The Art of Verbal Communication

With the exception of Deaf signing communities, verbal communication is at the core of our social existence. It allows us to convey an assortment of messages ranging from basic needs to abstract concepts.

When we think of verbal communication, we immediately recognize that language and hearing are the necessary tools of the trade. Yet there are other requisites for effective verbal communication beyond hearing. Oftentimes it is only when hearing diminishes that we acknowledge just how important these other factors are.

Formulating understanding from speech relies on a variety of language mechanisms as well as visual and auditory cues.

Try saying the following words out loud while looking in the mirror: thin, sin, bin, tin, win, fin. It becomes very obvious that we all naturally acquire rudimentary lip-reading skills as we acquire language. Even if we silently mouth these words, we can still identify one from the others. There are other visual cues beyond individual phoneme lip formations that convey meaning too, including facial expression, gesture and body language.

Without auditory and visual cues it becomes impossible to identify the correct word, that is, unless language context provides a clue. For example, “He threw the garbage in the bin” identifies bin as the most predictable word choice.

Of course hearing plays a very important role in verbal communication, and  while individual phonemes are the basic building blocks of spoken language, they are not the only conveyers of meaning. Prosody (stress and intonation), and rate of production also carry meaning. The phrase “It’s up to me” spoken with a falling intonation may convey an attitude of resignation, but if spoken with a rising intonation may convey a sense of disbelief.

Contributions from language and auditory-visual modalities ensures communication is smooth and less effortful. A break down in any of these factors leads to more laboured communication.

Strangely enough, there is a belief among some individuals, that if a hearing impaired member of the family is fitted with hearing aids, all responsibility for communication should fall on the device from that moment forth. Such false logic usually leads to frustration and queries such as “Can’t you turn that hearing aid up any louder?”

Of course, being fitted with hearing aids does not obviate the need for other communication tools, and in fact probably indicates a greater need for utilizing other  communication prompts. Let’s look at some sensible communication tactics that may help when a family member has diminished hearing.

Get the person’s attention. Without cognition, your words really are falling on deaf ears.

Face the listener to permit access to visual cues – especially helpful for words that sound similar but look very different.

Slow it down a fraction – permits the listener time to process information, despite gaps in auditory processing.

Avoid raised voice, as it often distorts the prosodic features of language.

Following these simple steps will maximize communication and minimize the frustration.