How to Communicate with Someone Who Doesn’t Hear Well

Senior couple with difficulty communicating because of hearing loss.

Everyone’s gathered around the table. The ham has been carved, the mashed potatoes are covered in melted butter, and the conversation is just heating up. Romantic dinners and family gatherings can be warm and wonderful. But for any family members who are hard of hearing, get-togethers can also be frustrating.

Communicating with someone who doesn’t hear well is far from impossible. It just takes a little courtesy and a bit of thought. There are a few tips and tricks (or “hacks,” as the kids call them) that can make this communication easier. The holidays are intended to bring us all together, but they aren’t the only time of the year where you may encounter someone with a hearing impairment. Those encounters are a perfect opportunity to have a nice chat.

Why conversations can be challenging

If you happen to be hard of hearing, conversations can be a little challenging, especially in noisy or crowded environments. That’s because of the way hearing loss usually progresses. It’s not as though someone turns down the master volume switch for your ears. Instead, your ability to hear specific wavelengths will usually diminish first.

This can make voices very difficult to understand. It can sound as though bits and pieces of each spoken word are a little bit muffled. In the early stages of hearing loss, it can be especially difficult to hear consonants, for example (and if you’ve ever watched Wheel of Fortune, you know that consonants make up a significant portion of most words).

That’s why ambient sound is sometimes easier to hear than a conversation in a crowded room. And we all know how crowded our dining rooms might get around the holidays.

Strategies for communicating well

Communicating well with someone who is hard of hearing–especially if they aren’t wearing a hearing aid–can be challenging. But it’s nowhere near impossible, especially if you keep a few of these basic tips in mind:

  • Start by asking how best to communicate. The listener you’re trying to reach may have already worked out a great system. Or maybe their hearing is better in their left ear than it is in their right ear. The best way to find out is just to (tactfully) ask.
  • Speak clearly and don’t rush. Talking fast is not going to get your point across. A slower pace will elongate some of those sounds (especially consonant sounds) and make them easier to hear.
  • Ensure that your lips are visible. If you’re hiding your lips behind your hands or talking with your mouth full (manners), you’re hiding information that could help the listener keep up with your conversation.
  • Face the listener: Using the same logic, it’s also helpful to face the listener as you’re speaking. This will provide more information (your lips and face and hands will all be visible, and that can provide valuable context).
  • When asked to repeat, rephrase as well: Sometimes saying the same thing over and over again is simply going to yield the same unsuccessful (and frustrating) results. Try changing it up and rephrasing what you said (again, providing a little bit of additional context and information can be helpful).
  • Notify the listener when you switch topics: This is a huge one. It can be deflating and embarrassing when a listener misses a subject change. But you can avoid that oft-frustrating situation by letting the listener know that you’ve moved on to something new. That way, the listener isn’t trying to fit a square peg (the old topic) into a round hole (the new topic).

Take a deep breath and be patient

Above all, it’s important to remember that everyone in any given situation is doing their best to effectively communicate. There will be some barriers, most definitely. But whether you’re hard of hearing or just talking to someone who is, patience is going to be a valuable asset.

There’s ample evidence to suggest that those with untreated hearing loss are already suffering from varying levels of social isolation. A little thoughtfulness on your part could go a long way towards creating an inclusive, warm, and inviting atmosphere.

And isn’t that what family dinners are all about?

Want more information?

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