How to talk to a hearing-impaired person? Don’t shout
Hearing-impaired author has some tips for co-workers, friends and family members who want to better communicate with someone who can’t hear very well.
Katherine Bouton is out of the hearing-impaired closet. “I lied and faked it for years,” says the author of the new book Shouting Won’t Help: Why I – and 50 Million Other Americans – Can’t Hear You.
Now, Bouton, 65, a former editor at The New York Times, routinely lets people know that she is profoundly deaf in one ear and very hard of hearing in the other. Even with the help of a hearing aid and a cochlear implant, she struggles to hear many conversations.
She recommends such honesty to others with hearing loss.
“Once I started talking about my hearing loss, people were not only understanding but relieved,” Bouton said in an e-mail interview. People who thought she was rude when she ignored them found out she sometimes couldn’t hear them at all. Many people also wanted to know how to help.
So Bouton’s book includes advice for the rest of us — the co-workers, friends and family members who want to better communicate with someone who can’t hear very well.
Among her tips:
• Look at the person when you speak. Your instinct may be to lean into an ear. But if you do that, they can’t see your lips move. Most deaf or hearing-impaired people read lips or “speech read,” Bouton says: “They don’t have to be trained in it. They just pick it up as their hearing starts to go.”
• Make sure you have their full attention. A hearing-impaired person who is cooking dinner is not likely to pick up much kitchen chatter, she says.
• Don’t shout. “It doesn’t usually help to talk louder unless you’ve been talking in a whisper or have a very quiet voice,” she says. “What helps is to talk as clearly and distinctly as possible — facing the speaker.”
• Don’t keep repeating yourself. “Try it once. But if the person still doesn’t get it, rephrase what you’re saying, try to put it in some context,” she says. (The hearing-impaired person can help, she says, by repeating back whatever they did hear.)
• In a small group, speak one at a time. A hearing-impaired person will struggle to pick up anything from overlapping conversations, so dinner parties, meetings and book clubs can be difficult, Bouton says.
• Don’t compete. For the best chance at being heard, turn off the TV or music; get away from loud fans and whirring fish tanks.
• Don’t give up. “Once you’ve tried to hear the phrase or sentence three or four times, it’s incredibly frustrating for the speaker then just to shrug and say it isn’t important,” Bouton says. “It probably wasn’t important the first time he said it, but by now your curiosity is piqued and it matters a lot.”
The book “Shouting Won’t Help: Why I –and 50 Million Other Americans– Can’t Hear You” offers advice for communicating with people who having hearing difficulties.(Photo: Handout)
Bouton writes that “deafness asks a lot of others.” She expresses gratitude to her husband, grown children and friends. But she also says it’s not realistic to expect them to always accommodate her. “Life is life. I’m not going to stop my friends from talking over each other or telling jokes that I miss,” she says. “I still enjoy their company.”
And, since communication is a two-way endeavor, she urges others with hearing loss to do their part to keep the lines open — and to avoid the isolation that so often leads to depression for the hearing impaired.
“If you don’t hear something, just say, ‘Sorry, I didn’t hear that.’ If you still don’t hear it, say cheerfully and politely, ‘Sorry, I’m really pretty hard of hearing. I still didn’t get it,’ ” she says. “A laugh helps. A little self-deprecation helps, and so does forgiveness for the poor soul who happened into a conversation with someone who can’t hear.”
More information is available from the Hearing Loss Association of America.