours of operation:
9:00 am to 5:00 pm M-F

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