At the planning meeting, Sgt. 1st Class Bel chose a seat in the middle of the long, oval table hoping he could hear everyone's comments. From this central position, he was seated as close to as many speakers as possible.
When the chatter died down and the company commander began the meeting, Bel noticed his heart beating faster and the room began to feel stuffy. Last week's meeting did not go well for him because he was sitting at the far end of the table, away from the commander, when he was asked to provide an update to the group. He must have been thinking about something else because he didn't realize it was his turn to speak. When he noticed, the whole table was looking at him and the commander was saying, "Bel, are you with us?" He had to ask her to repeat the question, which the rest of the table found amusing, except for the commander. He unintentionally interrupted the first sergeant at a later point in the meeting, which earned him some more curious looks.
When this week's meeting was over, Bel felt unusually tired from the extra effort, but was relieved that he escaped any embarrassing moments similar to last week. He had expended great effort to stay alert to who was speaking and keep his eyes on that person. He seemed to hear better when he was looking at the person speaking.
Bel had been dodging his follow-up hearing tests for the past several years. No one seemed to notice that he did not return to the clinic as the technician instructed him to do after his annual hearing tests. After the embarrassing close calls at the staff meetings, he finally made an appointment with the audiology clinic.
The audiologist, Capt. Shelton, diagnosed hearing loss in his left ear and issued an H2 profile. Shelton explained that the profile required use of hearing protection devices, or HPDs, at all times in hazardous noise in order to prevent further hearing damage. Shelton then re-fit Bel's HPD and, after some follow-up testing to rule out a serious medical condition, also recommended a hearing aid for Bel's left ear. Shelton explained that the hearing aid would make listening easier in the difficult situations.
Bel couldn't believe he was at the point of needing hearing aids and regretted those times when he should have used hearing protection but didn't. Shelton encouraged Bel to return for hearing aid fitting and provided him with information about hearing protection on and off the duty. He also went over the techniques that could make communication easier in difficult situations.
Although the characters in this story are fictional, the scenario is very real. Many service members can relate to Bel's communication difficulties. Communication is an interactive process, in which an individual often switches roles from listener to speaker and back again. Many speakers may be talking at once or there could be background noise present which makes listening even more challenging. Adding hearing loss to this complex listening process can be overwhelming in certain situations.
Sadly, hearing loss resulting from hazardous noise exposure is permanent; however, there are many communication techniques that can be useful in difficult listening situations. Bel already used some strategies in the planning meeting to compensate for his hearing loss. For example, he chose seating close to the speaker and watched the speaker carefully. Later, Bel also put into practice some of the communication tips he learned from the audiologist such as asking for a quieter table at a restaurant, away from the kitchen and the bar and sitting with his better ear toward the speaker.
Other useful communication strategies include:
1. Instructing your conversational partner--Ask the talker to change the delivery (slow down, uncover your mouth, face me).
2. Use close-ended questions--Phrase remarks to constrain the verbal response (Would you like water, tea or juice?).
3. Set yourself up for success--Optimize the listening environment for communication (move to where it is quiet and well-lit).
4. Go easy on yourself--Relax, breathe deeply.
5. Anticipate--Observe situational cues, make predictions about the message or the speaker's style.
More than 400,000 post-9/11 veterans have suffered hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing in the ears). While there is no cure for noise-induced hearing loss or tinnitus, there are treatments available for both. During May, national Better Hearing and Speech Month, learn about hazards of noise exposure. Every month, remember that hearing loss from noise can be prevented by using properly fitted hearing protection devices.
Contact your local military treatment facility for additional information or visit the Army Hearing Program, U.S. Army Public Health Command Web site at http://phc.amedd.army.mil/topics/workplacehealth/hrc/Pages/default.aspx.