“Sorry, Can You Repeat That?” How hearing loss affects communication in relationships

Read more Last updated: February 2020
Reading duration: 8 minutes

‘I think you speak at the same volume that you can hear.’

That’s my aunt, Linda. She’s suffered from tinnitus for around 40 years and finds it difficult to distinguish voices and other sounds from the constant ringing in her ears. She’s telling me about how she and my late uncle, Bill, dealt with hearing loss in their relationship.

‘So before I got hearing aids, I would speak quite loudly to Bill. Even though I struggled to hear him, he could hear me just fine. But once I got the hearing aids, I started speaking softer. Then Bill was the one who was always asking me to repeat myself. I’d get annoyed and say, you can’t always ask me to repeat things, but then it clicked. That’s exactly what he’d been doing for years. Now our roles were reversed. I told him to get hearing aids, but he just laughed and said “I hear what I want to hear."

That final comment made me laugh too – that’s just like my uncle. But it points to something fundamental in relationships: communication relies heavily on hearing.

Regardless of whether your significant relationship is with a spouse or partner, kids or parents or even close friends, communication is a key component. Not only does it build trust, hearing and being heard forges a strong connection and helps people feel like they’re on the same side.

But it’s not easy, and almost everyone needs to work at it. And for those relationships where one person has hearing loss, there can be an added layer of complexity that causes a strain.

We have to talk.

My husband and I know a couple in their late 60s, Sam and Carole. We see them occasionally at the wine bar or go out for a meal with them. Sam has hearing loss and finds it difficult to hear what people are saying when there is a lot of background noise.

He has hearing aids and an amplifier he can put on the table to help with close conversations, but he’s also prone to forgetting his batteries and doesn’t always remember the amplifier.

On those evenings, he struggles to take part in the conversation. He has to lean forward and concentrate hard to hear us, or Carole has to repeat the key points of the conversation close to his ear. Eventually he draws back, leaving Carole to carry the bulk of the conversation.

Though they don’t say it, you can see it’s frustrating for both of them.

Living with hearing loss

In an effort to better understand how hearing loss can impact a relationship, I spoke with Shari Eberts, a hearing health advocate who has a great blog dedicated to living with hearing loss. She is married with two teenage children.

‘Family members must be committed to helping you hear your best. Without their support, it will not work. You cannot change how you hear – other than by wearing hearing aids or making use of other hearing solutions and using assistive listening devices – they are the ones that need to make the changes to enhance communication. If they are not willing to do it, it can be a crushing blow to any relationship.’

Shari has adult-onset genetic hearing loss, which started in her 20s and has gotten progressively worse. Her father had the same condition, so while she wasn’t surprised, she was incredibly disappointed.

He hid his hearing loss as much as possible and never spoke of it, making it hard for the family and his colleagues to offer support.

‘When I first developed hearing loss, I was also highly stigmatised by it, following in my father’s footsteps of shame and secrecy. But once I had children of my own this all changed. Because my hearing loss is genetic, I worried that I had passed it onto them. I knew I needed to set a better example for how to survive and thrive with hearing loss, in case either of them develops the condition.

I began wearing my hearing aids all the time, requesting quieter tables at restaurants, using caption readers at the movies and talking about my hearing loss as if it were just another aspect of my life, rather than something I needed to hide. I began volunteering at hearing loss non-profit organizations and am currently the Vice Chair of the Board of Hearing Loss Association of America.

While I hope my children’s hearing will remain strong, I believe they will be better prepared to handle the challenges of hearing loss, should they develop it, than I was.’

Hearing implants enable people to hear and communicate
Different types of hearing loss are treated with different types of hearing solutions. Cochlear implants can help restore hearing for individuals with severe-to-profound sensorineural hearing loss.

Hearing loss' impact on relationships

I asked her how the experience of hearing loss affected her relationship with her family.

‘Hearing loss impacts almost everything, especially communication and personal relationships.

As Helen Keller once said, “Blindness cuts us off from things, but deafness cuts us off from people.” Hearing loss has certainly made socialising and communication more difficult for me, especially when I was still in my stigma and denial phase.

For people with typical hearing, no effort is required to hear or partake in conversation, but for someone with hearing loss it is a lot of work. And the whole family is impacted. Optimal communication takes planning.

For example, the first thing we do at every meal, especially when dining out, is to figure out where everyone will sit to optimise my ability to hear. We pick restaurants and some family activities based on whether or not I will be able to hear. I must pay extraordinary attention to each speaker so that I can use lip-reading and other non-verbal cues to fill in the details I may not hear.

Even when we hike, we often organise the order of who walks in front to help optimise hearing. It is an all-encompassing part of our family dynamic.

That doesn’t mean it is particularly onerous – we are used to it by now – but it does mean that it requires attention in almost every situation.

My family must also remember to follow communication best practices, like facing me when they talk, speaking in a clear and enunciated voice, and keeping their mouth visible. This can be challenging for people who are quiet talkers.’

The "perks" of being hearing impaired

Shari Eberts also said that there have been unexpected benefits to her hearing loss.

‘Hearing loss has made me a better communicator. Because I lip-read and use other non-verbal cues to help me understand speech, I need to be fully present in any conversation. This has made me a better listener, and a more present friend.

Hearing loss has helped me learn how to advocate for myself. I have learned how to ask for assistance when I need it. This has made me bolder and more self-reliant. It has also built my confidence.

My hearing loss opened up my world to an entire group of people I would not have otherwise met, each doing wonderful things to inspire others and change the world for the better.

My peers at Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) are an impressive bunch. They have not let their hearing issues hold them back from achieving wonderful things professionally and personally. They inspire me every day.’

The elephant in the room

One thing that surprised me was when she spoke about those heated moments that everyone in a relationship goes through. When feelings are hurt or there’s been a misunderstanding or disappointment.

‘In heated or emotional moments, communication becomes difficult, which can be very frustrating.

If my children are upset and trying to talk to me about why, they often mumble. This is normal for people that are upset, but it is very hard for me to hear them, which often exacerbates the issue.

After several repeats, sometimes they just say “never mind,” which is the worst thing you can say to somebody with hearing loss. It makes a person feel diminished, like they don’t matter.’

Communication in relationships is key

Communicating is hard work but fun all the same

But Shari and her family have worked hard over the years to have fun with how they communicate. When her children were young, they loved playing hide and seek with her.

‘Hearing loss makes it harder to identify where sounds originate, so I would have a hard time finding them just from their giggles. Eventually a stray limb would become visible and I would find them, but I made a big deal of walking around asking where they were and having trouble finding them. They loved it.’

Shari also tells a story of practicing lipreading with her kids over a meal. All they did was move their mouths without making a sound while Shari tried to interpret and answer, leading to some funny moments when she mis-‘heard’ the words. She realised how much she depends on lipreading, but how vital the sounds are that she can hear.

‘The game showed how much energy those of us with hearing loss use in every communication situation. Not only are we using our ears to hear, but our eyes to lipread and our brains to put it all together into something coherent. Once we figure out what the person has said, we are not done, because then we need to reply!’

Every act of communication is a miracle of translation.

Ken Liu, author

How can you improve your communication despite hearing loss?

Shari's 8 Tips for better communication:

  1. Get the person’s attention before speaking so you don’t have to repeat yourself
  2. Provide context for what you’re talking about so they can understand your comments and questions
  3. Stand where they can see your lips and try to avoid dark places that make lipreading difficult
  4. Speak clearly and at a steady pace. As mum always said, enunciate!
  5. Try to avoid situations with a lot of background noise
  6. Instead of speaking over others, try to take turns so everyone can follow along
  7. Sometimes you will have to repeat yourself. So do so without getting irritated.
  8. Maintain a sense of humour. Even for people with perfect hearing, relationships benefit from keeping the tone light.
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Understand Your Communication Styles

Hearing loss affects not just how someone hears, but how they communicate. Understanding your own communication style can help you to better communicate.

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