It doesn't matter if it's your spouse, parent, child or best friend; communication is vital in every relationship. But in relationships where one party has suffered hearing loss, communications can pose a particular challenge. What role do digital technologies play and will they ever replace personal, face-to-face interactions?
What is communication?
By definition, communication is the transfer of information from one place to another. In relationships, communication allows to you explain to someone else what you are experiencing and what your needs are. The act of communicating not only helps to meet your needs, but it also helps you to connect with the other person. In business, communication skills are highly valued in leaders. In the case of many relationship breakdowns, lack of good communication is often cited as the reason. Communication stops the inevitable issues which arise in any relationship from simmering under the surface for too long and becoming toxic.
Words are important but good non-verbal communication should not be underestimated. We are constantly delivering non-verbal cues such as gestures, movements and expressions in our social and business life to deliver a specific message to other people. Handshakes, eye contact and touching all help to impart how we are feeling. There is even evidence to suggest that non-verbal communication is even more effective than verbal communication in certain situations. The continued popularity of sign language among deaf people or those hard of hearing demonstrates the importance of visual cues in the practice of communication. Not neglecting sign language, of course, where deaf and or hard of hearing people are communicating in a non-verbal way.
Communications in hearing loss relationships
While good communication is tough to achieve in any relationship, research suggests it is even more challenging when one person has hearing difficulties. The US National Hearing Health Poll in 2011 reported that, of around 1500 people who reported having hearing difficulties, 44% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “Hearing difficulties can negatively impact my relationships with family and friends”. In Scarinci et al’s 2008 study on the effect of hearing impairment in older people on the spouse, subjects reported frustration in communication and communication strategies including increased time and effort, less spontaneous conversation and frustration at having to repeat. In Preminger et al’s 2015 study into the effect on adult children if one parent had hearing loss, they described detrimental negative effects and disagreeable coping strategies (for example yelling and having to make extra effort). While frustrations were not as great as those reported by spouses, many adult children experienced a feeling of loss at the reduced communication and relationship with their parent.
Digital communications: the solution we have all been searching for?
Digital communications are expanding our horizons like never before, both for those with and without hearing difficulties. Applications like Whatsapp, Skype and Facetime assist people living far apart, people suffering from hearing disabilities or people signing to keep in touch and communicate in ways they couldn’t before. But digital communication also has its downsides. When travelling to work, we are all looking down at our smartphones. Where we may have once struck up conversation with our fellow passengers, we now have a convenient way of avoiding eye contact.
Social media is also changing the way we relate. While on the one hand it is allowing us to connect with more people more rapidly and find support structures - In his study on how people gain social currency, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu found that a key way to achieve this was by having large networks that were loosely organized and not particularly intimate – on the other, social media makes it easy for us to confuse digital intimacy for true intimacy. We can become so seduced by the ease of connecting with others online that we begin to think that these relationships are more intense, more committed and more complete than they really are. We run the risk of alienating the people who populate our daily lives in pursuit of intimacy with our online friends.
Researchers are also finding that while people are communicating more often with family and friends because of technology, the quality of that communication may be weaker. Whereas an email or a text imparts key information, they lack the emotive qualities of face-to-face interaction. A text cannot look into someone’s eyes, or hug them. Human contact and intimacy is a basic human need, and the benefits notwithstanding, technology cannot replace this.
5 tips for effective communications across all our relationships
The good news is, improved communication is a skill that can be learned. Here are our top five tips for better all-round communication.
- Be open and honest: Being open means talking about things that are important to you, both positive and negative. It means being vulnerable and honest. It means opening yourself up to possible hurt and disappointment.
- Don’t forget to listen: Sometimes we forget that communication is all about saying our piece, when it is actually about listening effectively to the other person.
- Pay attention to the non-verbal signals: Folded arms in front of a person may mean they’re feeling defensive or closed off. Lack of eye contact may mean they’re not really interested in what you’re saying, are ashamed of something, or find it difficult to talk about something. Non-verbal signals can reveal a lot about how the other person is feeling.
- Don't be afraid of long silences: Human communication involves much more than spoken words. A great deal can be communicated during silences. Unfortunately in many situations silence can make us feel uncomfortable. Relax.
- Find a balance in the digital world: If your partner is away for work, of course texting is a great way to say goodnight in the evening. But don’t use it to make major decisions at home. Nothing can replace a personal, face-to-face conversation for creating true intimacy.