Hearing is a sensory-based, passive process. This means that like blinking your eyes, hearing is an involuntary act. Hearing takes no effort (assuming the person has normal hearing) and is ongoing without the person consciously realizing it. Listening, however, is a voluntary act which is why you can learn how to become a better listener.
Persons with hearing loss often experience difficulty in processing speech, making it challenging to understand what is being communicated. “In the case of sensorineural hearing loss (SNHL), which accounts for as much as 90% of all hearing loss, higher-pitched tones sound muffled, and it’s often difficult to separate the conversation from other noise in the room.” In the case of permanent hearing impairment, hearing healthcare professionals can assist through the use of amplification, hearing accessories, and listening strategies. However, once these sophisticated tools are removed, a person’s biological hearing ability returns to the “impaired” status.
What is listening?
Listening is a voluntary act and an active process that requires conscious attention to things that are of interest to us while being able to ignore elements of less importance. Paying attention has everything to do with listening and cognition. Listening can be thought of as applying meaning to sound, that is allowing the brain to organize words, establish vocabulary, develop receptive and expressive language, learn, and internalize concepts. Listening is a skill.
An active listener is a person who consciously pays attention to the auditory input that the brain receives and applies meaningful content to the situation. This process facilitates improved memory of the incident, thereby making it easier to recall the relevant information as required.
Therefore, the need for improved listening skills remains useful as long as they are intentionally engaged. Listening is a cognitive skill established on learned behaviors and associated rewards. Psychologists have shown that when people think about the meaning of new information, they are more likely to assimilate, learn, and remember most of the information via rote memory or when only the physical properties of the same new information are processed.
The process of active listening works differently in children. When adults (with normal hearing) listen to auditory input, the incoming sounds are recognized by the brain that has already acquired the concepts of language, vocabulary, and cognition. Children, however, apply the act of listening differently. The human auditory brain structure is not fully mature until approximately 15 years of age; thus, a child does not bring a complete neurological system to a listening situation. In addition, children do not have language and life experience that enables them to “fill-in-the-gaps” of missed or inferred information (called auditory/cognitive closure). Children require more and detailed auditory information than adults. Indeed, as compared to normal-hearing adults, all children need a quieter listening environment and a louder primary signal to create new neural maps and to develop their brains. Children who are hearing impaired need an additional signal to noise ratio of +10 to +15 dB.
Learning to listen
One of the primary means of learning to listen is through incidental hearing. Incidental hearing occurs through “overhearing.” This is when children listen to speech that is not directly addressed to them, yet they learn from it. Very young children learn approximately 90% of the information they acquire incidentally. This learning leads to the development of expressive and receptive language. However, incidental learning can only occur if children have access to conversations or sound sources that are closer to them.
Hearing over a distance can be difficult for normal hearing individuals as well as those with hearing loss. Both adults and children with hearing loss are more likely to struggle when attempting to listen and engage actively in conversation over a distance.
It’s important to address both hearing loss and cognition to ensure optimal communication. Hearing aids can address hearing loss, but to truly improve communication, a person has to practice the art of active listening.
Active listening strategies are very effective in improving communication. The lists below can help you to improve your skills.
Be prepared for conversations:
- Be more open about your hearing loss as people are more likely to be accommodating to your needs.
- Face the person you are talking to and sit closer to them. Have a view of their face and body language for additional cues on what they may be saying. Ensure that spectacles are worn (if applicable), for improved speech reading.
- Turn your better hearing ear closer to the person speaking.
- Reduce background noises whenever possible. This could be applicable in a home environment or ask the person you are visiting to accommodate your needs.
- In a social setting or restaurant, find a quieter corner away from the noise for better communication. This includes closing any open door or windows that can increase external noise.
- Avoid carrying on conversations from another room.
- Become familiar with the way different people express themselves, such as facial expressions, vocabulary, sentence structure, accent, or dialect, etc.
- Practice active listening independently to improve your skills.
- Optimize the lighting, it should be in a position that allows one to see the speaker as clear as possible.
- The use of hearing aids with multiple microphones can be a useful function to amplify sounds in front of you, and reduce sounds behind.
- Get to know all the functions of your hearing aid that can be adjusted to assist you with listening.
- In the case of frequently used spaces such as home or an office, you may have to consider improving the acoustics of the room by installing carpeting, draperies, padded furniture, or acoustic ceiling tiles.
- When attending a play, concert, church service, or lecture, try to arrive before the time, so that you can get a seat as close to the front as possible. Request an assistive listening device.
- Assess the situation in public places before attributing it to hearing loss. It may be due to a faulty public address (PA) system, a poor speaker, or high background noise.
- Maintain realistic expectations about what you will be able to hear in various situations and environments. There will be some situations where listening will be more difficult, and you will need to use more effort and strategies to follow what has been said.
- Practice activities that improve your auditory memory. These are often available on apps. This is best advised by a hearing healthcare professional who will guide you on what is suitable.
- In times where a mask is required to be used, you can ask those you frequently engage with to wear masks with clear panels that show the shape of the lips to assist with lip reading.
During the conversation:
- Be prepared for conversations and be prepared to listen.
- Concentrate on the thought or ideas that the speaker is expressing rather than straining to understand every word that is said.
- Do not hesitate to ask someone to clarify the information you may have missed.
- Do not hesitate to tell those around you what they can do to make communication easier. Inform them of the importance of speaking more slowly, making sure that they are close to and facing you, as well as using facial expressions and gestures to get the message across.
- Resist becoming distracted by other sounds. If you get tired and lose concentration, you will be more likely to become distracted. Take listening breaks during long conversations.
- Stop your mind from wandering during conversations. Avoid thinking about other activities and things you have to do. Stay focussed and present in the moment with the communication partner.
- When taking information over the telephone, repeat back what you heard to verify that it was correct.
- Relax. Acknowledge that active listening demands a concerted amount of energy. It’s important to allow yourself to withdraw when needed.
- Be open-minded in the conversation. Try not to judge someone. Listen without being critical. Avoid trying to justify your thoughts and beliefs.
- Be patient during conversations and think before speaking. Avoid interrupting the speaker. Wait for a pause before you interject with a question. Let them finish what they are saying. This may give you more information about the topic of the conversation, but it will also reduce the frustration that can further hinder the conversation.
- Give regular feedback to the speaker and acknowledge what you have heard.
- Practice mirroring. When you share the same energy and emotions as the speaker, it is much easier to follow active listening strategies. Acknowledge when you hear and understood with a smile or a nod. Do not acknowledge that you heard when you have not.
- Positive body language and facial expressions can set the mood for a conversation. Acknowledging and understanding your body language helps you to interpret the body language of others better. This can positively influence your awareness and listening during conversations.
Hearing in a noisy environment is difficult for everyone, including those with normal hearing. You must acknowledge that it is reasonable to miss out on parts of a conversation and that you should not exert pressure to hear like an expert. Instead, employ strategies that work better for your lifestyle.
Untreated hearing loss is a handicap that can leave one feeling undetermined and dispirited. Fortunately, with the advancements in technology, and learned strategies, the treatment of hearing loss has become manageable. It has allowed persons with hearing loss to continue living life to the fullest.