Have you ever been with friends in a noisy restaurant and had trouble keeping up with a lively conversation across the table? Or sat through a meeting and allowed your thoughts to drift? If you’re a normal hearing person, you probably do it without giving it much thought. But for a person with hearing loss, listening is exhausting. If you live, work or socialize with someone who is hard of hearing, you just might want to understand this fully so that you can appreciate the effort, and make changes to the way you communicate.
Listening for comprehension requires focus. That level of focus is different for someone with normal hearing than it is for those with hearing loss. People with normal hearing are able to listen passively – even allow their attention to wander, say to an iPhone or television screen – and still respond to auditory cues in the conversation. For someone with hearing loss, multitasking during a conversation means something completely different. In fact, multitasking frequently interferes with their ability to follow the discussion. They typically have to devote greater attention to reading your lips and deciphering cues and gestures.
Did you know: When speaking, a person makes approximately 13 to 15 speech movements per sound? Per. Sound. That’s like trying to read letters printed on falling snowakes. Plus, similar sounding words with letters like b, m, and p look nearly alike when spoken. So, words like “bike,” “mike,” and “pike” look alike “on the lips,” but are very different in context. Try it: Stand in front of a mirror and say out loud “buy my pie” and see how slight the difference is between the words formed on your lips.
All this listening is wearing me out
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For someone with hearing loss, multitasking during a conversation means something completely different.
Imagine how much mental energy a person with hearing loss needs to spend, just to listen and stay up with a conversation. Sometimes people with hearing loss may not tell you when they are feeling tired. You can be proactive in your communication style to make it easier for a friend or family member to understand what you are saying, without having to work so hard.
Keep in mind, hearing aids and cochlear implants do not restore normal auditory function, they support hearing. Here are some tips for communicating with people who are deaf or hard of hearing:
- Try to stand 3 to 6 feet from the listener. It’s the sweet spot for hearing aids to pick up sound.
- Hearing aids pick up sound the best from the front, so a listener may tilt or turn their head towards you while you’re speaking.
- Ask which side to sit on in order to ease hearing for them.
- Encourage the listener to choose the best location in a noisy place (usually not the center of the room, but more to the side where background noise is limited).
- Consider this: even people with normal hearing gather 25% of their comprehension from visual cues, such as reading lips, gestures and facial expressions.
- Ask the listener what topic they want to discuss, or tell the listener what you want to talk about. Giving the listener context is a big help, because it makes it easier to follow the details, so they can focus on the meaning of what you’re trying to say.
- Try to stand so you are facing the light from a window or lamp. When a light is shining on the back of your head, your face is backlit and cast in shadow. That makes it more difficult for a listener to read your lips, see facial expressions and follow gestures.
- Speak more slowly and don’t have anything in your mouth, like a piece of gum, when talking.
- Keep your hand away from your mouth when speaking.
- Try to stay in one place when conversing. For a person with hearing loss, it’s tough to hear and comprehend what you’re saying when you’re moving around, for instance crossing from one side of the room to the other.
- Limit the background noises and distractions, such as a television, dishwasher, radio, or vacuum.
- Be patient. The listener may ask you to repeat something you said or to confirm details. Consider writing down specific details for them, like a meeting date or a person’s name, so the listener doesn’t miss any necessary information.
- Even for people with normal hearing, there is a slight delay as the brain processes sound and puts it in context. Give the listener’s brain a moment to process the auditory information it’s received.