Researchers at Indiana University have discovered the underlying pathway that leads to deafness secondary to aminoglycosides, a common class of antibacterial medicines. Insight into the causes of hearing loss is dear to my heart as my son is deaf. His deafness is related to the inner hair cells of the ear, the same hair cells affected by aminoglycoside antibiotics. Hearing loss affects twice as many individuals in the U.S. as cancer or diabetes; one in 5 adult men and one in 8 adult women report difficulty with hearing. Awareness of the potential for hearing loss or deafness to affect social interactions can improve communication for us all.
Hearing loss or deafness can be a silent problem because there may be no way to know that someone has not heard you. The person who did not hear does not recognize they missed something. If the person speaking does not pick up on potential clues that the listener did not hear, hearing issues will go undetected.
I have seen this happen to my son, who has bilateral cochlear implants that give him access to sound. While I do consider cochlear implants to be a miracle medical device, an example of what medical research can achieve, cochlear implants are not able to exactly replicate the access to sound provided by the typical human ear. Particularly in my son’s case, he has trouble listening when more than one person is talking at the same time or when someone is talking but there are background sounds like an air conditioner. Granted, I have typical hearing and can occasionally misunderstand multiple speakers or a conversation at a noisy party, but these issues are common and daily for my son.
Through my son, I have learned several simple things that can improve communication. One, check that he has truly heard me before assuming that he is just ignoring me or being defiant. Two, body language is important. Three, sometimes tone and speed are heard more than actual words. While these are things I learned through interacting with my son, they apply to everyone, in any conversation.
Have you truly been heard? Whether one-to-one or one-to-many, your message may not be coming through in a comprehensible manner. Or, the words might be out there, but there is no actionable response, which ends up being the same as not being heard. The COVID-19 pandemic provides many large-scale examples of this, with recent articles on the underuse of Pavloxid being a prime example. Despite Pavloxid being an important treatment that can significantly improve outcomes in severe COVID-19 infections, the medication could save even more lives if it were used more.
While public health messaging generally has no attached body language, interactions between individuals are influenced by the face and body. What is your facial expression conveying? What is your body language saying? In general, your message will be more effective if your facial expression and body language are tailored to the words and situation. If you can make eye contact and establish some degree of mirrored body language, in which whoever you are speaking to matches your gaze as well as your body positioning, there will be improved communication.
In addition to nonverbal communication via the face and body, paralanguage contributes to what is truly taken away by a listener. Paralanguage encompasses, for example, intonation, what words are stressed, and the rhythm of speech. Simple things that will make your paralanguage more trustworthy and confident include smiling as you talk, breathing naturally in a relaxed manner, and lowering your voice to the lowest natural depth. Mirroring your communication partner’s paralanguage improves the chance of being heard, reinforcing good eye contact and shared body language.
All of us should care about hearing loss and deafness and how to improve communication because the statistics suggest that we all interact with individuals affected by hearing loss or deafness. Even more than that, ensuring that another person is able to truly listen to what you have to say is relevant to each and every one of us. Everyone appreciates being heard.