How Having a Stutter Made Me a Better Communicator
Take a deep breath. Another. Rehearse what you’re going to say in your mind. Go through all the possible scenarios. My palms are sweating – why are my palms sweating? Cue anxiety at the sight of my sweaty palms. Maybe I shouldn’t ask; it’s not that important anyway.
If you thought that above scenario was me building up the courage to ask my friend Milan to prom, then yes that is accurate, but not in this particular instance. This was 8-year-old me trying to fight the shame of publicly stuttering to ask the McDonald’s worker for a packet of honey. If I remember correctly, I didn’t struggle too hard that time. However, the mental gymnastics required for this interaction have always remained. This may seem pretty odd to most, but for people who stutter (affectionately referred to as PWS throughout) this is a daily battle. Continue reading to learn more about my experiences as a PWS and how I have used this perceived weakness as one of my greatest assets.
What does stuttering look like?
Statistics state that around 70 million people in the world stutter, which roughly equates to 1 percent of the population. That’s a lot of stuttering voices. Most people recognize stuttering from characters in the media like Porky Pig or King George VI as depicted in the film “The King’s Speech.” This disfluency is characterized by overt actions such as repetitions (repeating sounds or words, l-l-like this) or blocking (getting stuck on a word or sound).
However, chances are unless you’re a speech therapist who specializes in fluency disorders, you haven’t had the experience of meeting many PWS. This can be for a number of reasons, one of which ties back to the embarrassment I mentioned earlier: covert stuttering. This is a behavior a PWS does to try and limit their stuttering. It can include things like:
• Speaking less
• Speaking with an accent
• Changing words around to purposefully choose sounds that may be easier to say
• Avoiding certain people/situations which increase anxiety and likelihood of stuttering
All of these are things I have done in an attempt to mask my stuttering. In college, I picked up the label of being a “flake” because I had so much anxiety and shame linked to my stuttering, I would cancel on doing things with my friends if I felt especially tense. Although I hated to bail on my friends, I would have much preferred to be known as unreliable than have a debilitating stuttering incident. In the moments I couldn’t escape, I would scan ahead in conversation looking for words that might pose an issue. I tried to maneuver through conversations stealthily by relying on the large vocabulary I had built up over years of word substitution. Imagine how poetically inclined I sounded by describing camping as “a night spent underneath the bright stars.” I was running from my problems with an external façade of self-assurance, while internally I was helplessly stumbling.
Like a roller coaster that ascends to a terrifying height, my “act” quickly came racing down with devastating force. I remember the exact moment when things unraveled. I had taken on a job as an Admissions Counselor at my alma mater – a job that even for the most gifted communicator would be a test of hard work and resiliency. It required me to cold call high schools to set up school visits, stand at college fairs and be engaging, funny, and personable with strangers, and meet with prospective families in hopes of selling them a $30,000 per year education. I charmed my way through my interview and figured this would be a great way for me to start my career – facing my fear head on. I remember waking up in a cold sweat at nights and not being able to sleep because of the sheer fear of the uncertain speaking situations I would find myself in, not sure if my stuttering would cooperate with me enough to be successful. I ended up resigning from the job and feeling defeated, dejected, and depressed. I had hit my rock bottom.
OK, you fell hard. What’s next?
I allowed myself to wallow for a few days and started the job search from my mom’s kitchen. I had no idea what the future would hold, but I knew I had to somehow soldier on. I had a few interviews that went surprisingly well and as asinine as it seemed, I ended up working in a call-center. I read books about self-help for stuttering to relearn some “tricks” to help develop reliable fluency strategies. I viewed every day at work as practice to work on my speech, and in turn, regain my confidence as a capable speaker.
I began to focus my attention on improving my non-verbal communication as well. First off, I set out to become a better listener. I realized in many of my conversations, I was listening to figure out what I’d say next but not really to understand what was being said. I worked hard to maintain eye contact whenever I was speaking to someone in public. This had been a difficult thing for me over the years – one of the characteristics of my stuttering had been averting my eyes whenever I sensed trouble looming. As I worked on making these improvements, I realized how much deliberate effort went into being an effective communicator. I had neglected how important non-verbal communication was to establishing an authentic connection with listeners.
I searched online for “stuttering resources” and found the National Stuttering Association. This organization was founded in 1977 as the National Stuttering Project and started out small, forming local self-help groups around California to connect PWS with each other. Today, the organization is based in New York City and is comprised of a vast network of adult and family chapters across the country. I joined my local chapter in Richmond to connect with other stutterers and develop a sense of community. I met adults of all ages who had the wisdom and lived experience who taught me how to thrive while “owning” my stutter. I even found someone who worked at the same company as me who would become a dear friend. I was slowly climbing my way out of the depression and shame-filled funk my friends had found me in. I was beginning to advocate for myself and find value in my abilities, stuttering notwithstanding.
Fast forward a few years to the present, and I am still evolving. These days I find myself advocating not only for myself, but for others who stutter as well. I serve on an advocacy committee that offers interview practice and advice for PWS seeking employment. I co-lead my local NSA chapter and am involved with various groups that serve to improve the lives of people who stutter. I still work with a speech therapist to find ways to stutter easier and remain at peace with the disfluent moments I may encounter. I continue to challenge myself daily – picking up the phone to make a phone call versus sending a text message, making small talk with strangers, and being a deliberate communicator. Although I’ve made considerable progress on my “stuttering journey” (as it is affectionately referred to within the stuttering community), there is more work to be done. As much progress as PWS make to improve our speech and how we view ourselves, the general public could use education about what stuttering is and how to interact with us.
Want to know how you can advocate for people who stutter?
Many fluent speakers, when faced with a stutterer in conversation are clueless on how to best support them. Do I finish their sentence for them? Do I cut the conversation short to save them the difficultly? So many questions! It’s made even more difficult because what one PWS may prefer could be completely different from another PWS. For example, I don’t like for people to finish my words, while another stutterer may welcome the assistance. As with other marginalized groups, PWS best thrive through the support and awareness of allies. My friends Elizabeth Wislar and Hope Gerlach developed a great comic to illustrate how listeners can support PWS, which also includes links to websites that promote stuttering advocacy.
As I mentioned earlier, I am still improving. I think of how down I was at my lowest – I felt alone, not understood, and not sure of what I’d become. I know there are others who may feel the same way. I consider myself lucky to have such a great network of people who support me and love me unconditionally. At the end of the day, isn’t that what we all desire – to be treated fairly, appreciated and supported?
Getty image by Halfpoint.