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.

The One Thing Every Person Who Stutters Needs to Understand

I forget how old I was, maybe in high school or just before. I had either failed another math test or barely passed one by the skin of my teeth. Math was the bane of my existence. My mother’s son. She shook her head when she saw the grade but understood. She didn’t have a head for figures either.

My father did. He asked me what the problem was, disappointment in his voice. I shrugged and sulked. We talked some more, me mumbling answers, looking at the floor, shuffling my feet. The pity party was in full effect. Eventually he got tired of it.

“Look,” he finally said, thrusting the test back at me. “You need to understand something” nobody is going to feel sorry for you.”

And then he walked away.

I remember standing there confused, cursing him out in my head.

Doesn’t he get it? I’m just not good at math.

. . .

A few years ago I volunteered to speak at a stuttering conference here in Washington. The panel discussion I was scheduled to participate in was akin to Career Day at school. Panelists from different professions would get up in front of a crowd and talk about what they did for a living and how stuttering affected their paths. I was the token lawyer.

On the day of the conference, I arrived at the venue early and met my panel’s MC, a woman who would also serve as a panelist. She showed me where we’d be and walked me through the order of ceremony. She was warm and engaging in a way that made it clear to me that she’d be great on the mic. I don’t remember her stuttering at all during our conversation. I must not have either, because at one point she remarked on how fluid my speech was, and then casually told me that I should feel free to let myself stutter to put people in the audience at ease.

Uh…beg pardon?

There’s a Jay-Z line for every situation, and here my mind flashed to the “Grammy Family” freestyle – “Everybody look at you strange, say you changed/Uh, like you work that hard to stay the same.”

I’ve come a long way in getting my stutter under control (with many miles yet to go). I’m proud of my progress. I wasn’t going to downplay that and mislead the audience into thinking my hard work had been for naught.

Wasn’t that what we were there for? To show people that if we could do it – “it” being get a handle on one’s stutter and develop a career in spite of it – then they could to?

My sense: yes and no.

While the conference organizers wanted us to demonstrate to audience members that they could get decent jobs despite stuttering, I got the impression they didn’t want us to say anything or act in a manner that might foster feelings of inadequacy or discouragement. It was subtle, that unspoken message of wanting to protect attendees from “feeling bad,” but it permeated the entire event in a way that I found off-putting.

(And yes, I get it, making people feel bad isn’t the best way to get people to pay for your conference the next time around.)

During my panel, the MC I met at the start of the day stuttered repeatedly. Maybe she was nervous. Maybe she was pandering. Who knows.

I spoke in my usual fashion. Everything went fine. I shook hands with the other panelists and headed for work.

I haven’t been invited to another conference since, nor have I volunteered to participate in one.

. . .

What did my father mean when he said that nobody would feel sorry for me?

Well, he certainly didn’t mean it literally; a quick perusal of the front page of any pop news site will show that there is no shortage of concerned citizens eager to express sympathy for people with perceived limitations and outrage at anything that can be labelled “bullying.” Virtue signaling is white hot right now.

No, what my father was getting at was that, while the world might offer you pity and platitudes – looking at you with soft eyes, starting a GoFundMe or doing some goofy meme challenge in your name, Thoughts and Prayers, etc. – nobody is going to just give you anything actually worth having.

They won’t because they can’t. A sense of accomplishment, genuine self-esteem born of meeting challenges – nobody can give you those things. They have to be earned. And the way to earn them is through overcoming adversity, whether it be in the form of poverty, a learning disability, or, yes, a stutter.

In this way, adversity is a gift and a curse. (There’s Hov again.) By its very nature, adversity tends to be unpleasant when you’re going through it, but in the long run it breeds adaptation, or at least serves as the soil from which adaptation might spring. Adversity provides us with an opportunity to find out who we really are and what we’re really made of. Through it we grow and improve and come that much closer to reaching our potential.

“If you’re strong enough,” adversity whispers, “you’ll get past me and become that person.”  

Recognizing this is the crux of the growth mindset. A growth mindset is one that does not view limitations as inherent aspects of one’s self, but rather malleable conditions that can be changed with hard work. This is in contrast to a fixed mindset which, as the name suggests, views current conditions as consequences of immutable personal traits. (For more on the the growth vs. fixed mindset distinction, check out Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.)

I spent most of my youth in the grip of a fixed mindset. Stuttering, being out of shape, being bad at math – all things I thought were just Me. This mindset didn’t serve me well. I languished for years being lazy, quitting things, and taking the easy way out whenever the going got tough. I’m still making up for lost time because of it.

Given that history, when I saw that conference seemingly endorsing a fixed mindset view of stuttering, naturally I balked. Telling people they should learn to feel normal in their impairments, implicitly sending the message that the world could and will accommodate them for it – I can’t think of anything more cruel than that sort of kindness. More cruel, or more offensive if actually implemented; taking it easy on someone, lowering standards and showing them mercy, because you expect less from them is the ultimate disrespect.

If you stutter, or know and care about someone who does, remember that. People who stutter aren’t victims of circumstance to be pitied – we’re people offered an opportunity to grow stronger through a particular form of adversity. 

Next time we’ll talk about the fundamentals of extracting the gift from the curse.