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What not to say to someone with hearing loss

supporting a loved one with hearing loss
When a loved one is coming to terms with hearing loss it can bring many changes to your relationship. Providing the support a partner or family member needs, however, doesn’t have to be difficult. After a while, most people discover new ways to keep communication flowing. Sometimes just understanding how everyday comments have profound effects can make all the difference.

My own experiences with my wife Angie, who has sensorineural hearing loss, has led me to some insights on supporting a loved one with hearing loss.

What not to say to someone with hearing loss

Helping a loved one deal with and adapt to hearing loss involves challenges, a few stresses and strains, and no doubt a few cross words from time to time. That’s normal and to be expected. I think it is fair to suggest that we hearing folk have to do our best to make adjustments. By doing so, we can help them get through an understandably stressful time that can test us all.

One thing we can do is to drop the phrase ‘it doesn’t matter’ when we’re asked to repeat ourselves. This, though, it isn’t always straightforward.

Read more: When “never mind” goes both ways

Why we might not want to repeat ourselves

We’ve all done it from time to time.  Maybe the dog does something silly, or someone on the TV makes a comment we find funny. Perhaps we spot someone we know when we’re out in a restaurant?  Without thinking, we say something about it, perhaps quietly. We mutter under our breath and interrupt what we were saying before. A bit like this:

“Sorry, what did you say?” They ask.

“Oh, it doesn’t matter.” You reply, aware that the moment has gone. The dog has gone back to sleep or the person you were secretly poking fun at is getting closer, or even worse now standing right next to you.

“Sorry, what did you say?” They ask.

“Oh, it doesn’t matter.”

Whatever you had to say – whilst perhaps funny or important at the time – is at best no longer so, and at worst it is likely to land you with a drink in your face! You find yourself on the edge of huge embarrassment and feel a mortifying sense of awkwardness. What do you do? You could explain how Jeff from accounts has arrived and ‘doesn’t he look a fool with his new fiancé, thirty years his junior’ whilst they’re both stood next to you?  Or bore everyone with why you think the TV show host’s getting a story completely wrong again?

Nope, you turn and say: “Oh, it doesn’t matter.”  You pick up where you left off. Best to forget it. No problem, you think. Normal service is resumed, leaving whoever you’re with wondering what on earth was going on. The worst part, though, is that it probably wasn’t the first time.

For people with hearing loss, missing a bit of unheard conversation might make them feel annoyed. (It happens quite a lot after all.) Perhaps when you can’t hear someone, and they say ‘it doesn’t matter,’ might make them feel a little like their hearing loss doesn’t matter?  Might it make them feel – perhaps when it keeps on happening – that communicating with them is simply not that important. Or, maybe worse, that they are not worth communicating with?

Putting yourself in their shoes (or, ears)

I had an insight into these feelings a few years back.  As a scuba diver and occasional underwater photographer for a diving magazine, I enjoy a few trips to far-flung destinations a few times a year. At some point, I usually have a few ear issues caused the pressure of all that water above me. Divers can usually equalize the pressure inside and outside our heads with ease. But on occasion, our sinuses don’t play ball and our ears can take a battering.  When this happens to me, my already slight hearing loss is magnified. For a short while the world is muffled and all my mid and top range hearing is gone.

One night at dinner I couldn’t hear and found myself asking: “sorry, what did you say?”

“Oh, it’s okay, it doesn’t matter.” The person next to me said. But, you know what – I would liked to have heard what she’d said. So, I asked her again. “No, it doesn’t matter,” she said with a slight annoyance visible in her eyes.  Perhaps she didn’t say anything worth hearing, but that’s not the point I thought. I concentrated again on my soup and withdrew from the tables’ easy flow of conversation.

The next night I ate on deck and read my book, it seemed easier than not getting what was going on around me.  Later, after I texted my wife, as she was in my thoughts as I drifted off to sleep. How many times have I said something under my breath whilst we’ve been in the pub?  How many times have I cursed at the news. How many times had I said: “Oh, it doesn’t matter?”

“How many times had I said: ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter?'”

I felt dreadful. Such a simple thing that we all do from time to time.  I honestly had never realized how much it might matter. It finally hit home when I could relate to my wife’s hearing loss. For me, my ears would recover. But for anyone with hearing loss this was an everyday experience, and often they heard that ‘it doesn’t matter,’ from those closest to them.

How we can support our loved ones with hearing loss

To be fair, after fifteen years of marriage Angie knows that a great deal of what I say is largely irrelevant. If I forget myself and say “honestly love, it doesn’t matter,” she has the good sense to know it probably doesn’t. But for many years she’d say: “No, what did you say?”

For a while I would get annoyed (I’m not proud of it, but it’s best to be honest). Especially if I realized I’d said something stupid or I’d embarrass myself. I’d get annoyed with her, just a little, as if she was causing me to expose myself to social ridicule. Again, I’m not proud of this at all, ashamed to be honest, but so many of our habits form over years and years of interacting with the people around us, mostly without consciously thinking about it.  We don’t mean it, but we can try to help.

Find a way to communicate

Until we eliminate “never mind” or “it doesn’t matter” from our vocabulary, we try to find better ways to communicate. I keep wondering if we ought to have a simple gesture we use to say: ‘Yep, sorry I did that thing again,” or “I promise to explain later.” Perhaps with a sign that suggests it’ll be a juicy piece of gossip. Maybe scratching the left-hand side of the nose for: “you’ll have to wait a moment, but boy, you’re not gonna want to miss this.”

Know that it “does matter”

I guess the point is, when I experienced hearing loss, as I did that from scuba-diving, I had an insight into Angie’s daily life.  Even aided as she is by her Phonak CROS II system, much of the stuff those around her say to each other is inaccessible in the moment it is said. Even with the context and nuance available right there and then.

Yes, most of these muttered comments might be pointless, silly or rude perhaps, but don’t we all want to be able to share in the occasional adlibs that might, with luck, have us in laughter?  Don’t we all want to hear the things our friends and colleagues come out with that give us an insight into their inner selves?  How many friendships, and more, can flower when we hear and understand more of the small stuff?

Read more: Learning to overcome poor communication habits caused by hearing loss 

But sometimes, it really doesn’t matter

I’ve talked about this with Angie and we understand each other so much more. She forgives me my occasional forgetting (well, I hope she does) and she knows that I talk nonsense sometimes. But it has taken a while, and the fact that after all these years she’s still wanting to hear my nonsense tells you an awful lot about what a patient person she is.

Of course, when she starts speaking to me from another part of the house because her aided hearing is slightly better than mine (okay,  that’s a bit simplistic, but go with me) it gives me the opportunity to pretend to be annoyed and ask: “sorry love, what did you say?”

Author Details
I live in beautiful, rural Scotland with my wife Angie and our two dogs Tilly and Henry. Angie has sensorineural hearing loss and is a Phonak CROS user and I think over the years since her diagnosis I’ve learned quite a bit about hearing loss and how it can impact relationships. I work as a freelance writer and photographer and also run a small wildlife friendly gardening business.