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I'm fairly certain that I have audio processing disorder - basically, I can hear sounds just fine, but I seriously struggle with comprehending what I hear, as I will often misunderstand words or have pauses when my language processing seems to "lag" (I might say "sorry, I didn't catch that?" and then right after the words are out of my mouth my brain catches up and I understand what they originally said). In particular, I have trouble distinguishing "foreground" sounds from background sounds and speaking with people who have accents different than mine (even mild ones) and that speak in lower tones (sometimes I can understand one person who has an accent but not another that has the same accent). I have trouble mapping the sounds that I hear to the words and when speaking with someone with an accent I try to listen very intently but often have to ask them to repeat just about every other sentence. It's even worse when background noises and accents are combined.

When speaking with someone who has an accent, I feel like I have to ask for repetitions enough that it's rude, and I feel embarrassed at how much I struggle. I also just moved from the West coast (US) to the East coast, and I will be starting my first job out of college, so I want to leave a good impression. I am a native English speaker, and I have no problems understanding written English.

I normally handle it by trying to sound apologetic and saying something along the lines of "I'm sorry, I'm having trouble hearing you" or "I'm sorry, I have difficulties understanding accents" and asking them to repeat or speak slower or louder, but that can be very tedious with longer interactions, and I can see how much it can be exhausting for someone to interact with. I will also need to have verbal communication at work with people from different backgrounds than mine, and during my last internship there was a manager visiting from India who tried to ask me for directions and spent several minutes trying to explain to me what they were looking for until another coworker intervened and helped them out right away.

How can I politely handle my verbal comprehension struggles (particularly inside the workplace) without frustrating people or having to find outside help?

  • Are you by any chance a visual thinker? I.e. someone that thinks in pictures, rather than words? Especially if you do so exclusively, it would affect your ability to deal with noise and variations in pronunciation. – Sazanami Jul 2 '18 at 5:41
  • Unfortunately I am not a very visual thinker; just a visual learner. I think I remember word sounds through kind of "recordings", and some of my struggle with accents is that sometimes the sounds are different enough from the "recording." To use a computer metaphor, it's like the parser for my audio driver was poorly written and it helps cause a high rate of cache misses in my CPU that cause segfaults. – FishFloat Jul 5 '18 at 21:15
  • Never heard of this before. Are you diagnosed with something? If so, can I have the name of it? Would like to look more into the problem itself. – JBis Jul 10 '18 at 4:14
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Background: I live in the northeast U.S., I assume I am about the same age range, and I am deaf, with cochlear implants. I often speak for myself, but struggle to understand what others say. I've been in many similar situations where I ask them to repeat what they say, repeatedly (This sometimes embarrasses me and annoys others). I believe I also have an audio processing delay, where exactly what you describe happens:

"I will often misunderstand words or have pauses when my language processing seems to "lag" (I might say "sorry, I didn't catch that?" and then right after the words are out of my mouth my brain catches up and I understand what they originally said)."

I also struggle with accents, because in addition to sounding differently, they move their lips differently than native English-speakers, so it causes difficulty with lipreading.

That being said, I have encountered many, many situations where after asking them to repeat themselves at least twice, people either look at me weird or say "never mind", and look/walk away. The people who really want to or need to socialize with me, regardless of my struggles will stick and have patience with me. Those are the two general kinds of interactions I've encountered - those who are patient and those who are not.

For interacting with those who are not patient, I will try to be "extra" engaging with them, maintaining eye contact, laugh a little, say

"I'm sorry, I really, really want to talk with you, I am just having a hard time understanding you, because of... (background noise, accents, etc)."

Adding emphasis that you are not trying to be weird or avoid interaction, by asking them to repeat themselves may help them get that it is just your struggle, and you simply just need a tiny bit more patience to work out what you both want to say.

For deaf people, (in my experience) what works best is having a different form of communication ready, if you need it. Most of the time, if they need to interact with you for work reasons, you can absolutely ask them if they don't mind using another form of communication.

"If you don't mind, I have a (pad+pencil/pen, X communication app, etc) that will ensure that we can communicate a bit more smoother, can we use that instead?"

Maybe even before the conversation begins, ask:

"Can we exchange numbers so that if I don't understand you, you can easily text me what you wanted to tell me, so that communication flows better?"

They will be happy to have a easily accessible and consistent form of communication. Here are some ideas for written communication:

Texting app (get the other person's number, and text back and forth) If the other person doesn't have a number, nothing wrong with a good old fashioned pen/pencil and paper, or if you prefer digital communication, you can use your notes/notepad app.

There are some android and IOS apps for more visual communication, like Glide.

That aside, my emphasis on how to ask them is be confident. Let them know that you communicate best with people you have a harder time understanding over digital or physical written communication, and once they understand that, there shouldn't be a problem, and you could even ask them if they don't mind writing down what they are saying, then you can speak for yourself?

"I may not catch what you say the first few times, so if that happens, can you write down what I am missing, and we can continue our conversation?"

Good communicators do take the effort to accommodate each other, so I don't consider it embarrassing to ask for just a little extra effort. It pays off in the end, and you both walk away happy and in clear understanding of each other!

I hope this helps!

EDIT

After looking around more, I found a question that is related to your concern, and may help you find the answer you need.

How to minimize embarrassment when I ask a question but they nod and smile?

Found another question related to your concerns!

How to politely ask someone to repeat themselves

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I have the exact same issue,

My hearing is actually good, I can hear a phone ringing over a loud television etc. and will often be telling my GF her phone is ringing when she can not here it.

However, I am constantly saying 'What?!?' to my GF, and then before she repeats what she is saying it will click, and I can respond.

My solution to this in my work environment is very simple.

When some is talking to me I will completely stop whatever else I am doing, listen to what they say, and simply wait before I give a response. Its the classic, think before you speak.

And by waiting i feel I give better clarity in responses. In my younger years I would be anxious about this, and sometimes just give a response without truly understanding what had just been said to me, and my responses were not always in tune with the conversation.

Seriously the wait will not put people off, people value a though out response more than idle generic mumbo jumbo replies. And by rushing I felt like i tended to agree vocally with A LOT more than I actually morally agreed with.

Do not overthink this, I also get a lot of people saying 'What?!?' to me, as to make life even more fun, I having an annoying thick brummie accent (birmingham, UK)

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