Please Pass the Hearing Loss-Talking Stick

One of the greatest challenges for people with hearing loss is being able to participate effectively in a group conversation (also known as a ‘convo’). We usually know what’s being talked about, but there are several challenges that exclude us.

  • Catching what each person says – and when.
  • Because most of us read lips to some degree, by the time our eyes shift to the next speaker, they’re halfway through their sentence.
  • Not realizing that someone is already speaking, and we ‘talk over’ them. This is embarrassing, and can either stall the convo or put it into reverse.

Most hearing people struggle with the concept of ‘one person speaks at a time’. For them, group conversations are organic, flowing naturally between speakers and overlapping speech is not usually a problem. But people with hearing loss struggle to hear and understand in the noisy storm of competing voices. Our contributions to the conversation are often reduced to pathetic pleas – “What did you say?” “Uh, one at time, please.” “Hey! Hard of hearing person here!”

When spirits are high – including, but not limited to, when wine is involved – the convo becomes high voltage, and it’s almost impossible to get people to speak one at a time. If your friends are like my girlfriends (the hearing ones), they have difficulty remembering to put their hand up when they wish to speak. On a Caribbean vacation, we tried the experiment at lunch one day. However, we forgot to appoint a moderator, and my friends were speaking and raising their hand at the same time, sometimes two or three at once. The other diners thought we were playing a game.

One of my longtime tactics is a hand signal that says ‘everyone is talking at once and I’m lost’. Even more effective, I’ve found, is to pound the table and say, “What the hell are we talking about now?” What’s frightening is that sometimes they can’t remember.

But why should I have to keep pleading? Here’s an idea for improved group conversation that doesn’t require electricity or batteries – a talking stick.

According to Wikipedia: The talking stick, also called a speaker’s staff, is an instrument of aboriginal democracy used by many tribes, especially those of indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast in North America. The talking stick may be passed around a group, as multiple people speak in turn, or used only by leaders as a symbol of their authority and right to speak in public.

“When Grandfather Speaks” by artist Alfredo Rodriguez

At a 1998 hearing loss conference in Moncton, New Brunswick, a few of us engaged in a hearing loss version of a ‘talking circle’, a tradition in the local native Mi’kmaq and other First Nations. The traditional use is to solve problems, involving one person speaking at a time, when holding the talking stick or other symbol. But it can easily translate to other situations such as our group of 15 people with hearing loss. I forget what the topic was but it was one close to the hearing loss heart. The stick was passed around the circle and when it was your turn, you talked and the others listened. The process was beautiful and it brought out many emotions.

Why not use a version of a talking stick for everyday conversations? The more we use it, the more comfortable the process might become, leading to conversations that flow more naturally, more easily. It wouldn’t hurt to try. Say, at Thanksgiving or Christmas get-togethers? At small group dinner parties? With just a few friends around the coffee table?

Traditional talking sticks are carved with meaningful symbols, but it would be easy to transform any object into the role. But make it visible so that there’s no mistaking its meaning. Holding a wine bottle isn’t unusual in my crowd, but if we stuck a large flower in it, that might do the trick. 

Kwakwaka’wakw artist Richard Hunt carving a talking stick, Canada

This is just one idea in our eternal search for more inclusive communication strategies. I’d be interested to hear if any of you try this and are successful.

Happy talking!



Featured image is a visual from the Mi’kmaw Culture site:

Richard Hunt photo from Wikipedia

“When Grandfather Speaks” by Alfredo Rodriguez from photo site – American Gallery


About Gael Hannan

The Better HearingConsumer addresses the personal experience of living with hearing loss. Editor Gael Hannan and her occasional guest bloggers explore every corner of the hearing loss life with humor and poignancy. Comment Policy   Gael Hannan, Editor Gael Hannan is an author, speaker and advocate on hearing loss issues. In addition to her weekly blog at the Better Hearing Consumer, which has a passionate international following,Gael has written two acclaimed books, “The Way I Hear It: A Life with Hearing Loss”and “Hear & Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss”, written with Shari Eberts. 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 that advocates for individuals to become more knowledgeable and successful at dealing with their hearing loss and a more inclusive society for them to live in. She lives with her husband on Vancouver Island, Canada. Books and other media Hear & Beyond: Live Skillfully with Hearing Loss. Written with Shari Eberts and available anywhere books are sold. The Way I Hear It: A Life With Hearing Loss. Available through online bookstores. Unheard Voices, DVD, vignettes from the hearing loss life. Contact Gael Hannan to order.


  1. Even better: If you have a remote mic or a Roger Pen, designate that as the Talking Stick and pass it around. No one speaks until they have the mic in hand. The result not only is just one person speaking at a time, but speaking right into your assistive listening device. I use it with my book club and other gatherings.

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