I first published this post on Medium and LinkedIn Pulse. At the time, I didn’t think it was “appropriate” for the Content Rules blog. However, the response that I received about this article was truly overwhelming. So many people have told me what an important piece it is. Everyone knows someone (or will know someone soon) who is hearing impaired. Many of my readers are hearing impaired – though not all have done something about it. In order to give the topic even more visibility, I am reposting the piece here. I look forward to your comments. ~ Val
“My name is Val and I wear hearing aids.”
I’ve been hearing impaired for most of my 50+ years. Though I wasn’t officially diagnosed until I was in my mid-twenties, I knew that I was having problems hearing from a very young age. In grade school, people thought I was trying to be the teacher’s pet by sitting in the front row of the class. Quite the opposite, I was trying to hear what was being said and follow along.
It can be very frustrating to go out to dinner with me. You need to be prepared to say just about everything twice, unless you know how to communicate with me in a noisy environment. Also, knowing how to communicate with me (or others who are hearing impaired) is actually not enough. You actually need to continue to use those behaviors for the entire meal.
On my side, I can tell you it is exhausting. The amount of mental energy it takes for me to understand your words is not easy to describe. My brain stretches and stretches. It knows there are sounds that it truly wants to process, but simply cannot. And, believe me, I hate asking you to repeat everything.
You can understand why I’m innately averse to parties, networking events, and other “lots of people” situations. It’s not that I’m anti-social. And it’s not that I don’t like people. I do. It’s just extremely difficult for me to communicate. I end up sitting quietly, unable to participate in the conversation. Some people think I’m stuck up. Far from it. I’m way down below. I feel left out.
Communicating with Hearing Impaired People Like Me
All of us will need to communicate with hearing impaired people at some point. Here are some things that you can do to make it easier for a true conversation to take place.
If I cannot see you, I cannot hear you.
If I cannot see your face, you need to assume I cannot hear your words. Is this true in every circumstance? Not necessarily. But I would put this as rule #1. If you really want to communicate, look me in the eye.
Often, I can read your lips. This gives me additional clues to processing your words. If we are walking and you find yourself ahead of me, I can guarantee with 100% certainty that I know you are making noise. I just cannot process what it means.
Prepare me to listen.
Even if we are in the same room, make sure I know that you are about to speak. For example, call my name first. Or say, “Hey you!” Even a good “Ahem!” will suffice.
Do something to capture my attention and prepare me to listen. That way, I don’t miss the first handful of words in your sentence and have to ask you to say them again.
Say the same thing, the same way.
When someone asks me to repeat what I’ve just said, my assumption is usually that they didn’t understand what I meant. My automatic response is to change my words to say the same thing. When I ask you to repeat yourself, I actually need to hear the exact same words that you said the first time. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand, it’s that I couldn’t discern the words you said.
If you change your words when you repeat yourself, I have to re-process what I was trying to process in the first place. You see, while you speak to me, my brain works overtime to try to figure out what your words are. If you then change your words, my brain has to start from the beginning – figure out a new set of words and parse their meaning. It is completely unnatural for us to repeat ourselves word-for-word. But, if you do that for me, I don’t have to work nearly as hard to engage with you.
Speaking louder doesn’t necessarily help.
When I’m speaking with someone and I don’t hear the words well, often it is not a volume issue. It is a clarity issue. I might hear the sound and know, “Oh yeah, that person is making sounds at me.” The problem is that the sounds aren’t clear enough for me to process the words. A lot of hearing loss is around clarity and processing, not actually knowing that a sound just happened (volume).
In fact, if you and I are in a quiet place, if you speak too loudly it actually hurts. Believe it or not, hearing impaired people tend to be more sensitive to loud noises. It hurts us more than a normal hearing person.
I know, this can produce a “no win” situation. If you speak too softly, I can’t hear you. If you speak too mumbly, I cannot process your words. If you speak too loudly, it hurts my ears and head.
I’m really sorry. It’s not intentional. It’s just the reality of communicating with me.
Try to remember I’m always hearing impaired.
Almost always, when I tell someone I’m hearing impaired and ask them to speak up, speak more softly, speak more clearly, etc., they are more than happy to accommodate me.
I thank you. Truly. Because I know how difficult it can be to communicate with someone who is hearing impaired. I have other family members who are also hearing impaired. Trying to speak on the phone with them is like a Three Stooges movie.
What usually happens, though, is that you correct yourself for the first few minutes and then fall back into your normal way of communicating. I don’t blame you at all. It is not easy to remember that in order to really communicate with me, you always have to speak in a certain way.
But if you can remember, gosh I would really appreciate it.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is this:
I really want to communicate with you. I value every word you have to say (well, that might be an exaggeration, but I do want to hear every word you say, so that I can decide if I value it or not).
My brain works overtime – constantly – to try to discern your words. It is very difficult for me to explain just how exhausting this is. But, trust me, I’m trying.
If you are as interested in communicating with me as I am with you, please try to remember all of the things on this list.