How to communicate with someone with hearing loss
It is estimated that 1 in 6 of the UK adult population is affected by hearing loss, making it the second most common disability in this country.
Categorised as an invisible disability, it’s not always easy to tell if someone’s hard of hearing but with so many people suffering, it’s likely that you will know or come across someone who’s hearing-impaired – whether it be in a work capacity, or a friend or family member.
With that in mind, we must learn how to correctly and considerately communicate with someone who has hearing loss. Conversations can be particularly frustrating and stressful for them, so it’s important to know what to do and what not to do.
People suffer varying degrees of hearing loss and some may be harder of hearing than others which means the following tips won’t always apply to everyone, but they should help.
Ask about their communication needs
The first step to take when looking to improve your communication with those suffering from hearing loss is to find out what their communication needs are. This is particularly important when you’re trying to make conversation with someone who you don’t know very well, or maybe haven’t spoken to before.
Hearing loss is individual to everyone, and their communication preferences can vary greatly. Whilst this may feel a little intrusive, the person will appreciate that you’re considering their needs by simply asking if they require communication support.
This can be approached in various ways, for example, if you notice they’re wearing a hearing aid, ask if they need to be able to lipread you. If so, focus on trying to speak with greater clarity so that they can make sense of what they see.
If the person requires an interpreter or for the conversation to be carried out with a friend instead, you should hold off until this can be arranged. Always follow their communication preferences to avoid any uncomfortable situations.
Gain their full attention
It’s important to ensure that you’ve got the listener’s full attention before starting a conversation. Without this, they may be unaware that you’re talking to them and miss the start of the discussion and any context that goes with it.
This is easily done by saying their name, using hand gestures or possibly touching their hand so they’re aware you want to chat. If you’re talking to someone hard of hearing in just one ear, consider moving to the side where they hear better to catch their attention easier.
Face them directly
When communicating with a hearing loss sufferer, they need to see you clearly. In every conversation, you should be facing the person directly, and try to avoid turning your head away as you speak.
Maintaining eye contact and talking directly to the person is a huge help for them, as they can read your facial expressions and body language to better understand the conversation.
Position yourself in good lighting
Lighting is key when communicating with the hearing impaired. Ideally, you want to ensure that the light is shining directly on your face so that they can see every mouth movement you make.
If you’re with a group of people, for example at a social gathering or in a restaurant, try to ensure that you’re seated in an area with good lighting and avoid any lighting shining from behind you. This can create shadows on a speaker’s face, and make it more difficult to gauge the mouth movements.
One of the most important things to remember when speaking to someone with hearing loss is that you don’t need to shout. You should make an effort to speak clearly and distinctly but avoid exaggerating your speech.
Shouting can do more harm than good as it can distort the words leaving your mouth, making them harder to understand. Always focus on speaking at a normal pace, making sure to clearly express each word and where possible, use short pauses to give them time to process what’s just been said.
Keep your hands away from your face
This may be particularly difficult if you’re a person who often finds themselves talking with expressive hand gestures, but it’s important to refrain from holding your hands up to your face.
When communicating with someone with hearing loss, you want to give them as much chance to register your mouth movements and facial expressions which means keeping your mouth and face as visible as possible.
A hearing-impaired person uses speechreading to improve their speech perception, as this helps them to identify sounds that are hard to hear but easy to read. Along with keeping your hands away from your face, it’s beneficial to also avoid eating or chewing gum whilst talking to them for this same reason, as it can distort their speechreading perception.
Keep the background noise down
This can be easier said than done if you’re communicating in a particularly busy or noisy environment, but if you have any control over the background noise try to keep it down as much as possible.
For example, if you’re at home it’s wise to turn the radio or TV off, and if you’re in a public place try to find a quiet space to talk. This will help to eliminate any additional stress that can often be caused by background noise for someone who’s already hard of hearing.
Avoid loud sounds
Similarly, those with hearing loss can be incredibly sensitive to loud sounds or sudden noises. They typically have a reduced tolerance to such sounds, so it’s best to avoid them being in this type of environment in the first place, where possible.
Rephrase, don’t repeat
All too common is a situation where someone hard of hearing can’t quite understand what’s being said, so the speaker repeats the same thing repeatedly.
This isn’t helpful, as it’s likely that they could have difficulty understanding a particular phrase or word. Repeating it will only lead to frustration on both sides, so it’s more considerate to simply rephrase what you said in plain language.
Avoid sudden topic changes
Those suffering from hearing loss may struggle to follow the flow of a conversation, especially when there are sudden changes in topic.
If the subject is to change, be sure to let them know what’s about to be discussed and take a brief pause to allow them to process the information.
Take it in turns to speak
If you’re in a group setting, it’s important to avoid speaking over each other as this can lead to frustration and confusion for anyone struggling to hear. Whilst taking it in turns to speak can be challenging, that’s all it takes to be considerate of those with a hearing impairment and will make for a much more enjoyable conversation.
Consider writing it down
If you can visibly see the person who you’re trying to communicate with struggling to keep up with the conversation or understand what’s being said, consider writing it down. You can use a pen and paper, a phone to text or even a whiteboard to scribble down what you’re trying to say.
This can be particularly useful if you’re providing instructions, schedules or setting up a work task. Instead of simply hoping they understand and remember what’s been said, getting it down in writing will be much more helpful.
Helping someone with hearing loss
Worryingly, there are many people across the globe who suffer from hearing loss and aren’t aware of it or are avoiding seeking treatment. Particularly in the elderly generation, hearing loss can often be mistaken for confusion or a decline in mental sharpness due to ageing.
Hearing loss can get progressively worse if left untreated, and can also lead to other health complications. This is why it’s vital that if you suspect a friend or family member may be struggling with their hearing, you encourage them to seek help as soon as possible to avoid it from worsening.
Booking a hearing test is the best way to get an accurate diagnosis for hearing loss and therefore suitable treatment such as hearing aids. If you’re local to North London, Nathan Gluck Hearing Care operates two clinics in Golders Green and Potters Bar, along with home visit services across North London.