“Please face me when you talk to me,” I remind my family and friends. At dinner I might add, “Please let me sit in the corner so I can avoid the background noise.” The list goes on. While hearing aids and other assistive listening devices provide significant assistance, communication best practices are also critical — both for the people with hearing loss and their communication partners.
For years I was unaware of many of these communication tricks. My conversations with family, friends and co-workers would sometimes be stilted since I would hear only part of what they said. I would often try to fake it, or use context clues to keep the dialogue going, but it was exhausting and unsatisfying — for both sides. Sometimes I would simply withdraw in defeat, not knowing there were so many other things I could do besides wearing my hearing devices to help me hear better.
Over time, I learned tips and tricks from my hearing loss friends or through trial and error – things like setting up the grounds rules for communication in a group ahead of time or arriving early to a lecture to make sure I scored an advantageous seat (one with good sightlines to the primary speaker). I still wonder why I had to learn these tricks on my own rather than from my audiologist at the very start of my hearing loss journey. Person-centered care could have prevented years of unsatisfying conversations with loved ones and friends.
What It Means to Think Beyond the Technology
Hearing aids are miraculous tools, but communication best practices are equally important, particularly when your patient is in a difficult listening environment like a restaurant, office meeting, or party. The more tricks those of us with hearing loss have in our toolbox, the more likely we are to have successful communication experiences, which is the ultimate goal of person-centered care. Please don’t focus on only one part of the equation. Think beyond the technology to help your patient enjoy better conversations with all the important people in their lives, no matter the situation.
1. Share best practice communication tips. Create your own cheat sheet of tips or borrow from reputable sources. Listing these tips on the back of the written summary report that you provide to patients at each visit will highlight their importance and make them easy to share with their communication partners. You can find my list of tips here. Hearing Loss Association of America also has an excellent card with communication tips. Or you can explore the Ida Institute’s Top Tips for Managing Conversations Well.
2. Teach best practice tips for the listener/patient. Communication is a two way street. While many communication best practices rely on the patient’s communication partners to make accommodations, there are also things the patient can do. Advise them to schedule important conversations for the morning, before hearing loss exhaustion kicks in from a day of listening challenges. Remind them that being well rested and in good health is also important for maintaining mental focus. See my full list of tips for the patient here.
3. Promote self-advocacy skills. Patients must learn to ask for the assistance they need from their communication partners. Encourage empowerment and teach patients ways to ask for the help they need. This can include setting ground rules for conversations up front (i.e., only one person speak at a time, etc.) or using non-verbal cues like placing a hand behind your ear to let the speaker know you are having trouble hearing without interrupting the flow of the conversation.
4. Encourage use of caption readers, hearing loops and other accommodations. The more these types of devices are requested and utilized in public spaces, museums, theaters and elsewhere, the more commonplace they will become. Sending a thank you note to an institution that provided excellent hearing access can help cement its use for others.
5. Recommend hearing loss support groups. Meeting other people with hearing loss helped me build confidence and overcome my feelings of hearing loss stigma. I learned many tips and tricks from my hearing loss friends that I use today to live my best life despite hearing loss. If there is not a local hearing group in your area, consider starting one. Community support is critical to better hearing outcomes.
Audiologists are often a patient’s first call when struggling with their hearing loss. While hearing aids and other devices are critical to communication, patients’ behaviors and those of their communication partners can go a long way towards making conversations more satisfying. Thinking beyond the technology will help your patients have the fullest toolbox possible to achieve their communication goals and mark you as a leader in person-centered care.
Shari Eberts is a hearing health advocate, writer, speaker and avid Bikram yogi. She is the founder of LivingWithHearingLoss.com, an online community for people living with hearing loss and tinnitus. She also serves on the Board of Trustees of Hearing Loss Association of America. Shari has an adult-onset genetic hearing loss and hopes that by sharing her story she will help others to live more peacefully with their own hearing issues. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.