Let’s go back, back to your early teen years, maybe 13, 14 or 15 which are, in fact, your early teen years. Do you remember the first time you fell in love? When you saw the most beautiful girl or guy walk past you in school. Music seemed to play from the walls as they walked by in slow motion. Ah, total bliss. You desperately summoned the courage to say, “Hi.” You walked up bravely, ready to deliver eloquent words of introduction, but instead you stammered, stuttered and stumbled over your words. Perhaps you dribbled, spit or sprayed on them. Perhaps you fled in silence into the fantasy world of distant adoration. With each failed attempt to communicate, you felt yourself growing smaller and smaller.
If you remember the kind of nervousness you felt with your first romance (and for some of you that was just last week) then you understand what it feels like for those of us who stutter. Even the simple act of answering the phone can create such fear that when the phone rang I would suggest, “That must be for you. You answer it.” Worse, the phone rang and I was alone… [ring] alone… [ring] just the phone and me [ring] alone.
“Hhhhhhh hhhhhhh hhhhh [click] Hello!” Hung up again! Some people have hang-ups in life but I have real hang-ups. All my memorable life, I had a challenge with stuttering. I’d like to break down some myths about it and suggest ways to help you overcome your challenge with stuttering or perhaps even your fear of listening to people who stutterer.
I can’t remember the first time I stuttered. I can’t remember what caused it. As far back as I can remember, it was there. I suppose I suffered some childhood trauma like losing a pet or worse, a favorite kite. Perhaps I tried to be perfect and couldn’t deal with failure.
Eventually I forgot my childhood trauma and my fear changed, through habit, into the fear of stuttering. You see, failure to speak fluently, or stuttering, causes a fear of speaking which, in turn, causes a failure to speak fluently, which causes a fear of speaking which causes stuttering which causes fear which causes stuttering, fear causes stuttering…. The greatest cause of stuttering is the fear of stuttering itself. We sabotage our own speech. Stuttering from medical causes is actually quite rare. So I stuttered and sprayed my way through high school and people thought I was less intelligent because I had trouble expressing myself.
In fact, the most common myth about stutterers is we are less intelligent. In his book entitled, What to Do About Your Brain-Injured Child, Glenn Doman said, “…when man loses the ability to express himself by speech…The world feels… if he can’t say his name…he doesn’t know his name.”Many people think stutterers are less intelligent but stutterers are just as intelligent and maybe even a little more.
A 1996 study into the brain of stutterers demonstrated that stutterers actually experience an overactivity of the creative right brain and a slight underactivity of the auditory portion of the logical left brain. The stutterer’s right brain is overactive because we search forward in our speech to identify words over which we stumble and automatically substitute safe words. We process massive amounts of information simultaneously across several mental conversations to resolve one conversation without stuttering. If we resolve one in time, we speak words. If we fail, we stutter.
So stutterers are roving Thesauruses with excellent vocabularies. I play a mean game of Scrabble.In addition to word substitution, we also try other avoidance techniques. Stutters use sounds such as “uh” before the word we trip over. You couldn’t imagine the stress I suffered when I joined Toastmasters and found out I couldn’t say, “Uh!” Oh, it was unbelievable! What do you mean you’re going to count my “uhs” and we’ll eliminate them together? I like them! That’s like a painter without a paint brush or a writer without a pen. Stutterers make art with, “Uh!” Toastmasters took away that brush so, over the three years of my membership, I’ve learned to paint a different picture!
Another myth is stutterers are lazy but we use many tricks to avoid stuttering. We blink and jerk our heads, we make faces, we exhaust our breath and speak without air. We wwwwind up. Lazy? Are you kidding? We work hard! A simple conversation can represent for me a full cardiovascular workout complete with sweat and all the wonderful smells that go along with that.
When people see and hear us going through our gyrations they might easily think of stuttering as a handicap but stuttering has many hidden benefits.The other guys in school worried not about getting rejected for a date but getting accepted. Yeah! They didn’t know what they would do if they got a date. They worried about whether they would kiss properly but it seemed so simple to me. As a stutterer I was an expert at kissing.
Stuttering is also a great way to get rid of pesky door-to-door salespeople. You open the door, they start their spiel, and you go “H-h-h-h-h-hello. I uh-uh-uh d-d-d-don’t w-w-w-w,” and they won’t be there long. Works like a charm everytime.
Dealing with a Stutterer
Even if you’re not a door-to-door saleperson, listening to a stutterer can be very stressful. Never mind my stress level in answering that phone a few moments ago. Remember the poor soul on the other end! Here are some ideas to help you lower our stress level when I stutter:
If I stutter, tell me in your own way, “It’s all right to stutter.”
Lie to me. Tell me you have a brother in Calgary who stutters and you know all about it so I can relax. When I relax with you I will stutter a little less and when I stutter a little less, we will communicate a little more and you know, I’m always amazed at the number of people with a brother who stutters in Calgary!
Listen to me actively by feeding back what I say in your own words instead of just nodding politely as you think about dinner plans that night. Let me participate equally in our conversation.
Never interrupt me. If you do, you are like that person on the phone who couldn’t be bothered and hung up. Don’t hang up on me. Keep the line open.
Smile and nod.
If you do your part to help, perhaps stutterers can find a way to overcome it…
To begin overcoming stuttering we need to begin by viewing stuttering as a characteristic with a cause, not as a failure, per se (I am working on removing the idea of failure and mistakes from my vocabulary and no, I am not glowingly polyannic). Next we need to realize that EVERYONE experiences stoppages in speech. Most people carry on without paying attention to the stoppage whereas many stutterers can become anxious about it and create a spiral of increased stuttering. Stutterers need to forget that they stutter, focus on fluid speech patterns instead of concentrating on trying to avoid stuttering. It’s like a smoker trying to quit, “I will not smoke. I will not smoke. I will… [suck and blow smoke].”
Other people who stutter actually have a synaptic wiring glitch where, unlike most people who process speech from their left brain, process speech at least in part from the right brain. There has been some breakthroughs in this area with devices that help the brain process speech [link to follow soon].
Several years ago, while writing something, I noticed that I stuttered in my thoughts. Hm, I was not speaking, but my mind stuttered over a word! Hm, seems like I internalized a habit that originated with other causess that might no longer exist, but the stuttering persists. Hm, time to reprogram my human computer. I became super-conscious of my speaking, slowed down, relaxed my throat, focussed on breathing fully, and phrasing. Now, if I wobble into stuttering mode, I can notice it and quickly switch into fluent mode.
I also became aware of a subconscious feeling that my speaking was wasting other people’s time. Ah ha, another root cause! It took some time, but I changed my thinking to now believe that what I have to say is very valuable and very helpful for people [misty-eyed as I type this] and doggone it, I have a right to speak too!
“In my work, my speaking, and my life, I deliver excellence and help people. I am valuable and what I say is valuable. The time I take to speak with care and power is an investment for myself and for others. People benefit from my ideas; I benefit from theirs.”
I do well if I relax, breath more deeply and slow down to allow my mouth and mind to work in harmony. It’s kind of funny that I speak in front of larger groups with greater ease than I do in a one-on-one conversation over coffee. Maybe it’s the coffee!!! There are organizations and speech pathologistics available to help. One view to which I subscribe is that many stutterers will receive greater permanency through a self-help than with external programs.
Here’s a temporary solution:
Because of the myths surrounding stuttering and the inability of many people to deal with us, many stutterers lead less fulfilled lives, lives below their potential.
Al Komaroff said, “If you can’t communicate well, you’ll never participate fully in society… overall your career and relationships will be below your potential.” and as Dr. Leo Buscaglia said, “The greatest loss in the world is the loss of human potential.” I wonder what human potential is lost in this world by stutterers afraid to express themselves.
Now that you understand a little more about stutterers, can you help us reach our potential? Can you take the time to listen? We have a lot to say and you might find we hold well-considered opinions because more of our time thinking about our ideas and less talking about them. Be our friend, buy yourself a set of goggles, and we’ll be your friend as we learn to communicate and grow together.