What you can do to support a colleague with hearing loss

Lästid: 3 min.
06-01-21

How to support a colleague with hearing loss

Living with hearing loss is a journey. The journey involves many stages starting with the awareness of its existence, hesitation, and moving to wanting to do something about it. Along the way, there may be a lot of frustrations when communication is difficult (for everyone involved), and social isolation both at work and play.

 

This journey is unique for every individual and will vary depending on their hearing loss severity, personality and openness to technology. The journey becomes easier with much needed support from relatives, friends and even colleagues.

Working with a colleague who lives with hearing loss can be a challenge. For you and for them. It’s an invisible handicap with visible solutions. And many people find it difficult to talk about openly.

Why?

There is stigma1 connected to hearing loss because people may associate it with aging. Although more and more people are experiencing hearing loss before retirement2 which means you might find yourself supporting a colleague one day soon.

What is hearing loss?

Hearing loss is complex and there is an overwhelming amount of information out there. Some people hear without their hearing aids and may not use them all the time, while others are totally dependent on them. Some people use hearing aids to alleviate their tinnitus. Others use devices such as cochlear implants and bone anchored hearing systems.

A hearing aid is not a quick fix. There is a rehabilitation period for each new user which opens the door to a lifelong relationship with life changing technology and care. Also hearing aids do not mean communication is no longer a problem. There are still many challenging everyday situations where additional support is needed.

How hearing loss impacts working relationships

Hearing loss can affect many areas of people’s everyday life. The impact of untreated hearing loss may affect relationships, people’s confidence and the overall quality of life3.

Like any relationship you have, when trust is present, it’s easier to have those difficult conversations. When you know a person well, you might feel more comfortable broaching the topic of hearing loss. Especially, if you notice your colleague has a hearing loss before they do. If this is the case, your gentle nudging might encourage them to seek treatment.

Remember that your colleague will be on a journey which starts with denial about having a hearing loss4 , includes a lot of embarrassment, frustrations, fear and worry. They might worry about the decline of their ability to hear and what this will mean for their future.

Depending on how well you know your colleague, you might share a personal story about someone in your network or family who also lives with a hearing loss. This will make them feel less vulnerable and be open to sharing their story.

What can YOU do to support your colleague with hearing loss?

Be open and prepared to make some daily changes to your working habits in the team. If you are a manager, ensure there is support in the form of extra ears for tasks which involve capturing stakeholder input, for example, during facilitation or presentations. Never remove them from a task without their agreement beforehand.

Create an inclusive work environment. This means you might need to go up to the individual at their desk and inform them when the team go for lunch, repeat jokes and include them in small talk. When the group conversation changes topics rapidly and there is a lot of background noise, your colleague will find it extra challenging to follow. Their silence may be sign they are not hearing everything being said.

Don’t label them as rude or antisocial. They may choose to avoid lunch in the (noisy) canteen or social gatherings because they know they will struggle to follow a conversation. And feel left out as a result. Sometimes an evening in the hotel room alone is more appealing than the social dinner on a business trip.

Turn up your patience and empathy. Put yourself in their shoes. And be curious to learn about the superpowers they have developed as a result of their hearing loss. Avoid bombarding them with too many questions too soon about how and why their hearing loss came about. Navigate your curiosity slowly as you build rapport.

Ask them what they need and how you (and the team) can support them. Not everyone wants attention on their hearing loss. By meeting them where they are on their hearing loss journey, you create a relaxed atmosphere which opens up for the support they need.

Encourage them to take action on their hearing loss, if they haven’t yet and are frustrated.

Learn more: What can a hearing aid do for you or your colleague?

7 good communication habits to make conversations easier

Hearing loss is a visual experience and many people with hearing loss are experts at lip reading. These communication tips will make conversations easier:

  1. Speak slowly, clearly and be prepared to repeat

  2. Start and finish the conversation facing them

  3. Don’t speak with your mouth full of food

  4. Don’t speak with your hand in front of your mouth

  5. Don’t turn your back on your colleague when you speak / present / train

  6. Don’t call their name when they have their back to you

  7. Don’t mumble or whisper

Do you want to understand what your colleagues with a hearing loss are going through?

Learn more: How to cope with hearing loss in the workplace

 

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[1] Barker, A. B., Leighton, P., & Ferguson, M. A. (2017). Coping together with hearing loss: A qualitative meta-synthesis of the psychosocial experiences of people with hearing loss and their communication partners. International Journal of Audiology, 56(5), 297-305. doi:10.1080/14992027.2017.1286695

[2] Cunningham, L. L., & Tucci, D. L. (2017). Hearing Loss in Adults. The New England journal of medicine, 377(25), 2465–2473. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMra1616601

[3] Punch, J. L., Hitt, R., & Smith, S. W. (2019). Hearing loss and quality of life. Journal of Communication Disorders, 78, 33-45. doi:10.1016/j.jcomdis.2019.01.001

[4] Barker, A. B., Leighton, P., & Ferguson, M. A. (2017). Coping together with hearing loss: A qualitative meta-synthesis of the psychosocial experiences of people with hearing loss and their communication partners. International Journal of Audiology, 56(5), 297-305. doi:10.1080/14992027.2017.1286695