Young woman hugging a man with hearing aids

Clarification as a Listening Technique

Published: November 10, 2020

Updated: March 23, 2022

Many individuals with hearing loss cope in social settings laughing or agreeing with the speaker, even when they’re unsure of what was said, in an effort to avoid irritating the speaker or seeming unintelligent. Doing this comes at a cost of not knowing what was said, as well as the possibility of laughing and nodding when it’s inappropriate to do so. That’s why clarification as a listening technique is helpful when learning how to deal with these situations.

Even with hearing aids, there will still be times when you just cannot make out what someone is saying.  This can lead to confusion and embarrassment. In these instances, it is important to implement communication techniques to ensure the smooth exchange of information. In these instances, clarification can be very helpful.

What is clarification?

Clarification is the method of knowing when and how to check that you have understood something someone said correctly. It can involve asking the person to repeat themselves, telling them what you think you heard and asking if you understood correctly, or asking them to say it in a different way so that you may hear better.

When is clarification most useful as a listening technique?

Clarification is most often needed in an environment with loud background noise, or when many people are speaking at once. You may miss one word that someone said or an entire section.  Missing out on some parts can lead to missing the entire topic of conversation, or small details that may be important for future references, such as someone’s name or occupation. 

It will help to immediately ask for clarification, especially when you didn’t catch the subject of the conversation. That way you won’t be confused for the remainder of the conversation. At other times, you might be able to work out what was said within the larger context of the conversation. If you are in a situation where it is very important that you hear everything that is said correctly, such as safety protocols, make sure that you immediately clarify.

How does asking clarifying questions help you?

Clarification is essential for effective communication whenever there is uncertainty about what was said. It ensures that you do not misunderstand anything and show your communication partner that you are listening and actively participating. Additionally, it avoids potential future embarrassments or misunderstandings which will likely be worse than the initial confusion.

Being able to effectively use clarification as a communication technique also empowers you to take charge of your social interactions, instead of anxiously wondering if you missed some vital piece of information.

How to use clarification as a listening technique

  1. Be specific about what you did not hear. Saying a general ‘what?’ or ‘please repeat what you said’ will possibly make the speaker feel as though you were just not paying attention, and may make them more likely to skip a few details when repeating.
  2. Ask them to repeat particular details of what was said, such as asking, ‘What did you say you bought?’, or ‘Where did you say you work?’. This shows that you were listening and have an active interest in what they were saying.
  3. If you did what the speaker is saying at all, explain that you have a hearing loss, and request that they face you and speak more clearly. People appreciate transparency and will be more considerate and take your needs into your account if they understand what the situation is.
  4. Alternatively, ask them to rephrase what they were saying as you might hear better the second time around.
  5. If you’re fairly sure you heard correctly and want to confirm it, repeat or paraphrase what they said, such as, ‘Did you say you have three children?’. This again shows that you are engaged with what they’re saying.
  6. It can help to have a pen and paper to write down exactly what is said, if it includes specific information, such as an appointment time or directions.

How to overcome the fear of asking clarifying questions

Using clarification properly requires much more effort than simply saying ‘Huh?’ or ‘What?’ as it is necessary to remain focused and actively listen to the person at all times. Additionally, you may feel worried that the person you’re speaking to will think less of you if they have to repeat something. However, for the most part, it is significantly more frustrating for both parties when someone pretends to understand everything, resulting in greater confusion further down the line.

The only way to overcome your fear of using clarification, and make it feel and sound as natural as possible, is to use practice. Start using the technique with people you are more comfortable with, such as close family members. When you are more confident, clarify conversations with friends, acquaintances, and then strangers. Remember that everyone mishears now and then, whether they have a hearing loss or not, and so people will generally be understanding when clarification is requested.

Clarification and hearing aids

When you have hearing loss, you need to draw on a combination of available technological and communication strategies to interact comfortably in social settings. Hearing aids are beneficial in most situations but, similarly to people without hearing loss, there will be instances where the noise reduction or speech enhancement in the hearing aids will not be enough. Communication techniques such as clarification are important for bridging that gap and to ensure that you remain an active participant in a conversation.  

It’s helpful to openly communicate about your hearing loss

The stigma surrounding hearing loss has been reduced in recent years but there are people who still feel uncomfortable telling others about their hearing loss. They don’t want to be thought of as ‘old’ or less capable. This approach does have negative consequences, sadly. People may become annoyed that you are not paying attention, or think you are rude for seemingly ignoring them when speaking to you. Discomfort in social settings also often leads people with hearing loss to become anxious and withdraw socially, and as a result, become very lonely and potentially depressed.

People who are more open about their hearing loss often say that openly communicating about their situation made communication and social interactions so much easier.

Image of post writer Melissa Thompson.

Written by Melissa Thompson

MSc Advanced Audiology; BA Speech and Hearing Therapy


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