I’ve struggled a bit in some WebEx and phone-call only meetings at work lately, and a few coworkers have asked “Are you not able to hear?” Recently I’ve had to try to explain and illustrate how hearing doesn’t equate to understanding, so it felt like a good time to shed some light on a hearing loss falsehood — that it’s just about hearing or not hearing.
Hearing Is Not Understanding
There is a commonly overlooked and very important misconception about hearing loss: hearing a sound equals understanding it.
Having a hearing loss is more than just hearing or not hearing certain sounds. When someone has damaged hearing, their ability to understand sounds is also impacted. In fact, oftentimes, the greatest struggle for those of us with hearing loss isn’t when we cannot hear a sound but rather when we can hear it but are unable to properly identify it. Some will say a sound is “blurry,” and this is often when those of us in denial of our hearing loss tell others to stop slurring their words.
Confused? Try this example to understand how this may look:
Sarah is sitting in a meeting for work alongside her two colleagues Mark and Sally. A third coworker, James, is calling in from Colorado. The meeting starts off well, with Mark and Sally relaying the agenda items for an upcoming campaign. So far, Sarah is doing well, able to listen to both speakers and take notes. However, when James asks a question on the phone, Sarah stops taking notes and focuses intently on the speaker in the table’s center.
James asks two questions, and while Sarah can hear James clearly, she only understands the first one completely, losing the second half of question number two. Mark responds to his second, and Sarah is able to then infer what James asked.
Mark next asks James a question about what he needs from the team, to which James gives a long reply. With each sentence, Sarah feels like she’s having to focus harder and harder to identify what James is saying. She tries turning up the speaker volume, but it doesn’t help. His words seem to shift, mix or not even register in her brain. In fact, Sarah is staring so intently at the speaker, trying to understand exactly what James is saying, that she misses that he asked her a question.
Never once in the example does Sarah fail to HEAR her coworker James. The issue is that despite being able to hear his voice and everything he says, she is unable to completely UNDERSTAND the specific words he is saying.
Why can I hear but not understand something?
In the illustration above, it’s not about the volume or loudness of the sound. It’s about Sarah’s ability to properly identify what the sounds are – in this case, which specific words James is saying.
But if you can hear a sound, shouldn’t you be able to understand it? Your first guess is likely “Yes!” but that isn’t actually the case. Before I explain why, it’s important to know this – your ears may take in sounds, but it is your brain that applies meaning to them. (E.g. You ears take in a speaker’s voice, but it is your brain that lets you know they said “Good morning!”).
So why do people with hearing loss not understand sounds they can hear?
The simplest explanation for why this happens is that when hearing loss occurs, the communication pathway between your ears and your brain is disrupted. Your ears are no longer able to clearly hear an incoming sound, and consequently your brain must work harder to try to decipher and classify it. When your brain can’t immediately identify the sound, it either gives up or, in most cases, reaches for what it thinks is the next-best answer.
Check out the difference in the two phases below to see what I mean:
What James says: What’s the progress with our media project in Utah? Are we set up?
What Sarah hears: Where’s the progress with our ___ project in Utah? Are we screwed up?
In short, it’s not really your ears here, it’s your brain! And as time goes on, and your brain continues to fail to identify certain sounds, it may forget their proper identifier all together or continually mix them up.
Trust me, as my hearing loss has gotten worse, I’ve caught myself hearing words and phrases and interpreting them way off. The weirdest one I still do today is when someone says “post” and I hear “stop.”
How can I understand sounds better again?
Here’s the worst part of hearing loss – it’s permanent and it can’t be reversed. You can help counteract it with hearing aids or cochlear implants, but you can’t really ever go back to the ideal state of “normal.”
So in terms of helping you to get better about understanding sounds, here are my best tips:
- Lip read + listen at the same time (where you can)
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help taking notes or confirming a word or phrase, especially at work
- Hearing technologies – hearing aids or cochlear implants, listening assistive devices, whatever works best for you
- Real-time captioning apps – Check out InnoCaption (great for work phone calls and group meetings!)
- Listening games that help your ears and brain practice working together
Been in a similar situation? Share your funniest mis-heard moment in the comments below!