“I think I can get by without hearing aids. I’m only 52, not some old lady.”
If you’re a hearing care professional, you’ve probably heard something like this many times. And your instinct is probably to reassure your client by saying things like: “Lots of younger people have hearing aids,” or, “They’re really small these days.”
But what your client might need in that moment is empathy, not facts: “It’s understandable that you’re feeling this way,” or, “It seems you’re struggling with your diagnosis. Let’s talk about that a little.”
This needn’t lead to a deep dive into your client’s emotional state. In fact, it shouldn’t – you’re an audiologist, not a therapist. However, acknowledging their emotions will help build trust and provide information that lets you better tailor your recommendations.
Caught in the content trap
Research shows that offering facts rather than empathy when a client is communicating emotion – known as the “content trap” – is very common. One study of 63 audiological rehabilitation consultations found that clinicians took a biomedical approach most of the time and rarely offered empathy, despite clients expressing concerns and despite those clinicians speaking positively about the person-centered approach when asked (Grenness et al., 2015).
And it’s entirely understandable. Audiology programs don’t spend a lot of time teaching empathic communication and many clinicians are uncomfortable with it. However, when done right, the rewards are substantial for both parties: a more trusting relationship, increased satisfaction and adherence to treatment, better outcomes, and improved well-being.
Escaping the trap
Like anything worthwhile, empathic communication takes practice. But these three steps can help you start:
Step 1: Listen
Mindful and attentive listening will help you spot when your client is seeking affirmation or empathy rather than information. This might be more often than you think – sadness, fear, anger, and distrust are common and understandable among people seeking help for hearing loss – and might not always be obvious. We started this article with one example of a person seeking empathy.
Here are some others:
“Your tests have got to be wrong. I’m sure my child hears much better than you say.”
“These new hearing aids seem to make me tired. I’m having a hard time adjusting.”
“My family says our daughter was born with a hearing loss because I worked until the week she was born.”
Step 2: Identify the emotion(s) at play
Then acknowledge these verbally in an empathic but professional way. For example:
“So, if I’m hearing you right, it sounds like…”
“I have the sense that you’re feeling…”
“That must have been a difficult situation for you. I can imagine how I’d feel if…”
Step 3: Moving forwards
Let the client share a little more with you, if they wish and if there’s time. Then, using the new information you have about your client, move the conversation towards next steps:
“Since you’re a little apprehensive, let’s talk through those hearing aid options again.”
“Shall we look at some communication strategies that might help you feel less anxious at work?”
“Perhaps bring a family member along next time so we can talk about how they can help you with your devices?”