The Fundamentals of Managing a Stutter

Two posts ago, I wrote about the three worst stuttering experiences from my life that I can remember. This time I’m going to share the fundamentals of how I keep experiences like those few and far between.

Before I do, let’s define “fundamentals.” Fundamentals are the basic skills or actions that form the basis of everything else in a discipline. The simple things upon which additional complexity depends. If you ever want to be great at something, you must master the fundamentals.

You’re probably already familiar with this concept if you follow sports. If you were ever an athlete yourself, you’ll recognize the fundamentals as the drills your coach had you do over and over again until the movements were reflexive. Muscle memory is a beautiful thing.

In wrestling, stance and penetration steps are fundamentals.

In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), there’s bridging and shrimping.

In basketball, keep your elbow in and follow through on free throws.

And on and on it goes, in disciplines ranging from photography to competitive hot dog eating to, yes, managing a stutter.

The following are what I view as the five fundamentals of minimizing stutter disruptions. They’re what I constantly go back to and focus on whenever I find myself struggling. I focus on them because they work. Maybe not every time, and maybe not perfectly, but in the long run, they’re what keep me communicating effectively and efficiently.

Let’s start with my favorite topic.

  1. Get your mind right.

Worldview is everything. We live in the stories we tell ourselves. I wrote a whole post on this last time, so check it out. The bottom line is that you have to view having a stutter as adversity, and adversity as nothing more than opportunity to learn, grow, and become stronger. Stuttering – and adversity generally – might not always be pleasant, but it can and absolutely should be fortifying.

  1. Get your mouth right.

We’ve all been there – you’re talking about something and all of a sudden The Block hits you. You start panicking, straining to push the words out, doing all kinds of weird shit with your mouth to see if maybe a different configuration of cheek, jaw, and tongue might create the shape the words need to escape. It’s the lip equivalent of flailing around with your arms like you’re on fire. And it doesn’t work.

Instead of flailing, calm yourself and focus on forming the first letter you want to say properly. If you don’t know what the “proper” way to form a letter with your mouth is, search “speech sounds” on YouTube and dig in.

  1. Get your breath right.

Shaping your lips and using your tongue to effectively form speech sounds is only half the battle. The other half is timing exhalations to actually create the sounds you want to make. Think of saying words as akin to blowing bubbles with one of those old school wands; your lips are the circle at the end of the wand, holding the next word you want to say in place for you to blow it into existence.

Bubble - കുമിള 04.JPG

Shape and blow. Image by കാക്കരOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The name of the game here is to relax. Don’t strain. Don’t push. Just breathe through the words you want to say. Breathe them out. If you hit The Block, stop trying to talk, take a few seconds to get yourself under control by taking a few slow, deep breaths, and then try again. Speaking of slow….

  1. Slow down.

Always annoying to be told this, but damn if it isn’t always good advice. So often stutterers try to rush their words out, thinking that if they can just speak fast enough, they can outpace The Block and say what they want to say exactly how they want to say it. Unfortunately, The Block is Usain Bolt with a jetpack strapped to his back, and it will walk your ass down every time.

As tempting as it may be, fight the urge to speed up your speech. In fact, every time you feel the impulse to talk faster, do the opposite – reduce your talking speed by a quarter, maybe even a half. Neurotics and New Yorkers will get agitated and give you cues to speed up, but too bad, they’ll just have to simmer. Talk so slowly it makes you uncomfortable. Be this guy (who maybe had a stroke at some point so don’t laugh). Then feel free to go a little slower.

  1. Let go.

Like the Heart Ring on Captain Planet, this fundamental ties all the others together.

We want to control The Block. To subdue and impose our will on it. We want to pin The Block to the ground, look deeply into its eyes and bellow, “I’M STRONGER THAN YOU!” Or maybe just play with it like Matt Serra did with that drunk guy in Vegas. Imagine how satisfying it would be to decorate The Block’s sullen face with spittle, or watch it helplessly writhe beneath us.

Alas, we can’t. And not just because The Block is a non-corporeal personification with no face to decorate or extremities with which to writhe. The Block is also strong as hell. It lifts (despite being a non-corporeal personification). And it doesn’t get tired. Fighting it, straining against it when it grabs us, letting it get in our heads and frustrate us, only strengthens its hold. So don’t do those things.

Accept that The Block is strong, but recognize that it’s dumb too. It doesn’t understand your view on adversity, your abilities to think about what your mouth is doing and control your breath, to slow the fuck down and relax. All it knows is brute force. So surrender to it. Accept that it hits hard, and when it does, treat it like a wave, ducking under the wall of water overhead instead of taking it full in the face. Stay calm. Relax. Smile. Then come back to the surface and start swimming again.

. . . .

As with everything in life, the five fundamentals outlined above are easier said than done. I’m also sure that whole books have been written about each of them. For now, don’t sweat details. Focusing on details at the outset of a new effort leads to analysis paralysis. For now, just get comfortable with the concepts. Next time we’ll talk about the activity that I suspect has helped me more than any other in putting several of these into practice and integrating them.