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I participated in a great conversation yesterday with people who stutter from around the world, in a Stutter Social group video chat. The discussion started out with one person asking for tips about giving presentations. He had one coming up at school and was nervous that his stuttering would interfere with his ability to do a good job.
Several people offered suggestions, such as practicing, trying not to read verbatim from notes and advertising that you stutter before beginning the presentation. One person suggested that he try and be as fluent as possible. He talked about practicing speech techniques daily in order to achieve fluent speech.
I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to chime in that I thought this was an unrealistic goal. People who stutter are going to stutter and we should not strive for fluency. In my opinion, that often results in feelings of disappointment and failure, which just exasperates our stuttering.
Instead, I suggested that we aim for being fluid while communicating. Being fluid can be described as having or showing a smooth and easy style. That’s what I shoot for when I am giving presentations.
My years of Toastmasters training helped me build excellent speaking skills, which I use every day. I’ve grown comfortable with eye contact, gesturing, vocal variety, and speaking without using notes. I became a much more fluid speaker when I began to focus on what I was saying and trying to convey. In other words, I wasn’t trying to be perfectly fluent.
I am a more natural and comfortable speaker when I move easily from topic to topic with good transitions and flow. I am more fluid when I am very comfortable with what I am talking about so that I don’t need to use notes.
You can stutter and be a very effective communicator. Stuttering doesn’t have to interfere with the message you are conveying. As the name of this blog implies, you can make room for the stuttering by being fluid, going with the flow, being comfortable when speaking and enjoying the experience.
Making room for the stuttering will help lessen any anxiety you have about trying to be perfectly fluent. That’s just not going to happen for people who stutter.
Six degrees of separation is the theory that everyone and everything is six or fewer steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world, so that a chain of “a friend of a friend” statements can be made to connect any two people in a maximum of six steps.
I think the same theory exists in the stuttering community. Last week, I had the opportunity to meet so many wonderful people from all over the world at the joint conference of the National Stuttering Association (NSA) and the International Stuttering Association (ISA) in Atlanta, Georgia.
I did not get a chance to meet everyone I wanted to at the conference, but I feel I am just one introduction away from meeting those who I didn’t. I met Keisuke from Japan and he introduced me to another friend of his from Japan. Keisuke and I will work together on the board of the ISA and will likely really get to know one another. We had some trouble communicating because his English is not strong but we are connected through stuttering.
I met Bruce and John from Australia and felt an instant connection with both of them. We talked and laughed like we were old friends, but in fact we had just met. And it was great to meet Cameron, also from Australia. He is the author of the book, “First Person Shooter,” which I read and reviewed for this blog several months ago. When I finally met Cameron, I felt like I already knew him.
I have been in contact with Nancy from Western Australia who was going to come to the conference but her plans changed at the last minute. We had a chance to meet last night through Stutter Social – for the first time, she joined in the group video chat and we finally met and talked, and again, I felt like I’d already been connected to her.
It’s funny how connected we all are in the stuttering community. Technology has allowed our worlds to become much smaller and we connect through social media and Skype and Google Hangouts and it feels like we already know each other.
I can’t wait to continue to be introduced to more and more members of the community and share our similar stories. It is special to be so inter-connected with people world wide.
Seth Godin in his book “Tribes” writes:
“A tribe is any group of people, large or small, who are connected to one another, a leader, and an idea. For millions of years, humans have been seeking out tribes, be they religious, ethnic, economic, political, or even musical (think of the Deadheads). It’s our nature.”
People who stutter are connected. That is never more evident than at a stuttering conference.
I just returned from the National Stuttering Association‘s 33rd annual conference, which was held this year in Atlanta, Georgia. The conference was held jointly with the International Stuttering Association‘s World Congress For People Who Stutter, so there were people at the conference from all corners of the world. We came together 825 people strong to celebrate the connection that we have with each other – stuttering.
First timers to the conference and veterans alike all feel an instant connection when they meet someone else who stutters. We feel an incredible sense of community, empathy, freedom and vulnerability. Sharing these feelings and connections together makes us a tribe, at least as far as I’m concerned. And I like being a part of this tribe.
I feel full and whole when I am with other people who stutter. I feel gratitude when other people “get me” without me having to fully explain myself or how I feel about stuttering. A new friend I met at the conference, Dustin, put it quite simply and well: “I’ve never felt more human.”
This was my 11th consecutive conference and I felt the same emotions and sense of family that I did at my very first conference in 2006. I met a lot of first timers this year, who got to experience the life changing impact that being part of a tribe, or community, has on us. I heard first timers comment that they felt instantly loved and connected upon entering the mix.
And I heard veterans reflect on how amazing it is to catch up with old friends and meet new ones as well. I seized that opportunity – I hung out with friends from previous conferences but also made it a point to meet and interact with as many new people as I could. It was so gratifying to meet people in person that I’d already “met” online in the many stuttering communities, which are also our tribes.
I am at my best when I am with my stuttering community. I feel the sense of belonging and wholeness that I don’t feel in other parts of my life.
The workshops, keynote speakers, and conversations in the hotel lobby and bar, and over dinner, were priceless. But more so was just the general sense of community and being with my tribe. That sense of community was palpable and hung in the air.
It was a great conference. I feel a little “let down” now that I’m home but writing and reflecting always helps me, as does carrying my tribe in my heart.
When I think of my identity, I think of things like brown hair, blue eyes and being short. I think of the tattoos I have and the fact that my initials spell my name.
I also think of my stuttering when I think of my identity. Stuttering makes me unique. It is very much a part of my identity. People know me for my stuttering. I’ve heard people at work (a school) refer to me as, “You know, the one that stutters.”
Dictionary.com defines identity as a noun:
So stuttering is one of my qualities, a distinctive characteristic that distinguishes me from other people.
There was a time when I thought stuttering was bad and shameful and I did everything I could to try and hide that part of me, that part of my identity. But I was never truly successful hiding it. It was there, not going anywhere, like my blue eyes are always going to be blue.
This reminds me of an exercise I do when I talk to kids who don’t stutter about stuttering. When explaining what it was like to try and hide my stuttering, I have the kids experience a physical and visual exercise. I ask for a volunteer from the audience and give the child a large grapefruit. I ask her to try and hide it somewhere on her body where it’s not going to show. The audience enjoys the child trying to hide it in her clothes – in her sock, in her pocket, in the hood of her sweatshirt. No matter where she puts the grapefruit, it’s lump can still be seen on the person. Trying to hide it is fruitless!
Like trying to hide stuttering was fruitless. It didn’t work. Over the years, I’ve grown to accept all parts of my identity, both the things I like and the things I don’t like so much.
Having identity makes us human. It makes us unique. It distinguishes us from the pack. Stuttering is part of my identity and I no longer try to fight that fact.
We hear so much about acceptance in the stuttering community. It is important that we accept ourselves, perceived flaws and all, if we want others to accept us as we are.
Acceptance is one of humanity’s most basic needs. If you think back to psychology courses you took, you’ll likely remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Love and belonging (or acceptance) is right smack in the middle of the needs that all human beings need in order to lead a fulfilled life.
It takes courage to accept acceptance into our lives. We live in a society where we are constantly bombarded by media images of perfection and many of us hold ourselves up to those images, aspiring to achieve goals that may never be achieved.
To truly accept yourself, you must have the courage to present yourself to the world as is and be proud of who you are.
People who stutter often have tremendous difficulty with acceptance. We feel different, we sound different, we are different. There are very few role models for us who stutter openly in the media. What images we have of stuttering in the media are often infused with negativity or comedy.
So it’s no wonder we might struggle with accepting acceptance. It’s not something that comes easily and for some people who stutter, they may never fully accept acceptance. They may strive for fluency and constantly be on the lookout for the next greatest program, therapy or medication that promises to eliminate stuttering. They want to live up to those media images of perfection, where no one stutters.
Accepting acceptance doesn’t mean that we can’t still explore ways to manage or improve our speech. We may be interested in stuttering more comfortably and with less tension. That’s not a sell out to acceptance. It just means that we want to be the best that we can be with what we have.
It took me years to allow acceptance into my life. I was ashamed of stuttering for so long, because of all of the negative external messages that I internalized. For me, it was and still is a journey. Shame still creeps in occasionally and it’s in those moments that I actively remind myself that I am good, that I am whole, that my difference is OK and that I am enough. I think when I do that, I’m accepting acceptance.
What do you think of accepting acceptance? Have you?
What goes through your head during that space between words when you are stuttering? You know what I mean, that often long pause that creates space between two words while you are having a block.
Is it something that you think about? I have. Not often because my blocks aren’t too long, but every once in a while I get one that seems long and definitely creates that space.
I often feel anxious, as it isn’t natural to have long pauses between words. Even when that is done intently by a speaker for emphasis, that space is often not as long as one created by a stutterer.
Sometimes I think to myself, “Oh no, not now.” Or I think, “What are they thinking?” I try to re-frame my thoughts and sometimes think, “Oh good, a moment to catch my breath.” Especially when I am presenting, I can use that space to compose myself and prepare for the fluent word that inevitably comes after the space.
Fluent people probably never give this a thought.
It always surprises me to hear one person who stutters advise another person who stutters to remember to breathe when facing a stressful speaking situation. It’s not something like remembering to turn off the coffee pot before leaving the house. For that, you have to consciously focus on the act of walking over to the coffee pot and powering it off.
Breathing isn’t like that. There’s isn’t an “on-off” switch that we need to remember to push. It’s not mechanical. Breathing comes automatically. We do not think about doing it. We just do it. Like the Nike slogan. The human body comes equipped with the innate ability to do that which keeps us alive. Unless of course we are injured or gravely ill and mechanical breathing is indeed needed for breathing.
So why then do we often hear people reminding us to breathe? I often get annoyed when people who don’t stutter offer me that advice. Like I have a choice. Like there is a button to push. As if “just breathing” was enough to stop stuttering.
It’s not that easy. Stuttering is a neurologically influenced disorder which interrupts the normal flow of speech. Breathing, which we already do without thinking about it, does not improve our stuttering.
I see and hear this a lot in the stuttering community. Someone will post on a forum that they are nervous about an upcoming job interview and ask for advice. Inevitably, someone will write, “remember to breathe.” That thought doesn’t enter my mind when I am faced with a challenging speaking situation. I am usually thinking about a strategy I can use to lessen repetitions or to get out of a block. Breathing isn’t a trick to pull out of the speech tool bag.
Why do you suppose people who stutter offer this advice to other people who stutter? Is it because they can’t think of anything else?