Make Room For The Stuttering

Sympathy Or Empathy

Posted on: July 6, 2012

I chatted recently with another person who stutters about the best way to listen to a stutterer. We were responding to a question posed by a SLP graduate student posed on an on-line stuttering forum.

The student doesn’t stutter, and wondered what people who do stutter prefer for listeners to do or say.

Most people indicated that people should listen to a person who stutters the same way you would listen to anyone else – with patience, presence and respect.

I chimed in that sometimes a person looks uncomfortable or averts their eyes or nervously giggles or laughs. Then I might disclose or advertise that I stutter to let the other person know what to expect. When I do that, sometimes the listener understands more fully that it is stuttering they hear and they don’t have to react differently than normal.

This brought up the difference between sympathy and empathy. The person I was talking with felt that when we advertise stuttering, that alone may lead the person to treat us differently, maybe even inadvertently with pity. He felt that advertising brings attention to our stuttering and therefore away from normalcy.

He felt that we should not say anything about it, and expect the listener to just listen as they would with anyone else.  Most listeners will default to empathy and listen respectfully.

I am not so sure about this. I think that if someone does not know you and does not know what stuttering is, the default reaction might be laughter, surprise or impatience. It seems best in some situations to disclose, so that both stutterer and listener can be at ease.

There is obviously a real difference between sympathy and empathy as it applies to listening to someone who stutters.

What do you think?

4 Responses to "Sympathy Or Empathy"

As a non-stutterer, I prefer it when you disclose. It gives me time to adjust my own patience, presence and respect levels. If I’m busy or rushed or surprised, I need time to adapt. I shouldn’t need that time, and certainly shouldn’t need the reminder, but I do. (I also shouldn’t yell at my kids when they act their age.)

The sad fact is, most people don’t listen to “normal” people with patience, presence and respect. Most of the time, the negative effect is minor. (Or major, since it affects the entire culture, but each instance is minor.)

For a conversation with a stutterer, though, the effect at that moment is not minor.

You need us to be our best selves, not the lazy, self-absorbed, mp3-listening, multi-tasking, never-present people we are most of the time.

Instead of taking time to smell the flowers, we need to take time to listen to another person. It’s something we need to practise.

(Eeps, stutterers forcing us to slow down and live in the moment is not where I expected this to go. Back to topic.)

The stutterer can set the tone.

If you disclose in a way that asks us to feel sorry for you and cry on your behalf, then that’s what we’ll do. (Well, some will shrug and be uncomfortable — also not the reaction you want.)

If you disclose in a way that asks us for patience, presence and respect, then that’s what we’ll give. From what I’ve read here, most of the time you’ve disclosed, both pro-actively and after a listener acts inappropriately, they’ve come back to the main topic rather than feeling sorry for you. (They might also feel embarrassed if they reacted badly.) They go home and remember the conversation and your perseverance and your reaction to their behaviour, and how they improved, not that some poor soul has a difficult life and needs us to feel sorry for them.

Some listeners won’t be able to do this. They might not know the difference between empathy and sympathy. They might not be able to be present. There are always extremes. Concentrate on the majority in the middle, who you can affect.


Side Story: I know a professional storyteller who teaches a storytelling course in a Master of Library Science program. Last year she said that during the first lecture she told a story, and something didn’t click. She realized the audience wasn’t making eye contact with her. She discussed it with the class. This was the first wave of the 2nd generation of iPod users. Their parents listened to their music, or books, or whatever, when pushing the stroller, rather than talking with their toddlers. The kids never learned eye contact. They worked on that during the term, and later told her that was the only class where they knew each other and hung out after class. This lack of eye contact and presence is going to lead to a lot more problems for society at large.

I find things go better if I tell people I stutter. Otherwise they miss the first part of what I say because they’re too busy trying to figure out what’s going on to pay attention to what I’m saying. The few people I’ve met who have known how to listen right away already know someone who stutters.

I want to tell people that I stutter more, although I also have a really hard time bringing it up in conversation – it just never seems to fit naturally?

I admit I am not getting the “advertising brings attention to our stutter” argument, possibly because mine is pretty overt. People are already paying attention to my stutter, because it’s a speech disorder and pretty noticeable! It’s easy to assume that if everyone pretends it’s not happening things will keep going smoothly, but honestly I’d rather give them the information they need so they can file it away correctly than to have them try to come up with theories on their own…

In my experience, people have a lot of misconceptions about stuttering, and if you stutter they won’t want to bring the subject up on their own because they think it’s really rude. Telling people opens the door to us actually talking about it and me possibly informing them that yes, I stutter, as in the speech disorder, I haven’t just forgotten my name (this example is taken from real life), it’s most likely inborn and hence not because I’m shy or have no self-confidence or whatever, there is no cure but I don’t really care, etc. etc. Judging from past experience, I think that what people come up with if the whole issue is just ignored entirely tends to be much worse and often more along the lines of “oh god that poor person I must pity them forever that must be awful” or making weird assumptions about my personality than if I talk about it.

…also, I am quite possibly unusual that I find it really weird and uncomfortable when people assume I’m fluent. So even in the phases where I can pass as fluent I’m liable to bring it up in order to get back to familiar ground.

You say you find it weirdly uncomfortable when people assume you’re fluent. I get that – makes sense. It’s like we are being deceptive, right?
When people assume I am fluent and I don’t say anything, I feel like I am lying about an important part of my identity.

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