10 Ways to Overcome Communication Barriers

Woman talking with a friend

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is difficult at the best of times. Understanding someone’s situation can be tricky, but being able to understand a physical condition is a whole other ball park. It pays to be aware of this at all times.

September is Deaf Awareness Month and the last week of it is International Week of the Deaf – with 1 in 7 people in the US experiencing some level of hearing loss, it’s important to know how you can communicate effectively with anyone who may be affected.

If you’re communicating with someone who has hearing loss, while you may be able to understand the condition, you might not know some of the social complications that can arise from it.

Here are ten things that you can do to make communicating with someone who has hearing loss a lot easier for the both of you. We spoke to Rachel Savage and Rachel Drewery to get further insight on their perspective – Savage is a deaf cleaner, while Drewery is a deaf dog welfare officer, so they both had a lot to say when it comes to problems that arise from hearing loss which you might not have thought of.

Help People with Hearing Loss

1. Make eye contact

This is normal when you’re speaking to anyone really, but it is especially important when talking to someone with hearing loss. Making eye contact allows someone with hearing loss to focus fully on you and what you’re saying.

Background noise is a big problem for those with hearing loss, and when a person focuses visually on a certain point, like a person’s face, the brain can isolate the noise coming from that point – making their conversational partner’s voice that much clearer.

2. Have your mouth visible

A lot of context during conversation comes from the shape of someone’s mouth when they’re talking. “F” sounds and “B” sounds can sound surprisingly similar when you don’t have a good view of the speaker's mouth.

For most people, this is not a big issue – the context given by the rest of the sentence can usually be used to piece together the meaning. But for someone with hearing loss, it’s possible that their understanding of the speaker hinges on seeing their mouth.

Deaf Conversation

This is why it’s important to make sure you’re not covering your mouth with a scarf or face mask, chewing a pen, or scratching your nose while you talk. Consider using a transparent face mask, especially if you work in retail or somewhere with a lot of customer interaction.

This also expands into the virtual realm. FaceTime (or other video calling software) is vastly preferable to an audio call. The importance of being able to see someone’s face cannot be overstated.

3. Get their attention 

This happens to everyone. You’re aware that someone is saying something, but you’re not listening – then they say your name, and you realise that whatever they just said was directed at you.

This is why it’s important to make sure that the person you’re speaking to knows that you’re talking to them. Get their attention by saying their name, or even making a physical gesture to catch their eye; a simple wave can be enough. 

4. Speak in a quiet, well-lit room

Much like clear vision of your mouth, lighting and noise level can be very important when talking to someone with hearing loss. If you’ve ever been to a nightclub, you can probably relate to not being able to hear anything due to booming noise and poor lighting.

This is accentuated when you have hearing loss. For example, imagine you’re speaking to someone at a carnival; while someone without hearing loss might be able to hear completely fine, someone with hearing loss might find that the rides and sounds drown out their conversational partner.

So if you’re talking to someone with hearing loss, it’s a good idea to find a quiet and well-lit spot to talk in. Make sure the light is in front of your face, and not casting shadows over your mouth. Also avoid sitting in front of a window, as you’ll be silhouetted, and the contrast between the light outside and the darkness inside will make it harder to read your lips. 

5. Encourage hearing aid use

If your loved one uses a hearing aid, it’s important to make sure they’re using it as much as they can. Some people go through the song and dance of undergoing the hearing test and paying for the hearing aid, but then never end up using it.

Using a hearing aid when first getting used to it can be exhausting, but the more someone uses it, the more used to it they’ll become.

That’s why you need to encourage proper hearing aid use. The more someone uses their hearing aid, the more protected their hearing will be from further damage, and it will also make communication that much easier.

6. Speak into their good ear

Some people have something known as monaural hearing loss – meaning they have hearing loss in only one ear, or one side is less severe than the other. 

It pays to make note of which ear is better at receiving sound. If you make sure to remember which side to talk into, you’ll save yourself a lot of frustration and repetition.

You might not even know if someone has monaural hearing loss, but it’s possible you might see them leaning in at a certain angle. If you notice this, try to position yourself so that you can talk into their good ear.

7. Speak clearly, but don’t yell

If you’re lounging around at home, you might enter a relaxation mode and start to mumble. While it’s nice and mellow, it can definitely cause some words to be missed if you’re not enunciating your speech.

On the flip side, don’t yell. No one likes to be yelled at, and while it can definitely be frustrating to need to repeat yourself, you shouldn’t shout to get your point across. Likewise, if someone relies on lip reading, then over-exaggerating your speech actually makes it more difficult to understand!

Also, don’t over-pronounce words by making your mouth cartoonishly large. It can be perceived as quite patronizing. Just speak confidently and clearly.

8. Rephrase and write down important information

Even if you’re following all these tips, there might be some information that is so crucial that you need to pass it on through a visual medium. If you’re communicating with someone with hearing loss about them picking you up at the airport, you might want to be doubly sure that they’ve received the information.

This can mean passing them a written note, or sending them the information over text – whatever works best for making sure that the information has been received. But if you don’t have the resources necessary for this step, you could always try rephrasing what you’re trying to say.

Conveying the same information with different wording can be the difference between a lost message and a received one.

9. Speak one at a time

It’s easy to get amped up in group settings – talking over one another trying to make your points heard. However, for someone with hearing loss, this can be a big detractor to their ability to participate in the conversation.

A group of deaf people using sing language to communicate

If you’re at a dinner party or a work meeting, make sure to try to keep the conversation going one-at-a-time. This allows those with hearing loss to follow along and keep their eyes on whoever is speaking.

10. Be patient

Finally, it pays to just be patient with whoever you’re talking to. Even if you follow every tip we’ve mentioned and make sure to facilitate hearing loss in every way you can, things will still be missed, and you will have to repeat yourself.

Whatever you do, don’t give up on what you’re trying to say and tell the listener to forget about it, or say “it doesn’t matter.” Doing so can make them think they aren’t worth the effort, and can lead to feelings of isolation.

If you just keep a level head and avoid getting frustrated or angry, you’ll ensure that communication is happy and smooth for everyone involved.

Next steps

Obviously there are more than just these ten ways to be deaf friendly, but this is a great place to start. If you frequently converse with someone hard of hearing, try actively implementing these tips into your speech, and see if it makes a difference.

Let us know if you have any tips of your own, or any stories to back up what we’ve mentioned here.

Written by:

Duncan is an Australian-born American-raised creative writer with a passion for healthy ears. He continues to build upon his audiology qualifications with research and various courses.

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