“You mean some of the responsibility falls on MY shoulders?”

 By: Dr. Lisa D. Cahill, Ph.D., CCC-A

Regardless of whether a family member with hearing loss is using hearing aids, good communication strategies on all sides are absolutely essential to ease of hearing.  A common misconception is that the hearing aid functions as a prosthetic, when in reality; it is more of an assistive device, like a crutch.  Many family members of patients with hearing loss are surprised to find out they carry some of the responsibility to help alleviate the communication issues brought about by hearing loss. Once a hearing loss is identified, it is crucial for family members to be involved in the rehabilitative process, which includes communication training and education alongside the hearing aid fitting. The following guidelines can be learned with practice and awareness over time, and should be used in daily life regardless of a hearing loss, for more effective communication in general.

  • Face the hearing impaired person directly, on the same level and in good light whenever possible. Position yourself so that the light is shining on the speaker’s face, not in the eyes of the listener.
  • Do not talk from another room. Walls create a sound barrier and a visual obstruction. Not being able to see each other when talking is a common reason people have difficulty understanding what is said.
  • Speak clearly, slowly, distinctly, but naturally, without shouting or exaggerating mouth movements. Shouting distorts the sound of speech and may make speech reading more difficult. Pronouncing words clearly and distinguishing syllables is essential.
  • Get the person’s attention and wait for them to look at you before speaking. This gives the listener a chance to focus attention and reduces the chance of missing words at the beginning of the conversation.
  • Rephrase rather than repeat. Sometimes a particular combination of sounds is less audible than another choice of words.
  • Avoid talking too rapidly or using sentences that are too complex. Slow down a little, pause between sentences or phrases, and wait to make sure you have been understood before going on.
  • Keep your hands away from your face while talking. If you are eating, chewing, smoking, etc. while talking, your speech will be more difficult to understand. Beards and moustaches can also interfere with the ability of the hearing impaired to speech read.
  • Position yourself appropriately.  Be aware if the person has a better hearing ear.
  • Be aware of possible distortion of sounds for the hearing impaired person. They may hear your voice, but still may have difficulty understanding some words.
  • Try to minimize extraneous noise when talking. Most hearing impaired people have greater difficulty understanding speech when there is background noise. In a restaurant you can request a seat in a corner booth, for example, away from the majority of the noise.
  • Avoid situations where there will be loud sounds when possible. Some people with hearing loss are very sensitive to loud sounds. This reduced tolerance for loud sounds is not uncommon.
  • Familiarize the listener with the general topic of the conversation. Avoid sudden changes of topic. If the subject is changed, tell the hearing impaired person what you are talking about now. In a group setting, repeat questions or key facts before continuing with the discussion.
  • If you are giving specific information — such as time, place or phone numbers — to someone who is hearing impaired, ask them to repeat the specifics back to you. Many numbers and words sound alike.
  • Provide pertinent information in writing whenever possible, such as directions, schedules, work assignments, etc.
  • Recognize that everyone, especially the hard-of-hearing, has a harder time hearing and understanding when ill or tired.
  • Pay attention to the listener. A puzzled look may indicate misunderstanding. Tactfully ask the hearing impaired person if they understood you, or ask leading questions so you know your message got across.
  • Take turns speaking and avoid interrupting other speakers.
  • Use visual media. Texting, and writing can facilitate conversation in noisy areas.
  • Enroll in aural rehabilitation classes with your hearing impaired spouse or friend.

For the person with hearing impairment, do not hesitate to politely explain to others what your communication needs are! Some acquaintances may forget about your hearing loss or get excited about the conversation and fall back into their normal speaking pattern.  If you need something repeated, try repeating back what you think they said, or at least the portion that you heard, so they don’t have to repeat the entire sentence.  Maintain a positive attitude to avoid hurt feelings!

Hearing aids alone, while helpful, still may not allow a person with hearing loss to communicate successfully in all listening situations. As a family member or friend of a person with hearing loss, you can help improve communication by following these simple suggestions.  Communication always involves at least two individuals: a talker who sends the message and a listener who receives the message. Teamwork between family members is essential to accommodating the needs of the loved one with hearing loss.