Stuttering: Part 3 of 3 – How to talk to a stutterer

This is the third and final part of my stuttering series of posts in aid of International Stuttering Awareness which is today, Tuesday 22nd October. You can view the first two parts here.

Stuttering Part 1 of 3 – My Stutter
Stuttering Part 2 of 3 – Working on my speech

In terms of awareness of stuttering I think it’s something that can always be improved. Many people used to think that people who stuttered were actually less competent in other areas too or less intelligent in some ways. Hopefully the recent public media coverage of people like Gareth Gates and Scottish Rugby Captain Kelly Brown has helped to diffuse this. The movie The King’s Speech also helped to highlight what stuttering is actually like and off the back of that many people have learnt that stuttering has affected lots of other famous people in the past such as Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe, Joe Biden, Rowan Atkinson, Bruce Willis, Sam Neill, James Earl Jones and many others.

But for people who don’t stutter I think it can still be very hard to know how to talk to a stutterer. This is something I never used to think about. I was so worried about what my speech would be like and what the listener would think of me that I was never aware that the listener might be just as scared about speaking to me! I used to avoid friends when I saw them walking down the street, not because I didn’t like them but just because I didn’t want to have the embarrassment of stuttering in front of them. But I’m sure now that some people probably avoided me because they felt uncomfortable when talking to me. Not everybody of course but I do realise that it must be hard for some non-stutterers when they speak to stutterers. So I thought it would be useful to write a brief guide for how to speak to a stutterer, to remove some of the stigma and help explain some of the mysteries. Bear in mind, however, that there are no hard and fast rules. Every stutterer is different and every stutter is different. But these are some general guidelines.

Eye contact
Try to keep eye contact with the speaker if you can. I know from my experience that if my listener looked away it made me think they were getting embarrassed and that would then make me feel worse.

Try not to interrupt
A stutterer often has to build up to a word. They can have a breathing technique or certain tricks that lead up to them getting their word out. If you interrupt while they are starting their sequence it can mean they have to stop and start again. Sadly this also meant that I often used to interrupt people because I had a 3 second build up to getting my first word out and if someone else starting speaking in those three seconds I used to just carry on going for my sentence and talk over them which could be quite rude at times. Other times I would just stop and give up. So just try to give them enough time to get their words out.

Avoid jokes
In the past people often used to laugh in front of me when I spoke to them. I know now that a lot of the time it is actually just nervous laughter. They might just not be expecting dysfluent speech and it can just be a natural reaction to smile and laugh. Obviously it’s preferable not to laugh though. But some people would consciously make jokes to try to be lighthearted about it. Sadly the majority of stutterers can’t really joke about it. They even cringe when the word ‘stutter’ is used when describing the hurdles in athletics for example. They’re not ready to laugh at jokes about it. I’m absolutely fine with jokes myself now but that’s only because I’ve been able to gain control and turn my speech into a positive thing because of the things I’ve done since attending The McGuire Programme.

Saying the word for them?
This is the one that everyone asks me. Should you say the word for them? It depends. Generally I would say no, but not always. It’s a judgement call. Having to be helped to say words can be very humiliating, especially if the listener keeps doing it whenever the speaker has a slight struggle on any word. However, again speaking personally, there were times where I was really struggling to get a word out and I would really hope that the listener would say it for me, just so I could get through it and move on. So it depends. If they are really really struggling then you can choose to go ahead and help them if you want to and obviously if you do it with respect.

Be a good listener
The bottom line is that it’s just all about putting the speaker at ease and showing them that the stutter doesn’t bother you at all. A stutterer’s stutter is such a big thing to them that it consumes almost every waking moment and we assume that it is a big deal to everyone else too. What I have found, however, is that most people have big enough problems of their own and someone struggling on a few words really isn’t a big deal to them. If you can convey this in your body language and eye contact then you will help to put the speaker at ease. Simple things like repeating a few words back to the speaker, whilst nodding, to show you have been listening can help them know that the communication process is indeed working. And try to avoid asking them to repeat something unless you really have to. It can be quite a big effort for a stutterer to repeat themselves!

So I hope that these three blog posts have helped to raise a little bit more awareness of what stuttering is and how it can affect people. For more general information please go to http://www.stammering.org/ or for more information about the course that has helped me with my speech please go to http://www.mcguireprogramme.com/.

Please also see a blog post I wrote today for the LEWIS PR Blog about Communications with Stuttering.

 

Stuttering: Part 2 of 3 – Working on my speech

This is the second post I am writing this week in aid of International Stuttering Awareness Day which is on 22nd October. You can read Part 1 from yesterday here.

Over the years in my youth I tried many forms of speech therapy. NHS speech therapists, private tuition, books. My parents spent a lot of time, money and energy on help and support for me. A lot of it did help. For a while. But nothing really helped me in the real world. It might help in the therapy session but it wouldn’t last. And a lot of it felt like I was just using new tricks in order to avoid the stutter. I learnt that often that just made me even more afraid of the stutter. Speech therapy is fantastic for things like stroke victims or trauma patients where the problem is more physical, but for me my stutter always came back to the psychological elements like the fear.

When I was about 18 I basically gave up and thought I would just stutter for the rest of my life. But then when I graduated from Uni when I was about 24 I thought I would give it one last attempt before I entered the big wide world. I heard about The McGuire Programme and gave it a go and it was the one that has really helped me ever since. I don’t want to just make this an advert for the McGuire Programme as there are many good courses out there but McGuire has certainly been the only one that has helped me. It’s unique in that it is totally run by other people who have stuttered and who know what it is like deep down inside to have a stutter. And also it has an incredible support network where you can go to local support groups or ring hundreds of coaches around the world day or night just for speech practice.

A McGuire student giving a public speech

The approach that helped me gain control of my speech was two-fold. Physical and psychological. A stammer is fuelled by the fear. That fear then manifests itself in a physical way by making your speaking tools tense up. Your diaphragm, your vocal chords and your articulators (mouth, lips, teeth, tongue). This makes you have a physical speech block. You then get strange looks from your listener which gives you more negative emotions and then the fear increases. Thus the negative cycle continues and gets worse every time.

Learning Costal Breathing helped me gain control of my diaphragm which is the real engine of speech. Smooth airflow leads to smooth speech. Coastal breathing is like how you breath when you yawn or after taking exercise. It’s a very natural and powerful way to breath and it helped me gain control of my diaphragm which had been previously trained to contract due to the fear. This and other speech tools that I could use when I had to, helped me to start speaking in control. When you then combine this with fear reduction methods and new habits of non-avoidance you very quickly start to change your whole speaking mindset.

After 3 days on the course I was giving a public speech in the middle of Durham town centre. After a few weeks and months I was in control and doing things I never thought I would ever do. I’ve spoken on stage, and even acted. I’ve been interviewed on Radio like this one here and also on TV. And more important than any of these achievements is the fact that I now don’t have to live in the fear of having to speak. I don’t need to worry weeks before a big work situation. I know I can handle any challenge that life throws at me. That’s a good feeling to have. Public speaking is the no.1 fear in people whether they have a stutter or not. But I now enjoy it. I actually enjoy speaking now. I never thought I would be able to say that. Literally.

There is no cure for stuttering. But that’s fine. You only have cures for diseases or illnesses. That’s not what stuttering is. It’s a learned behaviour. A negative habit. We’re not stupid or physically defected. We’re not patients or victims. I consider myself someone who is just improving at the sport of speaking. That keeps me positive.

When I was younger I used to wish every night that I would wake up and my stutter would be gone. That it would magically disappear. Obviously it never happened but in a way I’m glad it didn’t happen. If it had mysteriously disappeared one day I would probably then have lived in the fear that it might come back just as quickly one day. The fact that I have worked hard on my speech, have slowly improved my speech and I understand what is happening in my speech means that I have earned my recovery and that I know it is reliable. I’ve built a foundation that isn’t just going to fall apart out of the blue.

I’m not fluent, but I don’t label myself as a stutterer. That would be restrictive. I’m just someone who has had a bad stutter who is continuously improving with their speech. Some days I speak great and don’t have to think too much about it. Other days I need to focus more. I can still stutter or block sometimes. I don’t get negative about that because I know exactly what to do to keep working at it, like a golfer who keeps working at his swing to keep it consistent. I know I enjoy speaking and I know what I can now do with my speech. I have no pressure to be fluent or to speak perfectly but I know within myself what I can do and that keeps me working on my speech even more.

Having passed the exams on the McGuire Programme to become a coach, a course instructor and a staff trainer I have been able to attend many of the courses and meet many other people who also have stutters. I’ve travelled to places like The Netherlands, Sweden, South Africa and Australia attending courses and keep meeting the same types of people who inspire me. Stuttering can affect anyone. It doesn’t matter your age, your background, your education, your religion, your nationality or your intelligence. Everyone is at the same level. And it’s fascinating meeting other people from all walks of life who are also working hard on their speech.

My stutter used to be a majorly negative thing in my life but now it is a positive. The process of recovering from my stutter has made me a stronger and a better person. Struggle does make you stronger and I’m enjoying the journey.

Tomorrow I will be writing about advice on how to speak to someone who has a stutter.

Stuttering: Part 1 of 3 – My Stutter

This Tuesday, October 22nd, is International Stuttering Awareness Day and I thought I would write a few personal blog posts about my own experience of having a bad stutter. Part 1 will be about my stutter, Part 2 tomorrow will be about how I have worked on my speech and Part 3 on Tuesday will be about how to speak to someone with a stutter. People often don’t know too much about stutters and I thought it would be good to help get some more awareness out there as it helps everyone involved.

People often think that a stutter is just the repetition of sounds, getting stuck on a word or physically contorting your face to get the words out. A good way to describe what a stutter is actually like is that it’s like an iceberg. The bit above the surface is all the things you can see. But the bigger, heavier part of the stutter is under the surface. Things you can’t see like the emotions of fear, embarrassment, shame, guilt, self-hate and also other tricks such as changing words or avoiding situations.

I used to go to various lengths to avoid speaking or avoid certain words. If I was in the house on my own I would often unplug the phone just so that I didn’t have to answer it. If someone rang the doorbell I would run upstairs and hide so that I didn’t have to speak to them. When getting a train I would often ask for a return ticket even though I wanted a single, just because it was easier to say. So stuttering can be an expensive problem too!

I used to be like a walking thesaurus always switching words at the last minute and wasting so much energy in the choosing of my words. But I would only be saying what I could say, not what I wanted to say. I would sometimes say fancier words because they were easier to say. People might therefore think I was posh. I would sometimes give the wrong answer to a simple question in school, just so I didn’t have to say a difficult word. People would think I was stupid. I would sometimes speak in an American accent in order to get some words out. People would think I was either American or just plain strange. But the thing is I would rather they thought these things than know that I was a stutterer. In our tribal society we don’t like to be different from others and that’s how much stigma stutterers can hold towards their speech.

When I couldn’t avoid and had no choice but to stutter I used to screw up my face. I would stick out my tongue and sometimes end up spitting on people. I would tap my foot or slap my leg to get the word out which would make me look like I had other issues. I would struggle so much that I would run out of breath and end up gasping. Stuttering is a strange beast and it’s not something you can avoid indefinitely. Communication is an essential part of being human. Having a speech problem can hugely affect your interaction with others, how you present yourself to others, your social skills and also affect things like what job you want to do and where you want to live. Even when choosing partners stutterers sometimes refuse to go out with people whose name they find difficult. It can change the direction of your life to that extent.

Speaking is such a fundamentally simple thing for most people to do, including small children, that it’s extremely humiliating to not be able to do it. When a non-stutterer stumbles on their words they may laugh and say “Oh, I can’t even speak today!” which highlights how it is so embarrassing that they can’t do such a simple thing as speak. This highlights the pressure that stutterers feel every time they open their mouths.

Stuttering also doesn’t just affect you when you are speaking. In fact when I was actually speaking and stuttering I entered a sort of Twilight Zone where I didn’t really have any perception of time or what was going on. I would close my eyes and the stutter would just happen. Sure, when I opened my eyes again and stopped speaking I would get the strange looks and the negative emotions. But sometimes the worst feeling is before you start speaking, or before you entered a speaking situation. The fear. The fear that you might have to speak. Not knowing if someone might ask you a question. I used to take my watch off when I was walking down the street on my own because I was scared of someone asking me for the time.

My stutter for most of my life has been a very negative thing. The one positive thing that I remember being able to take from my stutter even when I was about 12 years old was that I recognised it had made me a more sensitive person. In the sense that I was more aware of and sympathetic to other people’s personal struggles. Some people have obvious physical deformities and have to deal with strange looks everywhere they go. Perhaps that’s harder but also perhaps they just learn to deal with it earlier. Stuttering is perhaps easier in some ways as you can walk down the street without getting strange looks, but conversely there is the constant fear of what people will think once you do open your mouth. They’ll suddenly realise that you are different. I used to often go to ridiculous lengths to keep people from finding out that I had a stutter.

Stutterers live in fear. Fear of speaking. Fear of stuttering. Fear of being different. It’s not nice to live in fear and I’m glad to say that I was able to break the negative cycle and turn my speech into a positive. I could finally see that having a stutter wasn’t the worst thing in the world. More on that tomorrow… [Stuttering: Part 2 of 3 – Working on my speech]