Legend has it that from the time they first suspect a hearing problem, people typically wait 7 to 10 years before actually doing something about it. That’s a decade—a tenth of a century—of deteriorating communication. Seven to 10 years, wasted!
Research shows many reasons why people delay, including a belief their hearing is not all that bad and they can live with it, that it would cost too much to treat, hearing loss is low on their list of health priorities, or they simply don’t know where to get help. (AARP/American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA): National Poll on Hearing Health, 2011)
But unaddressed hearing loss has side effects. Years of poor communication take a toll on self-esteem, relationships, and overall health. It also gives a person time to develop bad habits. Sam Trychin, the renowned psychologist, public speaker and writer on hearing loss issues, wrote in his Mental Health Practitioner’s Guide (1987): “The majority of people who are hard of hearing have had a gradual loss over a number of years. For them there may not have been a distinctly recognizable crisis period, but they have had a long time in which to develop and strengthen a variety of bad habits, such as bluffing, which can be highly resistant to change.”
So, what are some of these bad habits?
DENIAL: Not admitting our hearing loss, either to anyone or in individual situations, takes us down the slippery slope of poor communication. When talking to someone new, people are reluctant to bring up the issue until ‘necessary’—if at all.
“Why announce a problem when there might not be any?”
“My hearing loss is private.”
“I can get by.”
Reluctance to accept and admit our hearing loss doesn’t prevent communication issues; it causes problems. While we’re struggling to understand what’s being said, the other person may sense something isn’t quite right and, rather than attributing the ‘disconnect’ to hearing loss, may incorrectly suspect that we’re aloof, uninterested or even incapable of understanding. A good personal policy is to accept our hearing loss and learn to disclose it as soon as possible, sometimes even before a conversation starts. Checking in to a hotel, for example, “Gael Hannan checking in and just so you know, I have hearing loss and would appreciate your facing me when you speak, thanks.”
BLUFFING is pretending to understand what’s being said, or giving the appearance of following the conversation, when, in reality, we don’t. We nod, smile, go uh-huh or oh, really and maybe repeat the odd word or two to reinforce the (false) impression that we’re getting it.
All people with hearing loss bluff, at least some of the time. If a hard of hearing person says they don’t bluff—they’re bluffing. There are many reasons why we bluff—we don’t want to appear stupid by having to ask for constant repeats, we don’t want to bother people, it’s difficult to keep up, we’re tired, etc. All valid reasons, but regardless of our reason or intent, bluffing disconnects us from other people. We need to admit when we’re bluffing and find the courage to say, “I’m not following.”
WE DON’T ASSERT OUR NEEDS for accessible communication. A room is too dark. The speaker’s baseball cap shadows his eyes, making speechreading difficult. There’s background noise. Your friend is munching on potato chips, with some spinach stuck to her lower tooth. Your colleague is talking while walking away from you.
These are all correctable situations; the hard of hearing person needs to speak up and express the steps that will help improve the communication situation. The other person simply may not realize or remember that there might be a problem.
WE DON’T MODEL GOOD COMMUNICATION. It works both ways. Don’t talk to someone while walking away from them, or they will answer to your back. Talking with your mouth full is rude and looks disgusting and is un-speechread-able. Be aware of stray spinach. Articulate clearly.
PLAYING THE VICTIM
# 1—Suffering in Silence: “I’m not going to tell my spouse one more time to face me. He should KNOW that I can’t read his lips from the side!” “I might as well not even be here at this family party. It’s clear they’ve all forgotten about me and how I can’t hear them. This happens ALL the time, to hell with ‘em all.”
This common scenario is doomed to be repeated at all future family (or other) events, if we continue to sit silently and let our thoughts boil up into a furious, painful storm. Whose fault is this? Our family and friends, actively involved in other conversations, should and could be more attentive, perhaps, but they are not mind-readers.
#2—The Aggressive Accuser: “Why do you ALWAYS do that? Do you think that I’m the world’s best lipreader? No? Then why do you think I can see yours moving on the other side of the bathroom wall? Why am I always the one who has to go running to find out what you said? You’re wonderful with other people—why don’t you treat ME better?”
Understandably, frustrations build up and spill over when people who should know better, forget or ignore our needs. Like any relationship issue, communication breakdown due to hearing loss needs to be discussed and repaired with positive strategies. Admittedly, this is far easier said than done, but the alternative is to risk damage to the relationship.
Bad habits can be broken. Good communication is worth the effort.
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