Even though fall marks the end of the summer, it is one of the most vibrant times of the year. It is my favorite weather to go for a run in, or meet a friend for a walk. The brightly colored leaves and crisp air are guaranteed to wake up your senses more than a shot of espresso. Although if you add a cup of espresso with the walk it just doesn’t get any better! I was taking one of these soothing walks with my friend the other day following a yoga class. Our favorite coffee shop sadly is near the “L” train, so our conversation kept getting interrupted by the train and I found myself struggling to hear. It’s times like these I can sympathize with my hearing-impaired clients. The increased amount of effort needed to hear in noisy environments takes the enjoyment out of the conversation. It’s not that I can’t hear but I just cannot understand the words when the train flies by. This problem is the number one complaint of my clients. No, not the train flying by, but the loss of clarity in speech. Rarely does someone tell me they can’t hear, but rather most of my clients’ say they can hear…they just can’t understand.
Why is that? It comes down to simple anatomy. Typically, hearing loss starts in the high frequencies and slowly progresses to the mid and low frequencies. High frequency speech sounds are the voiceless consonants. These are the airy sounds in speech like an s, p, or th. These sounds tend to be at the beginning and end of a word. Whereas vowels and voiced consonants occur in the low and mid frequencies and give us the sense of volume in speech.
Someone with a sloping high frequency hearing loss will hear volume (low frequencies) but lose the clarity (high frequency voiceless consonants) in speech. This gradual sloping loss also occurs slowly so those with hearing loss often do not realize it is happening. They will initially feel their difficulties are due to the environment or people mumbling until others point it out.
Hearing aids help to correct the loss and give the speech signal clarity. Yet, sometimes that is not enough which is where communication strategies can be helpful. Successful communication only works if all those involved in a conversation are using good communication strategies. And we tend to put forth our worst manners with those we love the most. Think about it. If your speaking with your spouse you tend to multi-task. We try to carry on conversations from separate rooms or while were running water washing dishes with the television on in the background. Whereas with a friend or co-worker we take the time to pause what we’re doing and have a conversation. It’s not that we like our co-workers more but rather that we are most comfortable with our spouse and therefore tend to be more casual in our daily communication.
The following is a list of communication strategies meant to help ease communication. I’m sure none of these will be shocking but sometimes we just need to be gently reminded about good manners; take your elbows off the table, chew with your mouth closed, and look at me when you are talking.
- Face the person you are speaking with. Positioning yourself in good lighting and on the same level as the person you’re talking to accomplishes two things. It directs your voice right to the listener and it allows the listener to use visual cues. Most people cannot lip read entire sentences but can pick up some cues from what is seen on the mouth. The eyes help fill in what the ears are missing.
- Stay in the same room when talking. Obviously if you’re not in the same room you’ve already forgotten the first strategy. Being in separate rooms means your most likely shouting to communicate. This not only distorts the speech signal but also limits the sounds that make it to the listener. Some sounds in speech, think those airy sounds like /s/, /f/, /sh/, /th/, do not travel far. Imagine these sounds as a feather, no matter how hard you throw the feather it does not travel far. Whereas your vowels sounds would be like a baseball and can be thrown quite a distance. This results in speech sounding muffled. Even a hearing aid cannot help in this situation as it can only amplify the sounds that reach it.
- Speak clearly, slowly, distinctly, but naturally, without shouting or exaggerating mouth movements. Shouting not only distorts the speech but it changes how you form the word on your lips therefore making speech reading more difficulty. Just slowing down helps the listener separate out the words. If your listening to someone speaking quickly and you miss a word it is hard to pick up the next one as you are not hearing the end of one and start of another. Therefore, the words get jumbled together. If you speak slowly the person listening to you might still miss a word but they can pick up again right away at the next word.
- Start your conversation by using the listener’s name. Saying someone’s name gets their attention. Otherwise you may be half way through a sentence before the listener realizes your talking to them.
- When you need to repeat try to use a different word. If the listener is having trouble it could be the word used is unfamiliar therefore difficult to speech read, or the sounds in the word are not being heard due to a hearing loss. So changing the word might make it easier for the listener to hear.
- Location, Location, Location: If the listener has a better ear sit on that side. If you are in a restaurant pick a down time to go so there is less noise or if that is not possible, pick the quietest spot. Sitting with your back to the noise and putting the person you want to hear up against the wall is helpful. It also means you are on the perimeter of the noise rather than in the center of it. If a high back booth is available, take it! The back of the booth will help to soften the noise.
- Reduce background noise: If you are in a restaurant you do this by picking the quietest spot (see above). If you are at home, you have more control. Mute the television and talk on commercials or better yet turn off the television and radio when talking. Don’t try to carry on a conversation while washing dishes or vacuuming. By limiting the noise in your environment speech can come through more clearly.
- Help your significant other out and let them know when the topic changes. Sudden changes in a topic occur a lot in social situations. Just knowing the topic helps as you will know what might be said. Switching from talking about food to politics has a completely different set of vocabulary. If you think the conversation is about restaurants you might think the speaker said ”did you hear about their Chai tea?” when actually she said “did you hear about their rioting?”
- Get it in writing: If you know you have speech discrimination problems get all important numbers in writing. Whether it is a phone number, price, or other important figure ask for it in writing. After all one wrong number in a phone number makes it invalid.
- Pay attention: If the listener looks confused, pause and ask why. If you are the listener focus your attention on the speaker and put away other distractions like your phone.
- Take turns speaking! Avoid interrupting when someone is speaking. Or basically just remember to use good manners.
Practicing good communication strategies is not hard. Just making minor changes can immensely improve the flow of your conversations.