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.
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.
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.
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 for the LEWIS Blog about Communications Lessons Learnt from Stuttering.