Gael Hannan: Who Would Lie to Their Audiologist?

By Gael Hannan

People with hearing loss – my people – have a unique habit. It’s almost a talent except that most of aren’t as good at it as we think we are.

We bluff. We pretend to understand what’s being said, even when we’ve lost the connection. When we’re not getting enough of the words to make sense of a conversation’s rapid flow, we call up our bluffing gods. And when we’re not sure of what we’re even talking about, we retreat behind the veils of bluffing.

And who would blame us? The topic of conversation can shift direction like a hockey puck and seldom does anyone pause long enough to give us the heads up that the convo has changed from the weather to politics. This may cause one of the most embarrassing things to a person with hearing loss: saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. We chime in merrily about the rain in Spain – and the talk grinds to silence and someone says the dreaded words, “we’re not talking about that anymore.”

To avoid this humiliation, we just stay silent and fix our face into the look of someone who is interestedly following the puck of conversation. But trust me, we are faking it. Bluffing, passing, faking, pretending – call it whatever you want – but it all boils down to the same thing: giving the false impression that we are actively engaged, when in fact we are isolated, all alone in a group of people.

We also bluff in one-on-one conversations, especially with people we don’t know very well. We will nod and smile and make little noises that indicate agreement or interest. And the worst thing is that we do this even with our audiologists!

Audiologists, do your clients do this with you? As a lifelong bluffer, I guarantee you that people do bluff with their hearing care providers. But why? Why would we not be open – or lie to – the one person on the planet whose sole goal, right in this moment, is to help us hear better? Perhaps “lying” is a little extreme in describing what we do. But when you ask us, “Is that clear?” and we nod, although we’re not sure what we’re supposed to be clear about, technically that’s being dishonest.

The first time I held my workshop, The Masks of Hearing Loss (Bluffing 101), the audience was SRO (standing room only) which told me that bluffing is a controversial subject of extreme personal interest to people with hearing loss and their families. We all agreed on the reasons WHY we bluff:

  • Hide our hearing loss
  • Don’t want to appear slow or stupid
  • Don’t want to annoy or interrupt others
  • It’s easier, it’s a habit
  • Tired of asking people to repeat themselves
  • Fatigue: Following a conversation requires intense concentration
  • Not sure how to express our needs in a successful way

I believe that this negative practice is so ingrained that we slip into bluffing mode almost without even realizing it, even with you, the hearing health professional. It’s my hope you have learned subtle-but-sure ways to pull from us the vital information that will assist you in assisting us. I’m sure it’s like pulling teeth with some clients, but it might help to realize that, even the best communicators bluff at times, and in spite of our requests may not be practicing what I’m preaching here. 

Sometimes the reason might even sit with how you communicate with us. Do you:

  • Face us when talking to us?
  • Get our attention before starting to speak?
  • Rephrase rather than simply repeating your words?
  • Calm us down if we are nervous, agitated or simply don’t want to be there?
  • Do you have a clear voice and speak at a moderate speed?

If you have a soft, high and/or whispery voice, used at the speed of sound, you may want to consider some voice training, similar to that of actor Lauren Bacall, whose natural voice was high and nasally. Call me demanding, but I feel that if there’s one person we should be able to hear, it’s our audiologist.

I have also worked with audiologists who haven’t grasped the fact that when they take my hearing aids from me for cleaning, I cannot understand the same way as when the aids were in my ears! These days, I don’t hesitate to remind them: “Hell-o-o! Deaf person here!”

But is it your job to help us shed the bluffing habit? It’s probably not in your code of practice, but I know your client will do better with their hearing aids if you help them adopt some positive communication strategies, including assertiveness skills, how to self-identify with hearing loss, and how to ask for repeats.

Most importantly, people with acquired hearing loss need to understand that they have the right to be included, the right to understand. Bluffing can be a hard habit to break, but better communication is worth it.