Do people sometimes think you are angry when you are not? Or that your facial expression during conversation implies a negative affect? This happens to me at times, especially in difficult listening situations like meetings with many people or at gatherings with a lot of background noise.
I call it my hearing loss frown. I am not angry or upset, but I am concentrating so hard to hear that the work shows on my face. This can be a problem for people with hearing loss because this focus is often misinterpreted as anger, frustration or annoyance, which can lead to difficulties in personal relationships and in the workplace.
What is listening effort for people with hearing loss?
When you have hearing loss, understanding speech does not come naturally — it requires effort. The best way I know to explain it is as a game board from Wheel of Fortune. Some of the letters are filled in, others are blank. The listener is trying to make sense of the assorted and incomplete sounds they are hearing and turn them into a word or phrase that makes sense in the context of the conversation. This is not easy, especially since the discussion does not pause while you are doing this extra processing. This extra mental activity is also known as listening effort, and it can lead to hearing loss exhaustion.
Early in my career, I would get the same feedback each year in my annual review at work, “Please try to have a more pleasant facial expression during meetings so you don’t look angry or disapproving of what people are saying.” At the time, I was in denial about my hearing loss and was only wearing my hearing aids when absolutely necessary. The listening effort was likely tremendous — and it was glaringly obvious to everyone, except me. All I knew was that at the end of each day, I was drained.
Years later, once I had accepted my hearing loss and learned more about it, I finally understood the problem and began experimenting with fixes to reduce my listening effort, and therefore my mental fatigue.
How can people with hearing loss reduce listening effort?
Listening effort for people with hearing loss will always be a factor, but there are ways that we can help lessen its impact. Here are my suggestions. Please add yours in the comments.
1. Use communication best practices.
Small changes in behavior can make a big difference in the ease of conversation. Teach your conversation partners to get your attention before speaking. Ask them to face you when talking and to keep their mouths visible to aid with lipreading. Speaking at a moderate and consistent pace is also helpful. As a person with hearing loss, we must be prepared to remind our conversation partners about these best practices repeatedly.
2. Select a conducive environment.
When possible, volunteer to choose the location for a meeting or social gathering so you can select a quiet and well lit space. If others have chosen the venue, arrive early to scout out the situation and request a quieter seat if possible. Don’t be shy about asking for the assistance that you need to create a better environment. Your conversation partners will also be grateful.
3. Supplement hearing devices with additional communication tools.
Our hearing aids and cochlear implants are miracles of technology that help us hear, but in many situations additional assistance is required. Try out the latest speech-to-text app on your phone or use a remote microphone such as a Roger pen. My favorite speech-to-text apps include Live Transcribe (Android only) and Otter.
4. Take breaks as needed.
Schedule breaks in a long day of meetings to maintain energy and concentration. At a social gathering, excuse yourself for a quiet trip to the restroom or to relax for a few minutes in another room. Pace yourself and you will feel better at the end of the event.
5. Arrive well rested.
Take care of yourself physically. Get enough sleep, eat healthy food and stay hydrated. Maintaining a regular exercise routine will boost your energy and allow you to handle the stress of advocating for yourself when needed.
6. Bring a positive attitude.
Some conversations will be exhausting no matter your preparation and care. This is ok. Allow yourself the luxury of imperfection. When you stay relaxed and upbeat it helps your conversation partners to do the same. With practice, you might even be able to turn your hearing loss frown into a smile.
Readers, do you have a hearing loss frown?