One percent of the world’s population stutters. The percentage does not change across culture, race, location, national origin or socioeconomic status. Based on recent population counts, that means almost 2,000 people in Knoxville and 66,000 people in Tennessee stutter. It is highly likely that you will meet or know someone in your lifetime who experiences this speaking challenge. As caring, conscientious, thoughtful women, we want to respond in a way that puts the individual at ease.
First off, people who stutter (PWS) are no different than the rest of us. They have the same range of intelligence, personality traits, skills and talents. Second, nervousness does not CAUSE stuttering; however, it may be experienced in response to a difficult speaking situation. And last, stuttering is nobody’s fault. Moms and dads did not cause stuttering to occur in a child. And certainly, the individual did not cause it either. While there is still a lot to learn about the actual causes of stuttering, research lets us know that there are neurological differences and genetic components resulting in the occurrence of dysfluent (stuttered) speech.
PWS want to be treated like everyone else. They want to express their ideas and know their thoughts and words are valued.
Here are a few ways to make that happen:
- Avoid finishing sentences. PWS usually prefer conversation partners to simply wait until they complete their thought. Attempting to predict how a person will finish a sentence usually results in frustration.
- Be patient. Let the PWS know that you are willing to wait for them to complete their sentence. Their words are as important as anyone else’s; they may deserve just a little more time.
- Maintain natural eye contact. Don’t look away or stare. Such behaviors may indicate that you are disinterested or uncomfortable.
- Accept it as a difference, not a flaw. While hearing someone stutter may initially catch you off guard, take a moment to get used to it. In a matter of minutes, you will adapt, be less distracted by dysfluencies, and attend better to the content of their conversation.
- Avoid giving advice. Resist the urge to say “Slow down. Think about what you are going to say.” Such advice sends the message that you care more about how they are talking than what they are actually saying.
- Talk in an unhurried manner. Slow down your own rate of speech a bit if you are a fast talker, but not so slow as to sound unnatural. Fast rates of speech may put extra pressure on someone who stutters.
Your response will make a difference. Many PWS are negatively impacted by “the look” people give them or the loss of eye contact or an abrupt ending to a conversation. So spread the word to those you know. Bring it up at dinner. Ask your kids if they have ever met someone who stutters. Share with them what you now know.