Friends of the Nonverbal Communication Blog, this week we present the paper “Nonverbal synchrony in subjects with hearing impairment and their significant others”, by Völter, C.; Oberländer, K.; Mertens, S. and Ramseyer, F. T. (2022), in which authors carry out a study to know which is the level of nonverbal synchrony between people with hearing problems and their partners, or, in general, their loved ones.

Hearing impairment is the third most common chronic disease and has numerous effects on physical, mental and social health, causing a decrease in quality of life in up to 49% of those affected.

Effective communication, which is crucial for social interaction, is very difficult for people with hearing impairment (hereafter referred to as PHI), and can lead to frustration and resentment, which in turn can affect the quality of social interaction.

The problems are numerous and include misunderstandings in communication in general and, more specifically, changes in the frequency and/or type of communication. Conversations are often hampered by loss of spontaneity and difficulty in sharing unexpected small observations in everyday interactions, which has a strong impact on marital relationships, for example. 

It seems that, regarding the communicative relationship between PHIs and their partners, there are three specific risk factors: first, relationship satisfaction; then, the age difference between the couples; and finally, the perception of typically hearing partners about the disability of the other

Because of this, research is trying to propose specific interventions to help PHIs and their significant others to implement more effective coping strategies in their relationships, since interpersonal synchrony is fundamental for human beings, among other things, to constitute social connections and feelings of understanding.

These processes are essential for our development in the social world; in fact, one of the benefits of nonverbal synchrony is that it works as a kind of “social glue” that strengthens the connection between people. And it is important to note that this nonverbal coordination generally occurs in the absence of conscious control. 

In the last decade, nonverbal synchrony has received increasing attention from different areas. For example, from psychotherapy. Nonverbal synchrony provides valuable information about the patient-therapist relationship and their engagement with the sessions. 

Authors mention that an objective method to measure synchrony is motion energy analysis (MEA). Through a certain software, the amounts of pixels changing in the frames are summed and simple approximations of the motion are extracted. 

Until now, the synchrony of nonverbal communication between PHIs and their loved ones has rarely been the focus of research, being related, moreover, to aural rehabilitation. 

One observation obtained a few years ago, in a 2005 study, indicated that if a person perceived their partner’s hearing loss to be low, the relationship was significantly better, with the opposite occurring if the person perceived the impairment to be greater.

In general terms, understanding the etiology of the problem and being able to express emotions and have some nonverbal synchrony seems to be essential for good interpersonal relationships. 

For this research, the authors gathered a total of 39 hearing impaired adults and their significant others. The couples were asked to talk, during 10 minutes and being recorded, about an imaginary party they were going to organize together. 

The results yielded interesting findings. For example, it appears that couples formed between a hearing impaired person and a person with typical hearing ability possess a nonverbal synchrony comparable to the nonverbal synchrony between two people without hearing impairment, and is higher than that generally reported in psychotherapy sessions.

For the data on healthy people and psychotherapy sessions, several studies noted in the original article, from 2011, 2014, and 2021, were taken as references.

The authors’ interpretation, considering this finding, is that many hearing-impaired people have been able to experience a withdrawal from certain social activities and therefore, their social efforts have been able to be devoted more to strengthening their close relationships. 

In addition, it is interesting to note that in heterosexual couples in which the hearing-impaired person is a man, the one who took the communicative leadership position was the female partner. This may reflect that the impact of hearing impairment is greater in these couples.

Another interesting fact is that in couples with a small age difference there is an even greater synchrony. 

Authors point out that more effort and resources are needed to investigate how the communication skills, both verbal and nonverbal, of hearing impaired people can be improved so that they can enjoy a quality of life similar to those with typical hearing ability.

If you want to know more about nonverbal behavior and how it affects personal relationships, visit our Master of Science in Nonverbal and Deceptive Behavior, which you can take in English or Spanish, with special grants for readers of the Nonverbal Communication Blog.

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