Hearing, Listening, and Understanding

Hearing is easy — seriously, it takes no effort whatsoever. In fact, hearing is so easy, you can even hear while you’re sleeping!

Listening is “hearing with desire.” What do I mean by that? When you want to hear something, you focus on it and are, therefore, listening. Is there an interesting show on television? Did something catch your attention when you were on the phone? You were listening. Not too hard.

Understanding. Ah, now that is the hardest of them all. Although I would love to wax on about the philosophical and existential ideas of understanding our world and our purpose, for the sake of my own sanity and your interest, I will stick to the idea of understanding words and the speech they comprise.

Words are made up of little bursts of sound called “phonemes.” Different combinations of phonemes create different words. Often, two words can vary by only one phoneme. For instance, the words “hot” and “pot” contain only a very small difference, but that difference dramatically changes the meaning of the word.

If you have a hearing loss, detecting and understanding these small differences between words can make it difficult, if not impossible, to understand speech, which, in turn, makes it tiring to listen for long periods of time. It is exhausting to have to do so much mental math all day, every day.

The best hearing aids that are well fit and provide for maximum audibility (your ability to hear those little phonemes), can make a huge difference in your ability to understand. However, if you’re like most, it has been years since you could hear those little sounds, and you’ve long since lost the art of listening.

With good hearing aids comes improved hearing and much improved understanding, so now it is time to practice listening. We have discussed aural training and rehabilitation many times over the years, but it’s too important to stop beating the drum. The more you hear and the more you can understand, the easier listening will become — but only if you actively engage in the process.

Active and engaged listening takes effort and skill, in addition to desire. It is also hard and takes practice. When you get your new hearing aids, make a point of practicing listening. I mean really listening. A lucky few can put on new hearing aids and feel like everything is back to normal. For most, however, getting used to hearing a lot of new sounds is surprisingly hard, and more surprising is how much practice it takes to learn to listen again. Here are a few tips to get you started. Whether you have worn hearing aids for years or are just starting on your better hearing journey, you will likely benefit from one or two of these exercises:

  1. Start slow. If the sounds that you are hearing with your new hearing aids seem overwhelming, give yourself a more structured approach. Start by wearing them for a few hours each morning or evening. Preferably in a quiet environment such as your own home. In a few days, increase the time that you wear them, or start to shake things up by wearing them in the car or to the grocery store. You WILL get used to them, but you have to give your brain time to normalize the new sounds.
  2. Yes, that’s the way you used to hear. It can be a small shock to discover what you’ve been missing — it’s a loud world! However, it isn’t necessary for you to hear everything on the first day. If you’re struggling with too much sound, ask your audiologist to step down the gain a little to give you the chance to grow accustomed to everything. You do have to hear it all at some point, though, so be sure to structure a schedule whereby she can slowly increase the gain to make sure that you have achieved maximum benefit.
  3. Don’t stop trying; you WILL benefit from your hearing aids, but you have to stick with it. It’s a simple tip, but it’s worth writing down.
  4. Ask those you love (especially those you live with) to take it easy and follow some rules: talk to you directly and in the same room, turn off distractions, and repeat as necessary. These are not only basic courtesies, but imperative to your ability to both listen and successfully understand.

Understanding speech should be the goal for everyone who wears hearing aids. Rather than seeing perfection, strive toward a result that you can live with so your newfound hearing is rewarding, and so you can listen with pleasure.

Stay Vibrant!

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