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Five Ways to Hear Better

Young female patient discuss with doctors on her medical exam at hospital

Do you think you’re losing your hearing? You probably are. Two-thirds of those over 75 have some degree of hearing loss, and so do a substantial percentage of younger people.

The most effective way to deal with hearing loss is to get hearing aids. But if you’re not ready for hearing aids or other hearing assistive devices, you can help your hearing by learning to listen better. You could think of it as mindful listening. Here are five tips:

  1. Face the speaker. Make sure you can see his or her face clearly. Experts have shown that seeing a speaker enhances comprehension. There’s even a scientific term for it: the McGurk Effect. Here’s a link to the passage in my book Shouting Won’t Help that discusses what McGurk called “hearing lips and seeing voices.”


  1. Resist the urge to immediately say “What?” or “Sorry?” Pause for a second. Think about the context. Think about the words you did understand. Try to fill in the blanks.


  1. Repeat what you heard so that the speaker understands which word you didn’t get. “We’re going to meet at Mark’s house to go the game.” Or was that “We’re going to meet at Barb’s house”?


  1. If you miss a proper name, ask the person to spell it. It may be embarrassing when the person spells out “Bob” — “B as in boy, O, B as in boy” — but it’s better than introducing him as “Tom” to the next person who comes along.


  1. Don’t wait to ask for clarification. If you’re not sure what the subject of a conversation is, don’t let it ramble on until you’re hopelessly lost. At the very beginning say, “Are we talking about ‘ice cream’ or ‘nice jeans’?”


Oliver Sacks wrote about his own “mishearings” in the New York Times a few weeks ago. When his assistant told him she was going to the “chiropractor” he thought she was going to “choir practice.” I’m hesitant to call the great Oliver Sacks on something, but if she was going to the chiropractor the word would have been preceded by an article: “the” chiropractor,” “my” chiropractor, “a” chiropractor. The words “choir practice” would not. A careful listener would hear that extra syllable (the, my, a) and realize she was talking about the chiropractor.

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This kind of mishearing — a verbal malapropism — is also called a Mondegreen, especially when it’s applied to lyrics. Neil Bauman explained the origin of the term in a recent column in his E-Zine Hearing Loss Help.

We all remember Mondegreens from childhood: “Jose can you see?” as the first line of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a Mondegreen. “Sam and Janet Evening” from South Pacific. And every Thanksgiving we sang about the sleigh ride to grandmother’s house across the “wide and drifting snow.” An all-time favorite is: “She’s got a chicken to ride…” The list is endless and you can see a funny video compilation here.

Do you have your own mishearings? Share them in the Comments section.

Mishearings are not always amusing. For those with hearing loss, they can be awkward, frustrating and sometimes even dangerous. Especially when dealing with doctors or other health care professionals, it’s important to be completely open when you’re uncertain you’ve heard correctly. When in doubt, ask. When still in doubt, ask for it in writing.

Photo: Ridofranz/iStock

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