How Should I Take That?

Ever scratch your head and wonder what the heck did they mean by that?
Ever scratch your head and wonder what the heck did they meant by that?

Did you know that hearing loss is considered a communication disorder? However, I know plenty of people with normal hearing that seem to have a communication disorder. People have trouble communicating. Either they have the right words to say but the receiver interprets them wrong, or the person has “foot in mouth disease”.

Even more tiresome is the fact that we communicate with far more than our mouths. Our facial expression, body language, even our “vibe” or “aura” communicates something to others. Peter Drucker said, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” Isn’t this the truth? Yet, it is so difficult to master the ability to accurately “hear what isn’t being said”.

I am learning, slowly but surely, to use reflecting – or paraphrasing – when I don’t completely understand what someone said. Either I’m not hearing all the words, or I’m hearing them but they don’t jive with what I’m seeing (either from speech reading or facial expression and body language). Here are some examples:

1. “Oh wow, I can’t believe you’re Deaf! You speak so well!”

While my first, knee-jerk reaction may be to respond: “Oh wow, I can’t believe you said that. You don’t look stupid!”, I try to take in the whole situation. What prompted their statement? Does their facial expression show confusion or delighted discovery? Do they look embarrassed seconds after having diarrhea of the mouth? I try to respond positively.

(small laugh) “Well thank you – I think. Is it your understanding that deaf people cannot speak? You know, most people with hearing loss are not culturally Deaf. They speak perfectly and are adventitiously deaf.”

2. “Why do you need a service dog? You don’t look like anything is wrong with you!”

Again, I try not to wince as I explain, “I’m glad I don’t look like anything is wrong with me, but I have invisible disabilities. Standing here you wouldn’t notice that I fall flat on my face if I try to pick things up that I’ve dropped. You wouldn’t know I have a balance disorder and am deaf by looking at me”.

This usually prompts a repeated brain fart response of #1. Scroll up and re-read.

What if it isn’t “SAID” at all?

Many of us communicate through email, texting, or even FaceBook. It is a whole ‘nuther set of problems when you take something wrong that has been written. We don’t get the extra cues of facial expression or body language. We rely more heavily on context, or what we already know about the person.

I have actually responded to an email or other written communication by asking for clarification. I do indeed have TMI (too much information) disease, but I’m learning to keep it brief. “What did you mean by that?” and then copying the sentence or question that I took wrong or in a negative way. Many times the person re-reads what they wrote and are appalled at how it came across to you. They re-word it, apologize, and you gain a better understanding of what they really meant.

I live in a family of very sarcastic people. We also text a lot. I have a family that is super thankful for unlimited data plans because we’d be homeless if we had to pay for every text kind of gratitude. Despite how much we communicate this way while apart…

SIDE NOTE: I’ll just slap you up side the head if you ever text me when we are standing next to each other.

… sometimes I can’t accurately interpret the meaning when I can’t see their faces. I’ve learned in face-to-face communications that a certain twinkle in the eye, quirk of the lips, or tension from suppressed laughter, means that the family member is being sarcastic.

So I put the gun down.

In texting or email I don’t get that. My usual response?

“Ummm. what?” (Took me a long time to teach auto-correct that for ME, ummm, is really a word).

This allows my family member to repeat in a more direct way. “Say what you mean. Mean what you say” is morphed into “Text what you mean. Mean what you text”. Hey… it works for us!


What happens when you are flat out misunderstood though? You meant well, but someone jumped to the wrong conclusion. They are mad. They took it wrong. You are shaking your head and silently recording into your thinker, “Note to self: Never try to help so-and-so again”. Before you hit SAVE, try giving the person a chance to understand what you REALLY meant by helping, or by what you said.

I have actually said something along the lines of:

I tried to help and only meant to encourage you. You took what I said wrong and that grieves me. I wish you could see my heart and know how I meant for this to be taken. I know you’re mad. I’d like to work this out. Let me know if we can discuss this further.

Nope. It isn’t a guarantee you will make things right. Offering that olive branch may mean that the person grabs it up and smacks you on the head with it. But hey! Who did the right thing? Pop an olive in your mouth, puff that chest out, and walk away with the kind of swagger only those who know they did their part in communicating WELL can do.

Sometimes I wish we were all dogs. I’d always know you meant well if your tail was wagging.

Denise Portis

© 2013 Personal Hearing Loss Journal