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We’ve all heard it before- people saying their family member just has ‘selective hearing’! It can be frustrating to live with someone when it feels like they are ignoring you or choosing not to listen to what you have to say. But what is selective hearing? And how can we deal with it?

Are they being rude?

Some people think that selective hearing is just a way of saying that the person doesn’t want to hear the specific thing you are saying. Perhaps your child conveniently doesn’t hear you when you ask them to tidy their room, but comes running when you suggest getting ice cream! But did you know that selective hearing is a real phenomenon that relates to how the brain processes sound?

It’s all about the brain

The brain is an amazing thing- it is able to take all the sound input that the ears take in from all around you and sort it out into speech, important environmental sounds, sounds that are present but non-essential, and more. This allow you to filter out the sound of your fridge humming to the point where you don’t even notice it anymore. It also allows you to distinguish the words of someone’s speech even in a noisy restaurant or bar. Without these processing skills, we would just hear everything around us as a cacophony of sound, and be unable to choose what sounds are important.

But what is selective hearing?

Selective hearing is a product of this processing. It means that when you are focused on what you are listening to, like the TV, you might not actually register the sound of someone’s voice coming from the next room. Our brains are smart, though. There are certain sounds that are programmed in to ‘cut through’ the noise, like the sound of a baby crying. Somehow, even when there is a lot of noise or even if they are asleep, a mom will hear the cry of her child, even if she doesn’t hear anything else!

Check the hearing first

If selective hearing in your family is bothering you, there are a few tips you can try. However, before anything else, it’s important to check that your family member doesn’t actually have a hearing problem. Encourage adults to have a hearing test, or take your child for one. Often hearing loss can be hidden by behaviour, but if it’s there, it needs to be addressed.

Selective Hearing Tips

Once you are sure that your loved one’s hearing is fine, try these communication strategies to prevent frustration about selective hearing! Get the person’s attention before you speak to them- say their name or make eye contact to draw their attention to you and what you are saying. Give instructions that are short and sweet- often, especially with children, the longer and more complicated the instruction, the less likely they are to take in every part. And finally, always do the best you can to model active listening. When your spouse or child talks to you, give them your full attention and respond appropriately. Communication is a two-way street, and you demonstrating how to listen well can help them learn how to do the same.

Selective hearing can be frustrating, but remember that (most of the time) your loved one isn’t doing it on purpose! It’s just the way that the brain selects and orders the sounds that it is hearing. However, do encourage them to have a hearing test just ensure that there isn’t a hearing problem underlying, and use communication strategies to try and avoid breakdown and conflict. If you’d like some more information about selective hearing, hearing tests, and communication strategies, contact us or comment below.