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  • Kathleen Wallace

Top Communication Tips for the Holidays

The holidays can be a very stressful time for people with hearing loss. There are holiday parties, big family gatherings, lively conversations, and a whole lot of background noise. Perhaps you are seeing loved ones, friends, and family that you haven't see in a while. You might be eager to catch up, but also anxious if your hearing will get in the way. Will you be able to follow the conversation at the dinner table? Will you mishear something and respond inappropriately? Will you feel withdrawn and isolated? Will you feel embarrassed or anxious?

Here are a few tips if you or a loved one has hearing difficulties. A little bit of planning can make a world of difference!

TIP #1 Give context.

If someone if joining mid-conversation, quickly catch them up on what the conversation is about so they have a head start on filling in gaps if they don't catch everything. This can be as simple as saying "Jane was just telling us about her trip" or "John is telling us about some work drama." Little bits like that can give the newcomer to the conversation the context and frame of reference needed to fill in the gaps.

By the way, this is a good practice for everyone! You don't need to have a hearing loss to appreciate immediately feeling included in the conversation.

TIP #2 Get someone's attention.

Before talking to someone, particularly if they aren't facing you or in the middle of doing something, say their name! This prompts them that a conversation is starting and helps them focus on listening. If you don't, there's a good chance they might miss the beginning of your statement or miss the whole thing. In addition, people naturally turn when they hear their name, and everyone hears better face to face. This is because the person's voice is projected towards you, and you can see their face and lips for any visual cues.

For example, if your mom is doing dishes in the kitchen after dinner, be sure to call her name and try to even get in her sight line. She might be concentrating or not expecting someone to start talking to her, plug she likely has her back to the rest of the kitchen with a lot of background noise between the running water and clanking of dishes. Save both of you some frustration and get her attention first before you ask when dessert will be ready!

TIP #3 Arrange the room for conversation.

Most people, even if they aren't aware of it, take in visual cues to help their brain fill in gaps of what they hear. We therefore must think about how to maintain clear lines of sight for all conversation members and the good news is that many of us do this naturally; if you were at a party and talking with a group of people, you'd naturally arrange yourselves in a circle of some kind. You wouldn't line up in rows or have your backs to each other or place yourselves at sharp angles. The same goes for sitting situations, such as the whole family sitting around the living room at the next holiday.

Think about how to create circular seating arrangements that are conducive for one large conversation or setting up a series of conversation vignettes to encourage smaller conversations across the house. The arrangement of the furniture, however, should always have people sitting facing each other.

To take this one step further, think about your dining table. Do you have a long rectangular dining table? Is it a circle? An oval? Rounder spaces allow for more fluid conversation amongst the whole group. Rectangular tables, like what many have in our homes, make it very difficult for someone with hearing loss to hear what is happening at the other end. It also facilitates smaller conversations where people talk to the person across from them only or perhaps turn to face someone sitting next to them while simultaneously turning their back to the person on their other side.

TIP #4 Minimize background noise.

The number one reported difficulty among people with hearing loss is consistently trouble in background noise. And rightfully so! Hearing well in background noise is one of the most complicated tasks our brain must perform, which is only made more difficult when the background noise and the target signal (what you want to hear are so similar). Restaurants, cocktail parties, large dinners, and family gatherings all tend to have many small conversations. How is your brain supposed to figure out which conversation you want to listen to and which conversations it should ignore? That is a tall order for your brain!

At the holidays, think about if there are any ways you can reduce background noise. This can include environmental modifications like introducing more sound absorbing materials such as area rugs, curtains, and soft furniture while minimizing exposed hard surfaces that will only result in more reverberation. In addition, reduce the noise you can control, such as turning the TV off or keep the music to a minimum to reduce the number of competing signals. Lastly, think about behavioral modifications. How can you reduce the number of simultaneous conversations or people speaking at the same time?

TIP #5 Leverage technology.

If you or a loved one has hearing difficulties, ensure your hearing aids are in good working order at that you are comfortable with using them. In addition, your audiologist can work with you to maximize the functionality of hearing aids through programming changes, adding special 'speech in noise' programs, looking at how the microphones are configured to help with background noise, discuss using hearing aid accessories, or how to use the app on your phone to make programming changes in the moment. Audiologists are well versed in all of this, and more, so be sure you take advantage of their knowledge base to get your hearing aids working as best as possible.

If you don't use hearing aids, there are still options! For example, did you know that AirPods have some hearing aid technology built into them? If you have a pair, you can then use your phone to give you a boost in conversation, focus the microphones, and take advantage of some noise cancellation. Of course, this means you'll have to wear your AirPods in public, but if you were to tell people why I bet they'd find it pretty cool. For people that want a bit more, this is a great time to consider over the counter hearing aids. These are available now at stores such as Walgreens, Best Buy, and Walmart, but the options can be overwhelming. Audiologists can talk to you about which option may be best and help orient you to using this new technology.

TIP #6 Ask!

Perhaps this should be tip #1, but often times people with hearing difficulties have learned a lot of tips and tricks over the years to get them hearing better. Some have become master strategists to know exactly where to sit at the table to hear best, what technology to use, how to repair conversation breakdowns, or how to get people to communicate better with them. So ask them! Ask what would be helpful for them in the situation ahead of time. If might feel awkward, but it opens the line of communication (pun intended) and shows that you are invested in them and care about them. I'm sure the gesture won't go unnoticed.

But the most important part is that you must follow through! Don't just ask them and have that conversation and move on; you need to really listen and follow through with being their ally in that space, facilitation communication as best you can.

TIP #7 Be An Ally

Hearing loss during the holidays can be stressful. Sometimes simply knowing you have a wingman, someone who can help you in a pinch, can be a great relief. Often, this role is filled by a spouse, but it can be anyone. And, sometimes, this might not be a fun job. If, for example, you are married, perhaps your spouses' denial and inaction have led to a great deal of friction in your relationship. You may think he or she doesn't value your relationship or your opinion and won't take the seemingly simple step to see an audiologist and get hearing aids. And I get it! Third party disability, or when one's health condition has a negative effect on loved ones, is a very very real thing. But having hearing loss is also complicated and each person's experience can be different. Someone can feel anger, resentment, embarrassment, fear, anxiety, a loss of self, and much more. Then, add in the layers of societal standards and stigma, sprinkle in some ageism and ableism, and you get a real predicament.

But my advice is that the holidays, at least not actually at the event, is not the time to have this battle. Instead, be supportive and understanding. Talk to your loved one about ways to get them hearing better and commit to it. Perhaps it means finding some quiet time to recharge because listening can be exhausting! Perhaps it is looking for cues of a mishearing or missed word and repairing the conversation. Above all, it is about support. For those more on the periphery that don't know the full lived experience of hearing loss, this means never saying 'never mind'; rather, rephrase instead of simply repeating. It means not mumbling but not shouting either. It means not laughing at a mishearing or misunderstanding or not assuming someone if being aloof when perhaps they simply didn't hear.

The holidays are a great time to practice some humility and show some grace, whether or not a hearing loss is involved.

Tip #8 See an Audiologist

Audiologists are the hearing and balance experts in the healthcare system. As such, we are well versed in hearing and communication, and understand the effects both can have on one's life and well-being. As audiologists, we often feel like we wear many hats and that is because hearing is complicated! In one appointment, we can go from acoustician explaining hearing aid technology to IT troubleshooting your technology malfunctions to detective piecing together your diagnosis to counselor supporting you through the emotional side of hearing loss to ally brainstorming solutions to get you hearing better.

If you or a loved one has hearing issues, you shouldn't hesitate to see an audiologist or recommend scheduling an appointment to a loved one. How you hear matters; it is about how you connect to the world around you. How you communicate matters; it is about how you connect to the people around you. What a wonderful gift it is!

To talk more about these tips, design a custom care plan, or talk more about any of your or your loved one's hearing concerns, schedule an appointment today! I'd love to get you hearing better.

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