Is there such a thing as being slow to understand the spoken word?
May 25, 2016 5:42 AM   Subscribe

After yet another work meeting where I left feeling like I was from another planet, I would like to ask if I could possibly improve my understanding of verbal communication.

I struggle to understand speech that contains a lot of information, usually involving the explanation of processes or 'reasons why things are done'. I can't visualise what most people are talking about and my head sort of turns to stone - nothing can get in. If my last meeting was on video, I would have rewound the conversation about 5 times to understand each sentence bit by bit. I always feel like saying 'can you please translate what you said into a diagram or put it in writing so i can 'see' it?' I feel that most people speak far too quickly (or rather, that I am slow to catch what they are saying). It just becomes a mesh of noise.

It's also much harder for me to focus on their words when there are distractions such as their mannerisms, eye contact, movements etc. All I remember from my conversation with my manager is that his eyes are blue, he was occasionally red, he didn't finish his coffee (his coffee was very dark - I could imagine how bitter it tasted), the room was warm, the carpet was awful, he looked at the telephone to check the time, he has a blue tattoo in a nice font on his right arm, he was giddy and happy, the man in the building across the street was on the telephone (there was a canvas in his office) - lots of things that have nothing to do with what my boss actually said. I feel I am deliberately distracting myself because I know I am not going to take anything in.

I am fine with normal, every day conversations. I'm not a great 'responder' - I never know what to say next. That's not because I don't understand what has been said but more that I don't understand what is required in conversation, although that's a separate issue. Perhaps it's because I feel more relaxed (I am not required to learn). I also typically hang around with people who don't require me to speak or understand much because they can speak for England and don't require my input (and I hate speaking - it's a complicated translation process that makes me feel like a robot). That's not to say that I don't speak - I have one or two people I can speak to for ages but usually about 'simple' things like the he said/she said example I gave above, psychology, exchanging ideas etc.

I am fine with understanding the written word but I definitely have to re-read sentences. Still, it's expected that you are "allowed" to take time to understand something that is written, whereas with speech, the pressure is on. You must understand it right now.

In most training sessions, the people i'm with might as well been speaking in Mandarin. There is so much cross talk that don't know what the f~k is going on but they all seem to understand it. My company also has an odd policy of not putting any training in writing. You're meant to just capture it from verbal communication (I do take notes but it's not easy if I don't know what they're saying). It was exactly the same in school which is why I think it's more than just 'some people learn differently' because everyone seems to learn well this way. I just feel completely out of the loop.

Background info: I don't recall ever really speaking as a child (or being spoken to - my dad pretty much outright ignored my existence). I was on my own most of the time (including at school unless in class), so I may be verbally "underdeveloped".

If this is a known thing, what is it called? How does one overcome it? Is there self 'training' I can do? I am in the UK (London, specifically) in case you want to throw the name of any assessment centre my way.

Apologies for the length and thanks.
posted by ihaveyourfoot to Society & Culture (28 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Have you had your hearing checked? Not being able to understand speech at speed is a very common symptom of less-than-perfect hearing.
posted by Etrigan at 5:49 AM on May 25, 2016 [8 favorites]

Yes! This is a thing. I am quick to capture info when written, but things have the tendency to zoom past me when spoken. In fact, I've definitely had to say things like, "Wait, wait. Can I just read the brief/PDF/notes? I'm a better reader-learner than hearing-learner."

And guess what: ADHD. I have it, and I'd never realized that it was the root cause. I'm now treating it with Vyvanse and it's making a huge difference. I'm actually *hearing and processing* what people are saying. I likened it to seeing color for the first time. But, obviously, YMMV.

Another thing that helps me a lot is to stare at the table in front of the speaker (or other inanimate object), let the person say their piece in entirety, take a deep breath and then say, "So what I'm hearing is..." and slowly repeat their main points back to them.

I have been lovingly teased for that move, but man it is effective for me.
posted by functionequalsform at 5:51 AM on May 25, 2016 [14 favorites]

You might also be interested in reading about Sensory Processing Disorder.
posted by ITheCosmos at 5:54 AM on May 25, 2016 [9 favorites]

I have this a bit, not as badly but I did find lectures at university difficult to take in, for example. I find doodling helps me concentrate on what's being said, only trouble is that it's not always appropriate as it can seem rude..
posted by KateViolet at 5:57 AM on May 25, 2016

If I'm driving somewhere new, I can easily memorize a simple map or written directions, but I honestly have _such_ a hard time with spoken directions. I have to visualize them in my mind before I can remember them.

Any speech is really hard for me to digest. I sometimes think it's because there's so much lower information density -- it's hard to focus on the _information_ because it's transmitted at such...a...low...rate; the preponderance of the time is filled with pauses, filler words, grammatical redundancies (which are necessary for communication, but cause it to take more time), time for my responses, etc.

Anyway, you are definitely not alone.

I had to learn college calculus and physics from huge boring textbooks. Lectures were not productive for me...
posted by amtho at 5:59 AM on May 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

There are supposedly three different learning styles (like many educational theories, this is supported by limited empirical evidence).

There's nothing wrong with being a primarily visual or tactile learner, lots of people are, and your company is frankly a bit inflexible/potentially discriminatory/courting disaster when your trainer leaves with all of the training materials in their head if they insist on all-verbal training.

You could volunteer to create some written training materials?
posted by tinkletown at 6:01 AM on May 25, 2016

I taught college classes for several years, first as an adjunct and then as an assistant professor. My students all learned information in different ways: listening, reading, writing, doing, etc. Most students I interacted closely with seemed to have two main ways of learning, and the rest were far less effective. It seemed like most learned by listening as one of their two primary channels, although I did meet several who could not learn by listening at all. So yes, this is a thing.

My university had a really good tutoring lab, and I referred most of my students who I knew could not learn well by listening to the lab to learn better ways of taking notes. Only a couple took advantage of this, but it seemed like those who did benefited, because they were turning the spoken information into written information, which they could learn either through the act of writing it or by reading it. It seems counter-intuitive, but those who could learn to take notes somewhat "automatically" without really understanding what they were hearing, then could learn from what they wrote later.
posted by OrangeDisk at 6:06 AM on May 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

You might have a long processing time. People with that take longer to figure out what's being said, but once they get it, they fully get it -- they're not less intelligent than other people, they just need a minute more to understand what they're hearing. This is something a neurologist would determine (if you were in the US, dunno about other places).
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:21 AM on May 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yes. Auditory Processing Disorder is a thing. Language Processing Disorder has been described as a specific subtype of that. For many people these issues may also be tangled up with ADHD or other sensory processing disorders as mentioned upthread.

You said you're in the UK - the NHS has a page about auditory processing disorders here with some links to other resources.

Even though APD is not believed to be related to a physical problem with the ear the UK's National Deaf Children's Society has a decent list of links and resources on the topic. The first few are more about kids, but scroll down to see some useful stuff.
posted by Wretch729 at 6:24 AM on May 25, 2016 [10 favorites]

Yes, this is a thing for sure. It has no relationship to how intelligent you are. I have (adult) students who experience difficulty with processing verbal info, and I have also had issues with this. They, and I, find it helpful to take notes while listening. Even just the act of writing seems to help, but it's nice to have notes to refer back to as well.

One thing that helped me personally was "training" my ear and brain by listening to interesting educational podcasts (CBC, BBC, ABC Australia, NPR all have ones that tend to work well). I wasn't intending this result--it was just a pleasant side effect of listening to podcasts I thought were interesting. The nice thing was, I could re-listen multiple times if I didn't catch something.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 6:38 AM on May 25, 2016

This is definitely a thing and could be from a combination of different challenges you've got that have gone as-yet unnoticed.

Definitely get your hearing tested. You might think this is silly because you can hear just fine, but auditory issues aren't just a question of on/off. Many people have lots of trouble processing specific streams of information when there is other noise happening (so a conversation in a noisy restaurant, for example, or listening to music while the water is running for doing dishes). People also can have variable hearing in different ranges, so a higher pitched voice is vastly more comprehensible than a lower pitched voice, or vice versa. And if you have always had hearing problems that have gone undiagnosed, especially if they have gotten slowly but progressively worse, that can result in a lot of mental stress and difficulty in many seemingly unrelated areas of development. Also, adults should get their hearing tested more often than they usually do - and if you have auditory comprehension issues it's important to tell your doctor this so they know what to test for.

You might also be on the autistic spectrum. Your focus on very specific visuals in your memory and the way talking feels like translation really pings some of that for me. Autistic people are a very wide range and there are lots of different techniques for people to try for learning and expressing information in a way that other people will comprehend and respect. And even if you aren't on the spectrum, a lot of these suggested methods of coping and learning are worth a try anyway and can often be helpful.

For example, a friend of mine took her therapist's suggestion to break daily processes down into teeny tiny steps and illustrate them with images (mostly cobbled together from word processor art) and laminate them. She's got like fifteen steps for "make coffee" including "think about if you would like coffee" "yes, you would like coffee!" "Now you have to open the cupboard where you keep your coffee" and so on. This is because part of her challenges include straight up forgetting where she is in a pattern when distracted by something she is currently interested in. I saw how well this worked for her and made up my own pictorial instructions for something I have trouble with - a nightly bed routine - and it has worked well for me, even though I am not on the autistic spectrum. (We all wondered, though, but my psychiatrist says nope.)

There might be some other brain stuff going on for you, like ADHD or some unprocessed trauma that is making lots of different stressful triggers for you in your daily life. And you could have some of these combined with a distinct preference for the visual and aversion for the spoken, which is well within the range of human normal. But I doubt there will be a clear cut answer and method of treatment. You should absolutely take this seriously though, because it is a quality of life issue beyond it being a sticking point at work.

Apart from medical assessment, you might be able to practice by listening to podcasts, poetry readings, and plays. Read up on plot summaries for the plays beforehand so you feel less lost. But this might be a way to ease you into focusing on the sound of language instead of the details accompanying it.

Best of luck. I am going through the process of dealing with my own hearing issues and it is quite the challenge.
posted by Mizu at 6:39 AM on May 25, 2016 [7 favorites]

Once you've figured out a method or methods that work for you to better absorb information, please do not hesitate to explain this to your boss. It needn't be a big deal, as functionequalsform noted above with his/her method of concentrating by fixing on an inanimate object. Other folks are more likely to get where you're coming from if you actually tell them!
posted by wwartorff at 7:24 AM on May 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Might be worth looking into dyslexia.
posted by Middlemarch at 7:25 AM on May 25, 2016

Just seconding (central) auditory processing disorder as one one avenue to investigate; this sounds very similar to some kids I worked with in grad school (audiology). Even if you wind up testing within normal range on diagnostic evaluations, they may be able to suggest some compensatory strategies that you could try.

I remember someone working with a kid who had a similar problem with being distracted by visual information; I think they arranged for specifical seating off to the side, so he wasn't distracted by his teacher's movement around the classroom. I think the teacher also tried keeping the section of the board in front of him blank. Can you try keeping your eyes on you're notes (without appearing rude)? You could create a standard form with some structure (maybe date, general topic, and blocks for different sub topics) so you don't have a complete blank page staring at you (unless that's helpful). Ideally you could get an agenda prior to or at the start of each session.
posted by ghost phoneme at 7:33 AM on May 25, 2016

With the caveat that I'm not in nearly the auditory black hole that you describe, I'm going to nth the idea of trying notetaking. I never took notes in school, because everything I needed to learn was in the textbook and I could learn it from there, but I've learned at work that it's extremely useful for me to bring a notebook and write the important stuff down, especially if someone is asking me to do something.

Also, rudely interrupting to ask questions has been useful for me, though it may or may not be helpful for you. In all the words, there are usually only a small number of important things. Getting someone to summarize the important points at the end of the meeting so that you can write them down might also be helpful.
posted by clawsoon at 8:15 AM on May 25, 2016

Would it help to force auditory input into text by taking copious notes?
posted by uberchet at 8:20 AM on May 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Would your company be comfortable with your recording at least formal trainings, so you can listen to them again later?
posted by praemunire at 8:35 AM on May 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am exactly like you describe and the most helpful things for me have been note-taking (ideally with paper, so you can do diagrams instead of words as needed), ADHD meds, being very interested in the topic, and getting enough sleep. Not necessarily in that order.

Still a work in progress, though - I mostly just accept it as a major limitation and try to work around it, e.g. telling people I have trouble absorbing a lot of words at once, and ideally finding another way to learn the information being talked about.
posted by randomnity at 9:08 AM on May 25, 2016

nthing note taking.

I have great difficulty following someones description of a process - whether in a meeting or one on one - and so I take notes. I write down virtually everything they say without trying to understand it, just writing it out word by word. Later I read my own notes and usually "get it".

Also doing this helps me not to get distracted by the surrounding details (eg clothes, the room, etc). I write down everything everyone says. Doodling can be iffy - if someone notices it can draw unwanted attention.

Obviously this strategy will only work if you are not required to respond right away to someones contribution in a meeting but it works very well for me in the larger type meetings when no one expects me to reply.
If the meeting requires me to contribute verbally, I bring my own notes, where I write down virtually everything re the project we are involved in. The I can look it up and use the notes to shape my reply. These notes are really detailed and exhaustive, and contain much more than i will be asked so I do not get caught off guard.

I also take notes in a one on ones with boss, and I found they do not mind in the least. On the contrary, they appreciate it. I usually have some sort of regular reporting meetings with my boss/bosses so I take my exhaustive notes and lists that I prepared and report from them and refer to the notes when they ask me questions.

Sometimes I do get caught off guard of course, and then I write it down and promise to get back - which is fine the majority of the time as most of the time I can reply.
posted by 15L06 at 9:19 AM on May 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

This is a common trait of autism as well as ADHD. I am mostly fine so long as there's only one speaker at a time or in mediated class discussion with speaker's lists but as soon as it's a busier environment (bars are the WORST) or the spoken content becomes more technical, it's like everyone is moving at 100% and I'm stuck at 90%.. then 80%... and I just fall more and more behind. I find it impossible to ask questions because it's not that I don't understand the content of the words but that the words themselves aren't recognizable. Sometimes my processing starts up halfway through a sentence so I'll only have the last bit and then I'll get the first bit suddenly ~10 seconds later so it's important for me to "expect" who is going to be speaking and when so I can focus on them and be "ready". I find that speech processing is much harder when I am already stressed/tired or when I am dealing with someone who makes a lot of sound without actually saying anything of value.

I can up my speech processing by basically abandoning visual processing (zoning out and staring at something hopefully harmless like the wall a couple inches to the right of the speaker's head) and by limiting the amount of speech processing I do for fun (listening only to instrumental music when I am home, no TV and no podcasts). Taking notes helps not just so I can review it later but in terms of actually getting my brain to understand the words. I find that pushing myself to do more leads to the problem getting worse not better which is annoying because I basically have to treat myself super gently and restrict my activities in order to have enough energy for when I HAVE to understand words. I had some success with ADHD meds and napping when I got home but that stopped working when my stress levels got higher.

Since this is a work-related issue, I would say the best solution would be to get your work to put their training in writing or to record the training sessions so you can listen to them later. There's no guarantee they'll actually do it but it's worth asking for. Other than that, take notes and figure out who is safe to ask for clarification when you realize you've missed something.
posted by buteo at 9:23 AM on May 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: This is great information! I really appreciate your insights.

My hearing has actually lessened a tad in my right ear and I haven't seen anyone about it. I did have this problem as a kid, though but I think you might be on the right path with this because it's also the hearing I find confusing. I wonder 'did I hear everything or am I just not taking this in?' I can't explain how utterly stupid it makes me feel when everyone else 'gets it'.

Thanks a lot for the NHS info. I am concerned about visiting my doctor/using the NHS because there is the sense that unless your issue is 'serious' (i.e. you're dying), you're getting in the way. I will go to the GP to let her know about both the loss of hearing and the fact that it may be affecting my ability to perceive information. SPD, APD, Dyslexia and Autism are not things I had even considered so I will look into those. I wondered about ADHD as focusing is so hard but i've never been 'checked'.

I appreciate the tips. I am completely going to try to stare into a blank space or at a table. It's tricky because it looks 'rude' and will make me look very odd but looking into people's eyes is very distracting. I don't take anything in. Thanks also for the podcast tip. I do listen to them but just WTF, that sort of thing. I'll look out for more educational ones.

The issue with taking notes is that it requires me to hear and understand what they're saying in the first place. In my old work place their training was visual and verbal so if you didn't capture what they said, a process-map was typed out for you to follow. I wonder if i've been a little 'babied' or spoilt because of it? I have managed to get the team to provide more written information and that has been taken on board. Nothing feels concrete or clear otherwise.

Thanks again. I feel slightly less stupid.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 9:44 AM on May 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

APD is a controversial thing and it's more or less impossible to differentially diagnose from other modalities like ADHD or learning disability without extensive testing by a team of professionals. It's more common to eliminate ADHD as a confounding factor for APD by simply treating you for APD with medication and seeing if that helps.

It sounds much more likely that you would have something closer to APD than SPD or Dyslexia. SPD is confined to non-auditory domains, and dyslexia is more typically considered when there are concomitant reading and writing problems. Autism diagnoses usually involve some social skills component.

The reason it's easy to throw out a bunch of cognitive conditions and say "maybe this!" is because these conditions have a lot of overlap in presentation, signs and symptoms. You should go see an audiologist and psychiatrist.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:56 AM on May 25, 2016

Have you looked into smartpens? there are a number of pens on the market that will record what is being said while you are taking notes, and synch up that audio with the notes you are taking. You will be able to unobtrusively have a recording of the session, and if you make brief notes about what each part of the meeting was about, then you can access and review each topic later.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:33 PM on May 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Mr MMDP is like this with processing information, instructions and tasks to varying degrees. He was evaluated just a few years back for dyslexia but the report suggested dyspraxia was the issue. He is bright, articulate, easily distracted, stumbles over commonplace task-oriented processes and gets frustrated on a regular basis.

Re: going to the GP / NHS - I'm sure the GP will be able to signpost suitable help but as a datapoint Mr MMDP was assessed following issues at work and it was done via his employer's occupational health team.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 12:40 PM on May 25, 2016

I don't have any advice for you, but I just wanted to add that you are definitely not alone in this, as others have also noted. I'm glad you asked this question because I experience a lot of this myself and, like you, start to feel really down on myself about it, affecting my esteem and confidence. Hang in there!
posted by foxhat10 at 4:26 PM on May 25, 2016

I don't have a problem to this extent, but I definitely get distracted by visuals and I also miss things sometimes when listening to people. I always follow up phone conversations and meetings with emails confirming the net result of our conversations and the key points we discussed, otherwise I may remember something we discussed but miss/forgot what we ultimately decided on. I also take a lot of notes on conference calls and in meetings. If I didn't take notes, I'd get absolutely nothing out of them.

Do you take notes of key words, numbers, etc. that jump out? Looking down at your pad of paper may help you to listen and focus on the audio and less on what's happening around you. You could also try a variant of the old salesman technique when uncomfortable where you look at someone's brow rather than directly into their eyes -- maybe look at the wall past the person speaking.

If you can't even take notes because you're unable to process the information, have you ever considered bringing a digital recorder to meetings so you can listen back to just the audio? Something like this works great, I have one.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:13 PM on May 25, 2016

Yup - Auditory Processing Disorder. I have it. That's what it sounds like to me.

I'd get your hearing checked, and if your hearing is normal, you might have something like this instead. At least for me, as it's documented, I'm able to get accommodation for it as a student, in that I can get lectures taped.

I don't know if this is something that can be asked for in the workplace.
posted by spinifex23 at 12:42 AM on May 26, 2016

It is good to see in your response that you will see your GP and discuss this. I wanted to add that even if your GP does not bring it up on their own, I would ask about a referral to Neuropsychological testing (I'm not sure how this works in the UK). Whether it is APD, ADHD, LD, ASD (autism spectrum disorder) or something else, the starting point for treatment should be a good diagnosis, for which I think Neuropsych testing would be essential for this in addition to getting your hearing tested.
posted by thewildgreen at 1:01 AM on May 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

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