For Employees

Managing stammering in the workplace: a general approach

This is a key section of this site. It offers an outline of a general approach to working with stammering as we strive to realise our full potential at work. Few things are as frustrating as knowing that we have not used our talents as we might because of stammering.

“The most desperate days weren’t the days when I stammered on a multi-million £ bid for a public company contract. The most desperate days were the thousands of days when I went home in the evening and knew I didn’t say what I wanted to say, and my employer didn't hear my ideas and the contributions that I could have made.” 
Iain Wilkie, Senior Partner, EY (Ernst & Young).

Everyone’s experience of stammering is different – there is no single right way to work with stammering. However, what follows are ideas that many of us have found helpful. As always in this site there is the opportunity to add comments, so that we can all learn from the experience of others.
The approach is based on a few simple ideas:

  1. Focus on communicating well, rather than avoiding stammering.
  2. Set objectives in terms of the contribution you make to the job, rather than avoiding stammering.
  3. Help the people you work with, especially your manager, team-mates and colleagues, to understand stammering, and get them working with you.
  4. Develop strategies for each significant type of speaking situation.

1. Focus on communicating well, rather than avoiding stammering

It is common for people who stammer to judge our performance in any given speaking situation by how well we avoided stammering, rather than how well we got our message over. The urge to avoid stammering may be so strong that we reduce the amount of speaking we do, or decline to speak at all. All this is understandable, but likely to be counter-productive.

When we judge our performance at work by how much or how little we stammer, our concern over stammering tends to take over too much of our lives.  We may find ourselves trapped in a vicious circle, in which:

Worries about speaking => speaking less and interacting less with others => loss of confidence => concern/disillusionment about job performance => emotional fatigue, negative thinking, fear of the future, depression/mood swings => worries about speaking => and so on.

This can apply even to people who appear to stammer very little, as discussed in the section on Interiorized stammering.

Focussing on reducing stammering, or avoiding particular words or speaking situations can produce “results” in the sense of appearing to stammer less. However, it is unlikely to make full use of our talents. Which of the following would we like to hear at our leaving party?

  • “Most people knew that X had a stammer, but he became better and better at hiding it, so that by the time he left, few people would have realised it had ever been an issue for him”
  • “Everyone knew Y had a stammer, but she made an excellent contribution despite the difficulties it caused her from time to time. She was open about it and helped others feel at ease. She worked hard at her communication skills, which were rated above average.”

Good communication is not the same as “fluency”. Many noticeably “fluent” people talk too much, include a great deal of “verbal rubbish” in their delivery, fail to listen to others, and end up communicating badly. In most situations the main interest is in what is said rather than the way it is said. Less is often more.

Communication is not just about speaking – there are a whole range of communication skills. Non-verbal communication is often a more important part of the total communication than oral communication. It is important to invest in non-verbal communication skills – public speaking classes can help here.

It is always good to continue to give oneself personal challenges and goals in terms of communication. For example, one of them might be to become known for making creative work presentations.

2. Set objectives in terms of the contribution you make to the job, rather than avoiding stammering

Avoiding stammering tends to take up a lot of energy that could be used to better effect in contributing to the job in hand. One way to “avoid avoiding” is to set objectives linked to the goals of our work, rather than avoiding stammering.

Self-management by objectives can be set out in many ways, including the following:

First, set the objective in terms of the work situation. When this involves communication, set an objective in terms of the purpose of the communication. For example, in the case of a telephone call to relay information, set the objective of communicating that information clearly. If the aim is to buy a product from a supplier, set the objective of telling the supplier what is required and having that clearly understood.

Second, include criteria by which you can judge to what extent you reached the objectives.  In the case of a telephone call to pass on information, you might ask the person at the other end of the line to repeat what they have understood.

Third, decide upon a particular strategy to aid communication. You can use both “internal” and “external” strategies:

  • Internal strategies involve the way you approach the particular speaking situation.  For example, one “internal” strategy might be to practice a telephone call a couple of times before actually making it. Another might be to combine two or more ways of communicating together, for example emailing before telephoning.
  • External strategies are ways of making the environment easier to handle. An “external” strategy for handling telephone calls might be to ask for a quiet place to make phone calls so that you can concentrate on doing them in a calm and relaxed way. This second type of strategy will generally require the support of your colleagues.

For suggestions of strategies to deal with a number of different speaking situations see the section, What to do when ...

Fourth, review how things went afterwards, using the set of criteria you selected. Notice how things went in relation to the criteria and ask other people for their opinion, if appropriate. Congratulate yourself if you met the objective according to the criteria you set out – regardless of how much you felt you stammered.

Acknowledge any negative emotions you might feel about stammering during the speaking situation, and find ways of dealing with those emotions. Resist any tendency to blame yourself.

If you find the objective was not attained, the first thing may be to try again – everything improves with practice. If you still do not succeed, review the strategy and perhaps modify it.

3. Help the people you work with to understand stammering

Help the people you work with, especially your manager, team-mates and colleagues, to understand stammering, and get them working with you.

Stammering affects only around 1% of the adult population, and few people who stammer ever explain what it is like. It is hardly surprising that most people understand little or nothing about stammering. When we stammer, many people will pretend not to notice it out of politeness. The result tends to be a conspiracy of silence about stammering. Colleagues may sympathise, and may want to help where they can, but will not know how. Managers may be concerned about improving communications and making the best of everyone’s talent, but again they may not know what to say or do.

Part of good communication is being aware of the effect of your speech on other people. Although it can be very difficult at first, explaining to someone that you stammer means they are often less embarrassed and more helpful than if they are faced with stammering and don’t know how best to respond. People who disclose stammering at the beginning of telephone calls are often amazed at how helpful people want to be.

In general, people’s responses will reflect our own. It we appear to be mortified every time we stammer, other people will feel embarrassed. Likewise, if we are relaxed about stammering, other people will feel that they have permission to be relaxed about it as well. Talking about stammering, difficult though it can be at the beginning, is almost essential to allow us to gradually become more and more relaxed about it.

"Nobody ever mentioned my stammer, so I used to feel it was a terrible, dark secret. When I started work at a busy travel agent's, I used every trick in the book to avoid stammering, and came home exhausted. It wasn't until I had some therapy at the City Lit that I became more open about my stammer. The first time I talked to my boss about my speech it took a lot of courage, but his response was very positive, and then it became easier to stammer more openly." Rachel Everard

There are many advantages to discussing stammering openly right at the beginning of your involvement in a particular organisation or work-group. However, even if you did not do this it is never too late to start. Being open about your speech will lessen the pressure on you, and quite possibly your colleagues as well. It will also make it easier to ask for any adjustments in your working arrangements you think will be helpful. All this will help you communicate better.

You can tell your colleagues some basic information about stammering, and help them to understand your situation. Most people will appreciate this. Many will be interested, as most people have a family member or friend who stammers, or have seen “The King’s Speech”.

You can discuss with your line manager how your speech may affect your performance and suggest any changes you would find helpful. They will likely be glad you asked them. In some cases, stammering can be considered a disability, in which case you may have a legal right to ask for “reasonable adjustments” – see the section on Legal issues relevant to stammering and employment.

Linking up with other people who stammer can be both a great source of strength, and a chance to learn from the experience of others. These can be people in your organisation, where it may be good to mention the Employers’ Stammering Network, in other organisations, or in self-help groups in local areas. Contact the BSA for more information.

4. Develop strategies for each significant type of speaking situation

Rather than taking each situation as it comes, most people find it useful to develop a range of strategies that can be called on in the various speaking situations we face at work. Different people find different strategies helpful. For example, some of us like to take telephone calls in one go, beginning with the ones that feel easiest, or hardest. Others prefer to space them out over the day.

Here is a list of the real-life situations covered in this site. In each case a variety of strategies is suggested. If you would like to add more speaking situations to the list, with any suggestions you may have for suitable strategies, please add a comment below. You can also contact the BSA ESN team, who will be pleased to hear from you.

  • Working in a team
  • Personal appraisal reviews
  • Telephone conversations
  • Meetings at work
  • Making presentations
  • Job interviews

In addition, you might like to explore the sections which give general ideas for living and working well with stammering.

  • Public speaking – public speaking clubs are probably the best way to become proficient in public speaking
  • Treatment and therapy – worth considering if you feel stuck in the way you think about stammering