Listening Skills: The Eyes Have It!

 This week, my guest writer Kathi Mestayer muses on how people with hearing loss depend on two types of information in a conversation. Whew!

Listening Skills: The Eyes Have It!

by Kathi Mestayer

I used to think of hearing as being about sound, volume, clarity, etc. And it surely is. But it is also about the other signals we use to make sense out of what is going on around us. An example is the use of nonverbal signals — the huge variety of visual and other cues we send when attempting to get our point across. A publication by Judee Burgoon, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Arizona at Tucson, {{1}}[[1]] Burgoon, J. K.; Buller, D. B.; & Woodall, W. G. (1989) . Nonverbal communication: The unspoken dialogue. New York: Harper & Row.[[1]] estimates that sixty percent of all communication is nonverbal.

Sixty percent!

Now, that sixty percent consists of a lot of different elements. One group, called kinesics, includes facial expressions, eye contact, body language, gestures, and even physical appearance (dress, jewelry, etc.). Proxemics have to do with how close we stand or sit to another person. And there are non-verbals that we can hear but don’t involve language, known as vocalics: use of voice elements such as pitch, rate, pauses, volume, tone of voice, silences, laughs, sighs, and many others. So, while you have to hear them, they are not as hard to decode as, say, muffled speech from a person with facial hair. DGMS (Don’t Get Me Started).

You’d think the fact that we get so much information through non-verbals would be good news for hard of hearing people. And, in a way, it is. But we’re using it to make up for the poor quality of the other 40% that comes across our sound channel. Non-verbals don’t make up for that loss, but can mitigate it somewhat.

So, we grow to rely on non-verbals much more than people with normal hearing do. We get very, very good at lipreading. Recent research has shown that adults with hearing loss rely more on our visual cortex to listen in noise, while those with normal hearing, as expected, rely on the auditory cortex.

That redeployment of visual brain resources to assist in hearing is called cross-modal plasticity. And it can result in better peripheral vision, especially motion detection.

When I heard this, I had a major AHA! moment. For years, I have noticed (and griped to myself about) people in airports and grocery stores who seemed oblivious to the space around them. They would just stand there while people tried to maneuver past them, well within their peripheral vision range, or so I thought. Now, I know why. It’s not that they are particularly oblivious, although I’m sure some are, but it’s that I’m especially tuned in to the visual/peripheral channel. Edgy.

Because I’ve grown to rely so much on my visual data stream, strategic seating in restaurants has taken on a new dimension. I avoid sitting on the side of a table (or desk, in an office) that faces toward a light source, like a bright window. When I’m watching a speaker in front of a bright light source, it darkens their face significantly, making speechreading much harder.

When our visual and hearing brains are in overdrive, it can be exhausting, especially if the data from the auditory side is a little subpar. When I’m in a group, my fallback position is to take a break if I get overwhelmed, and focus on the non-verbals. It gives me a whole new take on the conversation, noticing what people are “saying” with their body language, facial expressions, and gestures. Almost feels like I’m spying on them. I think of it as refining my cross-modal plasticity skill set – guessing what people are “saying” nonverbally. And if I want an extra challenge, I can try to control my own facial expression, which is practically impossible.


Kathi Mestayer has been involved in hearing loss-related activities for many years.  She is a writer for Hearing Health Magazine as well as her own blog, Hearing Aids R Cool, and serves on the Advisory Board of the Virginia Dept for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing.

About Gael Hannan

Gael Hannan is a writer, speaker and advocate on hearing loss issues. In addition to her weekly blog for, which has an international following, Gael wrote the acclaimed book "The Way I Hear It: A Life with Hearing Loss". She is regularly invited to present her uniquely humorous and insightful work to appreciative audiences around the world. Gael has received many awards for her work, which includes advocacy for a more inclusive society for people with hearing loss. She lives with her husband on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

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