The Importance of Assertive Communication

Changing communication styles with hearing loss


An often-overlooked aspect of managing a hearing loss involves the person with hearing loss changing their communication style. A hearing loss can cause some people to become passive, limiting their participation in conversations or avoiding social situations altogether. Others can be aggressive, dominating conversations to avoid having to listen and potentially mishear what other people say. The ideal communication style is to be assertive.

Communication styles

The two scenarios below illustrate the difference between passive and assertive styles of communication:

Scenario 1 - A passive approach

Jim, a person with hearing loss, had lunch with a group of friends at the Med Grill.  The dining room was loud, and he hadn’t been able to hear well. Not wanting to embarrass himself by mishearing what someone said or saying something that was completely off-topic, he spent most of the meal sitting back, smiling, and nodding, not participating much in the conversation.

A few minutes after they finished eating, the waitress asked Jim a specific question. After asking her to repeat herself three times, Jim still could not understand her. He decided to venture out of his comfort zone and guess what she might be asking. Seeing that she was holding a pitcher of water and his glass was empty, he assumed that she had asked if he wanted a refill.

“No thank you,” Jim said.

The puzzled look and smile on the waitress’ face and the laughter of his friends told Jim that his response had been unexpected. Jim smiled and laughed along with them, trying not to draw any more attention to himself. As he saw his friends pull out their wallets, he realized the waitress had been asking if they wanted “one bill,” not a 'refill'. Though not what he intended, Jim realized that his response made sense as a deadpan joke.

“I had to make sure I was hearing you right,” Jim said, leaning toward the waitress and gesturing to his friends. “I paid for these guys last week. Not a peep from any one of them until I said I wasn’t going to do it again. You think one of them would step up? Not a chance!”

The group laughed as the waitress passed the bills around to everyone.

As he was driving home, Jim felt relieved that he had been able to cover up his inability to hear the waitress. He had even made the situation funny. Still, he was anxious about what might happen next time. Everyone had loved the food, and when one person suggested they make it a weekly thing, they all agreed. He began to think of a way to avoid the weekly lunch.

The above scenario shows some of the common issues that a person with hearing loss encounters. Things that a person would once look forward to, like lunch at a busy restaurant, can become sources of anxiety and frustration.

Scenario 2 – An assertive approach

Jim, a person with hearing loss, had lunch with a group of friends at the Med Grill. Knowing that getting stuck at a table in the middle of the restaurant, surrounded by noise, would make for a less-than-enjoyable social outing, Jim called ahead to reserve a table. He mentioned his difficulty hearing in restaurants and asked when the restaurant was quiet (the answer – never, but it was quieter between 2:30 and 4:00 pm). Jim asked if there were any booths or corner tables available, preferably away from the kitchen or front door. There was a corner table available at 2:45.

Jim called two of his friends to let them know about the reservation, so they could pass the information along to the others. One of them complained about the late reservation time. Jim told him that he had trouble hearing in restaurants, and that the manager told him it would be quieter at 2:45. His friend said that he hadn’t thought of that and mentioned that he also had trouble hearing in background noise, and that it would be nice to have a conversation without shouting.  

Jim arrived at the Med Grill fifteen minutes before his reservation. He told the hostess that he had a reservation under his name. After waiting for the table to be cleaned, she led Jim to a table for six in the corner of the restaurant. Jim chose a seat where his back would be facing the bulk of the restaurant, which, in his case, would be the source of noise he did not want to hear. A few minutes later, Jim was joined by one of his friends, and shortly after, a waiter arrived with water and menus.

“There will be six of us,” Jim told the waiter. “Before it gets too busy, I wanted to let you know that I have trouble hearing what someone is saying when it gets noisy. I know how busy you are, but if you could speak slowly and clearly, while facing me, I’d really appreciate it.”


The benefits of changing communication styles

In the first scenario, Jim was worried about others noticing his hearing loss. His only active participation came in the form of a bluff, when he misheard the waitress multiple times and decided to guess at what she was saying. In that case, the bluff served its purpose – Jim was able to continue to hide his hearing loss. In the long run, however, bluffing is not a good strategy. It involves a lot of effort and reinforces the belief that hiding a hearing loss is more important than hearing. Eventually, the person with hearing loss will guess wrong, and it will be obvious to everyone involved.

There are a few examples of Jim being assertive in the second scenario:

  • He controls his environment by calling ahead to reserve a table in a quieter area of the restaurant.
  • He waits until after the lunch rush is over.
  • He arrives early, allowing himself to choose where he wants to sit.

Good communication takes practice. Changing from a passive to an assertive approach to communication is one way to limit the frustrations associated with hearing loss.

If you are interested in learning more about communication breakdowns and different strategies that can help improve communication, sign up for one of our monthly Communication Strategies classes.

Photo credit: Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash