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Walking Tall

Terry McElhinney | 01.12.2007

Some of the most positive feedback from participants at the BSA Conference in September 2007 was for Terry McElhinney's workshops on Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP). Here Terry describes something of his own experience of stammering and NLP.

Brain imageMy journey started when I was sixteen years old. I wanted to know why I stammered so I went on a self-discovery journey to find some answers. I didn't find out why I stammered, but I learned so much about myself, and I picked up many skills and techniques along the way. I changed from a being a shy, unconfident boy with no self-esteem or self-belief, to a man who could stand up and enjoy talking in front of a hundred or more people.

Body and mind

I first educated myself on the least emotionally painful part of me, which was my body. I read everything I could on the body including how to make it stronger. I hoped this strength would flow into my psyche. I trained in Martial Arts, eventually getting a Black belt in Kick-Boxing and Jiu-Jitsu, and I won a British Title at the age of twenty-six.

In Martial Arts you repeat over and over again moves that eventually become second nature, which is similar to NLP. Through this repetition I rewired my brain to walk strong, stand strong and keep my head held high. These are all factors that will help if you stammer. If you drop your shoulders and chin, and walk with a negative gait, this will not help with your stammer or confidence.

Then I studied the mind. I attended many different courses; I educated myself and eventually became qualified in Hypnotherapy, Counselling and NLP. I know now that you can't separate the mind and the body, it is a team that has to work together. For example, if you're walking towards the bar to order a drink with strong body language, but your self-talk or your beliefs are quietly reminding you that you always stammer in this situation, it won't work. It is the same in reverse. If your beliefs and self-talk are strong, but your body language is negative and resists moving forward, your throat will become tense and it will affect the outcome.

I have reprogrammed my body and mind to think and feel differently, to the point where I no longer expect to stammer, but if I do I recover instantly.

Copy and paste

Everything has a strategy. It may not be in your conscious awareness now, but your body and mind will have a strategy for stammering and one for fluent speech. If it didn't, then you would always be fluent or always stammer.

Something must be different in each situation. What is it? If we don't stammer with certain people, do we really stammer? When I was eighteen I realised that I could talk to my girlfriend's mum, who was gentle, but I was afraid of her dad. I could never speak to him without stammering.

Years later I came up with another theory. What would happen if I copied the way my body and mind thought, felt and reacted when I was with people with whom I didn't stammer, and 'pasted' it into the part of me that stammered with other people? Would I still stammer? A way to paste it in is to keep playing the positive time over and over in your mind like a video, play it, rewind as many times as you can so as to re-programme your mind to remember and re-live the positive situation and all the great feelings and feel good factor that came with it.

I wasted so much time and energy getting angry with myself for not being able to communicate, and focused too much on the time when I had difficulty speaking, that it just went around and around negatively. I still focus on my stammer, and if I have a block, which I still do, it is a more gentle approach now. I ask positive questions. 'Why did I stammer then? What did I do differently? Did my body language drop?' Better than 'Why am I so stupid, why is life so cruel to me?'

Programming my mind to focus on the times when my speech was good and always recalling them, and also focusing on what I was saying rather that how I was saying it, helped me enormously.

Stammer wheel

Years ago I looked at the stammer like a kick-boxing opponent. Here I have this opponent who I should know, but don't really know. I felt he was bigger than me, stronger than me, and invincible. So I came up with an idea to break down his 'skills' and reduce his power. I devised a 'stammer wheel' a wheel cut into many segments of different situations where I did and didn't stammer. I looked at every aspect of this opponent; when I was fluent, when I wasn't, and I scored them accordingly.

I feel now my stammer is a washed up fighter, he has given up trying to intimidate me.

I focused on all my strengths, and not on his. I realised there were a lot more occasions when I could speak without having a problem; and then even the worst situations didn't seem so bad. I could work on them now that I knew what they were.

It helped me shrink the stammer that I always felt was all of me, that determined the things I could and couldn't do, that determined my stress and how I felt about myself. The stammer affected my school life, my work life, and my personal life. I feel now my opponent is a washed up fighter, he has given up trying to intimidate me. He is still there and always will be, but he is the size of a fingernail.

I still have bad days, and I get unbelievably scared before speeches, but I stand up and get in the ring. The more and more I get in, the more it desensitises the fear, and it's becoming easier and easier now.

Another breakthrough for me came when I realised that I spent too much negative time on the 'pre-stammer', ie before I spoke. Hours of the worst case scenarios, mental rehearsing and seeing myself stammering and people laughing at me. This technique almost guaranteed that I would stammer.

Your body has to carry out the programming from your mind, so when I see myself always stammering before a situation, when I physically turned up I had already programmed the result hundreds of times before I left the house. I still mentally rehearse a lot, but always in the positive.

Reclaim the power

We have to look further than the stammer and into how we feel about ourselves as a whole, and then question any negative beliefs that have never served us. We need to change the negative mental rehearsal of up and coming situations that stress us out.

We need to reduce the stammer's power and realise it is not our identity, but a behaviour that we have practised and programmed ourselves. Behaviours can be unlearnt.

We must stop any internal or external negative self-talk. Repeating negative self-talk will programme an adverse effect on your mind. Listen to what you say to yourself and then change it. Listen especially to that whispering self-talk that has repeated negative words and beliefs that no longer serve you.

What has also changed is my perception of myself. My God-given potential was being strangled by this stammer. I took a job that I thought I could do rather than what I wanted to do. I write the next bit not to impress you, but to impress on you that we can all reach our full potential. I now teach aerobics in front of over one hundred women, wearing a head mike.

I have been on Radio City and Radio Merseyside in Liverpool, and I run corporate and personal courses for self-esteem and confidence building. I am a Life Coach and a Martial Arts Instructor. However, if you had bet me seven years ago that I would be making speeches in front of more than one person; I would have laughed in your face. Having a stammer can feel like a daymare, but I hope you all wake up and realise how powerful you really are.

I do hope my painful but worthwhile journey inspires you. Nothing physical, mental, or emotional has the right to hold you back from being the real you.

I intend to run courses using all the NLP tools and other skills I have learned over the years, purely for people with stammers. I am not a speech therapist, but the courses will aim to improve your self-esteem, confidence, and the way you react to your stammer.

Please contact Terry if you would be interested in attending any of his courses.

From the Winter 2007 edition of Speaking Out, pages 14-15