Do You HEAR Me?

Janet Siroto
May 29, 2018

In today’s world of email and texting, it’s easy to forget that hearing another person’s voice is one of the most elemental and important forms of connection that we have. Did you know that most of us have been hearing since we were in the womb—before we could see anyone in the outside world, touch them, or smell them? Over a lifetime of listening, we tend to catalog and interpret clues from a speaker’s face, body, and voice that combine to tell us what they are really saying.

The Hidden Language of Hearing

As we hear, we are listening for more than just words; we develop a certain emotional intelligence and ability to read between the lines. Research with hearing-impaired children has borne this out. In a study that tested the ability to identify facial emotion, kids with “normal” hearing did much better than those who were deaf. (This is not to say that the deaf are forever doomed to having less-rich emotional lives than the hearing. Other senses adapt and non-verbal cues combine to form our experience and perception of emotion.)

Our sense of hearing, it seems, is closely tied to emotional learning. To illustrate: Just think of how a comment sent in an email, bereft of tone or context (not counting emojis), is a ticking time bomb of possible misunderstandings and offense. (That same comment said aloud in a meeting would get you laughs.) Or remember when someone told your childhood self, “I don’t like your tone.” (Hey, all you said was “Thanks a lot.”)

When Our Hearing Range Recedes

Absent one sense, the others step up. When we’re talking on the phone and can’t see each other, we listen carefully for tone of voice. When someone doesn’t seem to register the nuances and subtleties of human interaction, we say they’re a little “tone-deaf.” Unfortunately, progressive hearing loss is often a given as we age. And the disconnect that ensues has been shown to lead to feelings of isolation and a lesser quality of life in the elderly. It can negatively impact overall health, via depression, anxiety, and cognitive decline.

That makes sense: Hollering down the phone line, “Can you hear me?” and “What?” back and forth is certainly frustrating. And beyond that, whatever item of info you meant to transmit wasn’t communicated—that, say, you’re not showing up for a planned meeting or that the listener needs to pick up a carton of milk on the way home. The opportunity to communicate is lost; potentially, the gulf between us grows.

The Secret of Synchronicity

You talk; I listen. It seems so simple, right? Actually, our brains seem to synchronize during a two-way conversation. According to a Princeton University study that measured brain activity in both someone telling a story and the listener, not only does the listener’s brain mirror the activity of the talker’s gray matter with a slight delay, but there’s also an anticipatory response. The scientists called this “coupling,” and the better it was, the greater the comprehension.

Perhaps this is why saying to someone “I hear you” has become, in American culture, an affirmation, a statement of support. Beyond being a statement of fact (that the sound waves of your voice reached and vibrated my ear drums and created patterns of meaning), it’s a validation. So the next time someone says to you, “I hear what you’re saying,” know (or hope) that they really do understand you.

Bridging the Gap

Because the value of hearing a voice is so important, if you are having a hard time decoding sounds (or notice that a loved one is having issues), don’t accept it and sink into silence. Doctors, apps for your cell phone, and simple lifestyle adjustments (having a conversation at a subdued tea salon vs. a clattering Starbucks) can make all the difference in connecting.  Given how critical it is to hear the words and the tone of voice  – and share in that moment – it’s an experience well worth fighting for.