people sitting at tables for a conference

The Great Communication Divide: Hearing v. Understanding

  The classic struggle of hearing loss

Those with hearing loss tend to state their frustration with words like: “I don’t hear in this loud place!” What they really mean is that they hear plenty of sound—otherwise they would not perceive the place as loud—but they can’t understand what anybody is saying against the background din.

In quiet settings, one-on-one conversations are certainly possible for those who are hard-of-hearing. Yet such conversations may become impossible or tedious with competing noise, such as music or even the blowing fan of a ventilation system. Suddenly, people strain to concentrate on what is said. Eventually, they fall silent and tune out. 

Background sound is the enemy

Damaged hearing systems do not only struggle with processing weakened and unclear sound signals. They have also lost their sound amplification and modulation capabilities to a lesser or greater degree. 

For all of the above reasons, ambient noise becomes fast the enemy of flawless conversation. It leads to the infamous communication divide of hearing sound while not understanding speech. The end result could be misunderstandings and miscommunication at home and on the job. 

Marginalizing the hard-of-hearing

All too often, there is little compassion for those who may “hear and understand” under some circumstances but not under others. Some contend that it all comes down to attitude. I have heard it said that those with hearing loss hear whenever they want to hear. 

And so, it becomes quite easy to marginalize people who are hard-of-hearing and to apply all sorts of unflattering labels to them, such as moody, aloof or asocial.   

Become involved! 

Don’t accept being ignored or pushed aside. That said, hard-of-hearing people must become better and more confident self-advocates. Let others know when and why sound environments interfere with communication both at home and at work. Weigh in when restaurant choices are made. Suggest alternative venues. 

Puzzled and at a loss over how to act and what to do, people such as family members, friends or coworkers will be happy for the help. So, do state your needs and make sure that they are both heard and understood.


For industry Safety Training on Noise-induced Hearing Loss Prevention or for presentations, please see my website: or email at

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To learn about ears and hearing and technology, please see my book on hearing lossWhat Did You Say? An Unexpected Journey into the World of Hearing Loss, now in its second updated edition. Sharing my story and what I had to learn the hard way. Also available on Kindle