Hearing loss is the third most common chronic health condition that older adults experience in the U.S. Impaired hearing results in a reduced ability to hear and process sound which is a major way we understand and navigate daily life.
Hearing loss has a range of symptoms that strain communication: tinnitus (a buzzing or ringing like noise in one or both ears), sounds are slurred or muffled, difficulty identifying specific words, struggling to hear high or low frequency sounds, unable to hear well in environments with background noise etc. These symptoms can be mild to severe and make it challenging to engage in and follow a conversation.
Fortunately, there are useful ways that hearing loss is treated. The most common treatment is hearing aids which are electronic devices designed to collect, amplify, and process sound. This significantly increases hearing ability, strengthening communication and enhancing relationships.
It can take time and practice to adjust to new ways of hearing which can be overwhelming at first. But through establishing your hearing needs and exploring ways to meet those needs, you will discover the strategies that best work for you! There are numerous tips that you can practice to help facilitate effective communication, this includes:
1. Face the Speaker
Having complete visibility of the speaker (and them of you) allows you to also read nonverbal cues. Nonverbal communication – facial expressions, body movements, hand gestures – help provide context during a conversation. This is especially important for people with hearing loss because it is another way to follow and understand what is being communicated. So, before a conversation starts, be sure to face the speaker, maintain a comfortable distance, and make eye contact.
2. Avoid Multitasking
It is crucial to be fully present during a conversation so that you are able to pick up all the information you can. This means you should avoid multitasking – texting, eating, driving, cleaning, being on the internet etc. For people with hearing loss, it takes more energy and effort to hear and process sound. Multitasking distracts from focusing on the conversation and being available to absorb everything. The priority should be given to following the conversation so that your auditory system can focus on processing just that.
3. Eliminate Background Noise
Background noise is another element that can distract from the conversation. It provides more noise for your brain to process which can lead to information overload and feel draining. You want to try and not create competing sounds for your brain to make sense of. Sometimes this may be difficult if you are in social settings like restaurants, bars, parties etc. But when you can, eliminate background noise but powering off any sound (music, television), avoid talking over household appliances (dishwasher, vacuum, blender etc.), rolling up the windows if you are in a car etc.
4. Rephrase Challenging Sentences
Everyone’s hearing loss is different. Some people struggle with specific sounds or frequencies which can make hearing and processing certain words more challenging than others. A helpful way to address this is by asking others to rephrase that specific sentence rather than repeat (using the exact same words). Rephasing is a useful strategy that opens up more ways to understand what is being communicated.
5. Share Strategies with Others
One of the most helpful tips is communicating your hearing needs with the people you are engaging with. This allows you to share specific strategies that maximize your hearing and understanding during conversations. It is important to remember that effective communication involves all people participating in the conversation so sharing your hearing needs allows others to provide support. This also prevents you from overextending yourself in trying to hear, reduces communication and confusion, and makes conversations easier to have. Sharing your hearing loss also can make you and others more comfortable to check-in throughout a conversation to ensure that everyone is understanding and following along!
In addition to these strategies, remember to be patient with yourself and others. It takes experimenting and practice to become comfortable. Allow yourself the room to learn and try new things out. Also remember that communication is an exchange, meaning that it is everyone’s responsibility to make sure to engage effectively and with care!