Friday, January 16, 2015

Hear ye, hear ye: what does it take to hear ye?

I wear hearing aids and in the long process of getting to this point I’ve learned a lot about communication, about listening, hearing, and understanding. Each of these is a different aspect of the human interactions!

It’s axiomatic, or, well, at least a commonly heard joke, that women’s voices are more difficult (for men?) to hear! One could say more, but, what’s the point, I’d just lose most of my readers! I concur, however, with this time-honored adage in that at least some women’s voices are more difficult to hear. Most audiologists will mumble that it’s due to their higher pitch, but there’s more to it than that, at least sometimes. But truly, hearing loss is not merely about gender differences! So, don’t write me off too soon, ok?

Hearing differs from listening in that it takes the intention of listening to hear with understanding. In some cases, “not hearing” can mean either no sound was heard, or, more likely, I heard but I didn’t understand the words or the meaning of the words (again, these are two different things.) It may mean that “I don’t like you, or what you are saying, so I choose to ignore what you said!”
I sometimes hear the words perfectly well enough, but have no idea what they mean. Apart from brain dysfunction (always a possibility), I am referring to the fact (at first, it was shocking to me to come to grips with this) that without some context, or more complete explanation, or at least a preamble, it is sometimes impossible to know what a person is talking about even when the words are perfectly clear and understandable.

A common issue I’ve noticed is the use of too many pronouns: “Did you hear what she said?” “Who?” “No, what did she say?” Or, changing the subject without warning or introduction.
An even more common issue, and this relates in part to hearing loss, is to have another person begin a sentence with the key word or a person’s name. “Alice is decided to withdraw her name.” “Who?” “What did you say?” When this happens to me, I’m stuck back at the first word trying to figure out the “who” and entirely miss the rest of the sentence. A simple solution, for a conscious speaker in the presence of a person with hearing loss, is to always begin a sentence with some throwaway introductory words. “You know what I just heard? Alice…(pause)….has decided to withdraw her name from the auction drawing.”

I want to emphasize the importance of key words such as names, proper nouns, decisive adjectives and so on. Pronouncing key words consciously is critical to effective communication, both intimate and public.

Not enough can be said about the value of a preamble: “Do you have a minute? I wanted to mention to you something about Alice.” Speaking of preambles: “What’s my name?” Repeat: “What my name?” If you want to talk to me, use my name before launching into your dialogue. Of course, if I’m already nose to nose with you, that’s not necessary, but, otherwise, how about a simple, “Hriman, oh hi! You gotta minute?”

It may be hearing loss, age, or simply staying focused in my own boundaries, but I purposely DO NOT listen to conversations of other people. If you suddenly begin talking to me, even as I pass you, I may just keep walking. Not because I’m a jerk (which I suppose I can be, sometimes, too), but because I don’t wish to get caught up in idle conversations. So, if someone like me is not facing you, eye to eye, toe to toe, please start your sentence with my name, pause, and then say something “throw away” like “Oh, Hriman,……, there’s something I wanted to mention to you.” Then, as my ship comes about face, we can talk of more important matters!

Then there are the miscreants who deign to talk to me from another room. When I can, I simply ignore such people. Or, how about the ones who turn their back on you as they talk and even walk away in the opposite direction as they are speaking to you! Egads!!!! For some, it’s simply an impolite habit, but I suspect it might also represent a lack of commitment to the conversation; or, a lack of clarity or confidence in what he or she has to say. Or, and we all probably do this: not caring whether we are heard and liking the idea that we’ve said our piece aloud!

Sometimes there can be a good reason for getting it off our chest, regardless of whether the other person hears us fully! In any case, these half-way speakers are frustrating to be around and they can come across as rude, arrogant or at best thoughtless. I cannot help but feel that if you have self-respect for what you have to say and you wish to communicate it, and respect for your listener, it would do well to take the time to do so as to be heard.  

I’ve met quite a few ventriloquists in my day. It’s really quite amazing to hear (or not) how many can speak without moving their lips; or, without any air passing through them! Why do some do this? Shyness, habit, lack of confidence or sometimes simply a soft-spoken, internalized voice?

I’ve always admired my friend and teacher, Swami Kriyananda, for, inter alia, his skill at projecting his voice. Those of us with hearing loss should, in early stages, as yet not acknowledged, pay attention to how often we say “What?” But those with too soft of voices should also pay attention to how often they are asked to repeat themselves. If the latter, learn to open your mouth, move your lips, and use your lungs and chest to project your voice into the face or into the space occupied by your listener(s)!

I look back over many years of being with Swami Kriyananda. His hearing loss grew steadily worse until it became acute by the end of his life. I look back and wonder how much of his tendency to avoid conversation at meals was due to the difficulty of hearing while eating and in the challenge presented by surround-sound conversations, oft interrupted by others, confounded by the ambient noise of dishes, music, etc.

Indeed, I, too find, unfortunately, that I can’t chew food and listen at the same time. As I share many meals with friends and in public, it becomes a choice of eating or listening, but not at the same time. 

Standing in a crowded room holding a small plate of snacks with conversations around me 360makes it impossible to have an understandable conversation.

Ever see those big trucks that have a sign on them that says “If you can’t see my mirror(s), I can’t see you?” Ditto for my eyes! If I can’t see your eyes and vice versa in a conversation, the odds are very good I’m not going to “hear” you (meaning, either the words or the meaning or both).

I couldn’t possibly count the number of times someone spoke to me and I didn’t understand a word. It happens too frequently. Sometimes I even get slightly nauseous, like I’m drowning, when I can’t hear or understand the words.

Another shocking revelation (for me, at least) has been the degree to which my expectation of what a person is saying determines what I think I just heard! You’ve read, often perhaps, about the illusion of seeing a snake on the path ahead of you (perhaps in dim light, like dusk), reacting with fear, and then discovering that the snake is only a rope left on the ground? Yup, that’s what I am talking about!

I have learned that the same happens with sight, as well: especially under stress, as in when I am frantically looking for something, say, in various drawers. Many a time I discovered that based on the intensity of my focus and expectation I would momentarily think I saw what I was looking for only to discover (usually in a flash) that the object is something else.

This is what happens, I believe, to all of us when we are listening to others. I’ve seen or heard of some movie or maybe a quote from Churchhill (no, it was FDR, I think), who went around a room of partygoers saying something like, “I killed my mother.” He discovered that no one reacted because no one “heard” what he said because the words did not fit what his hearer expected to hear nor the context (of the party)!

Many a time I have been embarrassed for the fact that what I thought I heard was the opposite of what was said: like FDR’s experiment, I would end up smiling my congratulations when instead I should have been expressing sympathy! Sigh!

Now, let’s move up to left vs right brain conversation. When I was younger I could engage in that “witty repartee” that is characteristic of young, high metabolizing brains. I can still do this, but my métier as a man of wisdom and considerable life experience (I’m partly joking, here) leaves me somewhat uninterested in “witty repartee!”

My wife likes to tell friends how at a complete loss I am during our weekly staff meetings, when, surrounded only by women, I don’t have clue what they are talking about. An abundant use of pronouns, incomplete sentences, and rapid-fire changes in subject matter, can leave my head spinning: “clueless,” as it were, “in Seattle.”

The issue is, sometimes, a gender difference, but by NO means always. It’s really, or so I believe, a question of patterns of thought and speech: in short, left vs right brain. Men have right brains too, just as women have considerable prowess with their left brains! Still, brains do rule the day and no one in our society seems to have thrown out the “women are more intuitive” cliché quite yet. My own experience does confirm this, at least some of the time.

So, we are past the gender thing and have emerged into the human brain.  I’m not authority on brains but I think it’s not as simple as left vs right. There are some people whose speech patterns are discombobulated: they don’t adhere to the time honored concept that a sentence begins with a subject that gets some traction by using a verb that takes aims in the direction of an object. This idea just isn’t there for some brains. I don’t know much about “Attention-deficit disorder” or Obsessive-compulsive disorder” and to make reference to it here may be hugely inaccurate, but I throw it into the brain soup, just in case it might complete someone’s alphabet.  In any case and in a simple way, some people’s minds work at a different pace then their mouth.

Blurt-ers simply speak whatever channels through their mind. The result is disconcerting, often dismaying, and sometimes poorly said and all too often negative. Many, however, simply skip saying what they started in favor of the latest thought that brightens their bulb. This leaves the rest of us hanging on the edge of a steep cliff of cognition.

Then there are the infamous Mumblers. Some haven’t moved their lips since birth. Others are perhaps too are shy or hesitant to put their speech out into clear view. Perhaps they fear being wrong or being critiqued. Fear of critique, I have found, is balanced by a critical mind that expects from others what they, themselves, are inclined to do.

Suffice to say, I have to walk a line between saying “What” so frequently that I might be mistaken for a parrot; or, simply staying out of many conversations and miss a valuable sharing. There are numerous conversations I refrain from entering or I just simply smile and nod or offer some offhand monosyllabic utterance to indicate that I haven’t had a stroke.

If I judge that I need to pay attention and say “What?” I will but I am cautious. People frown upon those whose conversation is limited to repeating “What.” No doubt there are times when I misjudge and lose important information. After all, my work is very with and for people, so missteps do happen.

By the end, which is coming hopefully soon, it gets down to the fact that it is simply amazing that humans understand each other. It seems that communication is like a game of chance, or to quote Forest, Forest Gump: a box of chocolates (“You never know what you’re gonna’ get.”).

Ultimately, truth is, I’m just letting off steam: can you hear it hiss? Nothing I write here will actually change the conditions one faces due to hearing loss! Hearing aids are no substitute for good hearing. 

And I suppose you should remind me to “Be the change I seek.” Eh?

My favorite chant these days is “Listen, listen, listen” by Paramhansa Yogananda.

Thanks for hearing me out.