The best listening skills won’t help your untreated hearing loss
“Listen once in awhile. It’s amazing what you can hear.” - Anonymous
It’s been said that listening and hearing are two different senses -- listening is a voluntary act while hearing is an involuntary process. Yet if you’re one of the millions of Americans whose sense of hearing has been damaged, your ability to listen can be profoundly affected, no matter how hard you try.
Hearing vs. listening
Much like breathing and blinking your eyes, hearing is involuntary. Fully functioning auditory systems collect noise and funnel it to sensory receptors in the cochlea, where tiny hair cells busily translate pitches and frequencies into electrical impulses. From there these impulses travel along the auditory nerve to the brain where they are interpreted as recognizable sound.
Listening, on the other hand, is a voluntary act requiring conscious attention. You can attend church and hear the pastor speak, but if you choose not to listen, you may not remember the sermon or its message. You can hear your wife when she’s telling you what to buy at the grocery store, but if you’re preoccupied with something else while she’s speaking, you may not remember what she said once you get there.
How hearing loss affects listening
Active listeners not only hear what sounds their ears are collecting, they also choose to pay attention to what their brains are processing and apply the meaningful content to the situation. The process makes it easier for them to remember, recalling relevant information when it is needed.
Unfortunately, those with hearing loss often have difficulty processing speech, making it difficult to understand what is being communicated. In the case of sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL), which accounts for as much as 90 percent of all hearing loss, higher pitched tones sound muffled and it’s often difficult to separate the conversation from other noise in the room. For these individuals, staying engaged in the conversation can be so taxing, it can cause a condition known as hearing loss fatigue. Symptoms include exhaustion and low energy.
What’s more, untreated hearing loss can also lead to increased irritability, anxiety, depression and a greater risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. In a February 2016 issue of The Guardian, Frank Lin, an otologist and epidemiologist at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, said he believes at least 36 percent of dementia risk is related to untreated hearing loss. He and his colleagues have begun clinical trials to study if access to hearing aids could help fight cognitive decline. Lin’s research is funded by the National Institutes of Health.
Treatment can help
Fortunately, most individuals with SNHL benefit from wearing hearing devices, such as hearing aids and cochlear implants. A February 2013 study conducted by researchers at Vanderbilt University of 16 individuals 47-69 years old with SNHL revealed that those using clinically-fit hearing aids had reduced listening effort and susceptibility to mental fatigue than those who were unaided. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), hearing aids are useful in improving speech comprehension in those with SNHL.
But don’t expect those new hearing aids to magically improve your listening skills. That takes patience -- and some practice. The goal is to be an active listener so the speaker knows you’re engaged and you can remember what was said long after the conversation has ended.
How to listen
Author Diane Schilling offered these 10 tips for effective listening in a November 2012 article on Forbes.com:
- Face the speaker and maintain eye contact. That means turning off the television or putting away your smartphone. Giving undivided attention is a sign of respect.
- Be attentive, but relaxed. While Schilling says there’s no need to “stare fixedly at the other person,” she says it’s best to be present and pay attention.
- Keep an open mind. Try not to judge or jump to conclusions.
- Listen to the words and try to picture what the speaker is saying. Instead of planning what you’re going to say next, create a mental picture of what the speaker is trying to convey.
- Don’t interrupt and don’t impose your “solutions.” Wait until you are asked before offering any suggestions.
- Wait for the speaker to pause to ask clarifying questions.
- Ask questions only to ensure understanding. If you ask questions, make sure they pertain to the subject matter and don’t lead the conversation in a different direction.
- Try to feel what the speaker is feeling. Demonstrate empathy by mentally putting yourself in the other person’s place while they speak. Convey what you are feeling with facial expressions and verbal feedback.
- Give the speaker regular feedback. Show you understand by nodding or providing appropriate verbal understanding.
- Pay attention to what isn’t being said. Nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions and body posture, can give us additional information about how the speaker is feeling.
And if these tips don't work?
If, even after reading these tips, you still find yourself working and concentrating more than usual to stay in the conversation, it may be time to have your hearing evaluated by a qualified hearing care professional. Not only can they can evaluate how well you’re hearing and prescribe customized treatment for your degree of hearing loss, they can also provide the educational resources you need to communicate effectively with family, friends and colleagues.