Becoming a Part of the Family
June 6, 2014
Tell Them, I Say
June 10, 2014

How I “Get” People to Talk to me so I Can Understand Them

A complaint I’ve heard a few times lately in the hearing loss support groups I hang out in is that “full-hearing” people resist making the effort to talk to us in such a way that we can understand them. Or they do sometimes, but then forget. I feel a lot of frustration around this for some people, sometimes translated into judgements about the other “not caring” or “not paying attention” or “being offended”.

Misunderstanding

This reminds me a little, in a “through the looking-glass” way, of how we “less-hearing” people are sometimes accused of “not paying attention”, “not making an effort”, or “being distracted”.

I try to always look at situations like this from the various points of view of the players involved. My work with people and technology, as well as teaching, have led me to adopt a kind of “user-experience-centric” attitude. Now, UX is definitely not my primary field of expertise (so forgive me in advance if it’s yours), but one thing I do quite consistently is try and put myself in other people’s shoes and see the logic in their way of thinking or doing things.

How does this apply here? What does it look like for people with full hearing who are trying to communicate with me?

People have communication habits. Volume of speech, but also, they know from experience when they can be heard or not, at what distance conversation becomes impossible. Most people being “well-hearing” (I kind of like that expression), their communication habits are adapted to people without hearing loss. Years ago, a friend of mine commented (when I said that I didn’t seem to have too much trouble understanding people) that everyone around me made efforts when speaking with me, but that I didn’t see it. They subconsciously spoke louder, learned to get my attention before saying something, etc. It was a bit of a shock for me. But it made sense. (This was before I got fitted.)

So, basically, when we have hearing loss, we’re requiring of people around us that they communicate differently with us, and break their deeply ingrained habits of speech for us. They need to learn and remember that they need to speak to us from distance x < “standard intelligible conversation distance”, for example. Or they need to remember not to speak to us when we’re not looking. Or when we’re in another room. Or too softly. All these things that “work” with almost everyone they know do not work as well with us. They’re used to talking to other neighbours from their balcony or across the street, but that’s too far for us.

I try to keep this in mind. I approach it like training. It’s my responsibility to teach them what works and doesn’t work with me, communication-wise. And sometimes spelling things out is really useful.

I usually take a moment at some point to tell “new people” that I don’t hear well, and that even with my hearing aids I might ask them to repeat stuff if they are looking away from me or in another room. If I’m without my hearing aids, I tell people.

I know they are going to forget even if they don’t intend to, and it’s never pleasant to be reminded that you forgot to do something that is necessary for somebody else. So even though it’s not my fault I have hearing loss and I don’t have to apologise for it, it’s not their fault either and I am asking them to do something out-of-their-ordinary to accommodate my particular circumstances. That’s why I often apologise when I ask people to repeat things (not systematically, but at least a few times in the beginning). I’ve never seen anybody be offended that I’m asking them to repeat. I’ve seen confusion when they repeat and I still can’t hear, irritation maybe at being asked again and again to repeat, or at failing to communicate.

When that happens, I try to give people clearer instructions: for example, I say “for me to understand you easily, get my attention first so that I can look at you” or “if you’re this far from me I probably won’t understand” or “if you’re in another room I probably won’t either”. Or “I’m sorry, even with my hearing aids in my hearing isn’t as good as yours, you need to speak louder for me to be able to understand you.”

I need them to do things differently for me, but if I don’t tell them clearly what it is they need to do, and if I don’t patiently give them feedback, they can’t guess.

How do you deal with this? I think strategies are going to vary a lot depending on the degree of hearing loss we have.

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Stephanie has been blogging since 2000, and is still at it. Sailing, skiing, judo-ing. Geek with social skills. Freelance consultant, speaker, trainer, thinker. Social media without the hype.
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Stephanie has been blogging since 2000, and is still at it. Sailing, skiing, judo-ing. Geek with social skills. Freelance consultant, speaker, trainer, thinker. Social media without the hype.