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Can hearing loss make you less empathic?

Can hearing loss make you less empathic?

When we think of using our hearing aids, we tend to think of clarity, loudness and sensitivity.

We home in on hearing the words spoken to us clearly, so that we can respond in kind.

However, a recent study reports on an important question for those who experience hearing loss: is it enough just to hear words, or do we need to also understand the emotional intent behind them?

According to the Canadian Acoustics, the journal of The Canadian Acoustical Association, the perception of emotional speech by listeners with hearing aids could be very important.

Emotions in speech 

Our everyday speech is laced with emotions, almost nothing spoken is without some form of feeling.

This has to be considered a given in communicative speech. But and here is the thing: What if we are not hearing the emotion behind the words?

This could be causing us another set of issues altogether, according to the study. If we are holding conversations and understanding only the words being said to us, we might just be giving a totally false impression of our own feelings, as well as our reception to the feelings of those talking to us.

It is not difficult to imagine a friend pouring out their heart to us in a public place, such as a café or a park. In this circumstance most people would not freely show how they’re feeling by their facial expressions, instead they would rely on the emotional intensity of the words and tone of voice they choose to use.

If we are content that we are understanding them and managing to follow the conversation, we could be giving them a wrong impression, and perhaps even convey that we are unfeeling or distracted.

Read more: How I changed my attitude about hearing loss 

The study reported older people with hearing loss appeared to be more at risk of getting the emotional speech wrong, because older people without diagnosed hearing loss still struggled with the frequencies associated with certain emotional content carried alongside speech. Because of this, the impact for those in this age group with hearing loss could well be significantly higher.

“…older people without diagnosed hearing loss still struggled with the frequencies associated with certain emotional content carried alongside speech”

Understanding emotions with Hearing Aids 

The study showed that neutral feelings and anger were easier emotions to pick up on than those of sadness and happiness.

Fear was easier to perceive than a happy emotional state.

There was a small increase in the understanding of older people with hearing, when they were given hearing aids, but it was still lower than those experienced by young hearing people. This means that those older people with hearing loss could be operating at a daily disadvantage. Every conversation could be a potential problem, unless it is anticipated.

“There was a small increase in the understanding of older people with hearing, when they were given hearing aids, but it was still lower than those experienced by young hearing people.”

What can be done?

The cure for this may come in time, as technology improves, emotional receptors may become a standard part of future hearing aid technology. For now, it is up to us to really pay attention to not only the words people say to us, but also the way in which they are spoken.

If someone asks to have a quiet word, we might be wise to ask them how they are feeling, if this is appropriate to do so.

“If someone asks to have a quiet word, we might be wise to ask them how they are feeling, if this is appropriate to do so.”

As someone with hearing loss, I often spend much of my time looking at the mouth area. Even if I can’t consciously lip-read, I still tend to pay attention to the lips and mouth in order to pick up clues.

From the findings of this study, it shows that I would do well to also take time to look at the whole face and also spare a thought to the person’s demeanour, such as how are they carrying themselves. Do they look happy, sad, angry and so on.

By always straining to understand with our ears, we might just be failing to recognise that we also have other senses.

Read more: Do deaf people have super powers? 

If we can see perfectly, it makes sense to use our eyes, as well as our own feelings and empathy to really make that extra effort to tune into the other person and give them that little extra.

Do you find hearing loss makes you less empathic? Let us know how you cope in the comments!

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Author Details
Phonak hEARo, Phil is an author, journalist and therapist, living on the beautiful North Yorkshire coast with his wife Raine and their three children. Phil was diagnosed in 2016 with mild to moderate Sensorineural hearing loss in both ears and tinnitus. He uses Phonak silver digital hearing aids with automatic volume controls.
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Phonak hEARo, Phil is an author, journalist and therapist, living on the beautiful North Yorkshire coast with his wife Raine and their three children. Phil was diagnosed in 2016 with mild to moderate Sensorineural hearing loss in both ears and tinnitus. He uses Phonak silver digital hearing aids with automatic volume controls.
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