How to Talk with the Hearing-Impaired
December 4, 2009 1 Comment
My husband tells me he knows “the look.” Hearing-impaired since about age 6, when a firecracker exploded near him, he sometimes mishears what people say, causing people to look at him in a quizzical way. For example, as he was leaving a business partner’s home one morning, the partner’s wife asked him if he would be eating something for breakfast. He replied, “No. I don’t think I could stomach it this morning.” She gave him “the look.” It turns out she had asked if he would be “meeting someone for breakfast.” Although that was a humorous incident, communication with a hearing impaired person can be challenging. Based on my experience with my husband and others, I’ve arranged a few tips for talking with the hard-of-hearing using the acronym FACE.
Face. Face the other person straight-on. My husband thinks this is the #1 thing people can do to improve communication with the hearing-impaired. He says he actually feels anxious when he can’t see the other person’s face. The first step is to make sure you get the person’s attention so that they are looking at your face while you are talking. Say the person’s name or, if appropriate, tap them on the forearm. Then you need to consciously make sure that the person can see your face at all times while you are talking (this pretty much rules out talking from around the corner or from another room). You may need to move closer. Make sure that your face is adequately lit. Don’t stand in front of a bright window or with your back to the sun, as that silhouettes or shadows your face, making it harder to see. Don’t turn your head away and talk. Don’t put anything in front of your mouth to block the view of your lips moving. Don’t put anything in your mouth, either. If you are eating, chewing or smoking, you will be more difficult to understand. Facial hair, especially moustaches, can impair understanding. So if you have facial hair, keep it neatly trimmed. Even if the person doesn’t formally read lips, they will use movements of the face and lips to discern meaning. If the person indicates to you (or it becomes obvious) that they hear better on one side, direct your comments to the “good” side.
Adjust Volume and Rate. You may need to speak slightly louder than normal, especially if there is a lot of background noise, but do not shout as shouting distorts sound. If at all possible avoid conversing in areas with a lot of background noise (TV, parties, noisy restaurants, multiple conversations, etc.). Speak at a moderate rate—not too fast, not too slow. You need to speak slowly enough to clearly articulate your words, but don’t exaggerate your speech, as that makes it more difficult to understand.
Clarify. If your hearing-impaired conversation partner asks you to repeat something try rephrasing in simpler, clearer terms. Subtly encourage responses to verify understanding. For example, you could ask, “Tell me what you think about. . .” Be ready to write down information to avoid confusion, especially on important details like a future meeting time and place. In business situations, you may want to follow up with an email to recap the conversation. Clarify your topic. Like a journalist, make sure you highlight the What, When, Where, Why, and Who of your topic. Be very clear when you change the topic, or the hearing-impaired person may misinterpret the conversation.
Empathize. If you start to become frustrated and begin to doubt the intelligence of the hearing-impaired person, try to imagine what it might be like to try to converse while wearing earplugs. I wear ear plugs at night to help block out my husband’s snoring and sometimes he tries to talk with me while I am wearing them. All I have to do to have normal hearing is to take them out. My husband, even with hearing aids, has challenges hearing (although, he conveniently could take out the hearing aids when our children were crying as babies). Consider how you would feel if you saw someone give you “the look” and you knew it was because you misheard them and said something “stupid.” Patient, empathetic and respectful attention to the conversation needs of the hearing-impaired person will be rewarded with more meaningful communication.
Remember to FACE your hearing-impaired conversation partner!
Adjust volume and rate