Challenging, Provoking, Teasing, and Mastering The Experience Of Stuttering

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.
Meta Reflections 2011 – #16
April 5, 2011
A Practical Application regard Semantic Reactions

Pour la traduction française, cliquez ici (PDF)

The very first time that Bob Bodenhamer and I used The Matrix Model to model was the experience of speaking dis-fluency called “stuttering.”  I initiated that as I had followed the work of speech pathologist, Wendell Johnson.   In his book, People in Quandaries, he wrote a chapter about several American Indian tribes wherein he could find no one who stuttered.  Later he discovered that people from those tribes did stutter when they lived in other cultures, but not in their original culture.  He also discovered that in their original culture and language, there was no word in those languages for “stuttering” or “stammering.”  It did not exist!

And if an experience is not punctuated by language and set apart as a separate entity or experience, people don’t notice it.  For them, that experience does not exist.  In fact, in trying to explain what stuttering was, Dr. Johnson imitated stuttering and the elders in those tribes laughed.  They thought it was silly.  Now, not so surprising, Wendell Johnson had stuttered himself as a young boy and that was one of the reasons for entering the field of speech pathology.  What separated him from most in that field was that he applied the revolutionary work of Alfred Korzybski in General Semantics to the experience of stuttering and as a result, he cured himself.  And it was his original work that got my attention and led Bob and I to write several articles about the Neuro-Semantic approach to stuttering.

Now in 2011 there is a movie about stuttering, The King’s Speech. It is dated in the 1930s when the young man who became the King of England during Hitler’s time and prior to World War II suffered from this speech dysfunction.  And the person who became his speech trainer / coach was an Australian who used various techniques to facilitate mastering over stuttering.  What did he do?

He challenged the frames. Stuttering is not a problem with breathing or genetics; it is a problem of a person’s frames.  To create a good case of stuttering there are certain belief frames that you have to adopt.  You have to believe such things as:

Mis-speaking is a terrible, horrible, and awful experience (Meaning matrix).

Not speaking fluently means I’m inadequate as a person (Self matrix).

Not speaking fluently means no one will like me, want to be around me, value me, love me, but will laugh at me and reject me (Others matrix).

I have to stop myself from stuttering and pay attention to each and every word that comes out of my mouth (Intention matrix).

But it’s impossible, I can’t stop it, trying to stop it only makes it worse, this means that I’m powerless and helpless against this, I must indeed be inadequate as a human being (Power matrix and Self matrix).

So now my future with others, with a career is ruined (Others, World of Career, and Time matrices).

Now if you adopt frames like these, you will be semantically loading the experience of speaking so that any and every form of mis-speaking or searching for words.  Do that and you will be creating a semantic reaction of fear, dread, anxiety, and worry about speaking.  This is what Dr. Bob found in working with so many individuals who stutter— they have created not merely a fear of mis-speaking, but a phobia of mis-speaking.  And that became his hypothesis about stuttering: Stuttering is a phobia of mis-speaking located in the throat.  That is, the person has mind-to-muscled the fearful frames about stuttering so that those frames now inform and govern one’s person’s breathing and speaking.

The problem here?  The frames!  The problem that anyone who stutters is not them.  They are not the problem.  They are not inadequate.  They are fine and work perfectly well.  The problem is their frames!  The belief, understanding, decision, identity, etc. frames listed above— those frames is the problem.  And that is why when you change those frames, the performance of the behavior of stuttering changes.

This is what most stutterers do, they semantically over-load the speaking experience and give it far too much meaning.  They make their identity, their value as a person, their relationships with others for all time, etc. dependent on their tongue and lips.  How they speak determines everything!  So they over-generalize; they awfulize; and they bring a demanding-ness to speaking fluently.

1) Fearful Demanding-ness. In the movie, The King’s Speech, that’s what Lyonal did with Bertie, the King of England.  He challenges his frames.

First he challenged his frames about the demanding-ness. “Bertie, call me Lyonal, here we are equals.”  This was to change the context (which changes meaning).  Later he said, “Say it to me as a friend.”

What Bob and I found out about stuttering was that every person who stutters have exceptions— places, times, and persons with whom they do not stutter. When do you not stutter?  Do you stutter with your dog?  Do you stutter when you pray?  In the movie, Lyonal asked, “Do you stutter when you think?”  “No, of course not.”  Ah, so here’s an exception!  So you do know how to think or pray or talk to your dog without stuttering!  So if there’s an exception, what is the difference that makes a difference in that exception? If you develop that, you have developed a powerful first step to a resolution.

If you stutter, notice the demanding-ness in your mind when you tell yourself to not stuttering.  What that does with the automatic nature of speech is create a command negation that will make it worse.  It is the same kind of demandingness that you create when you can’t sleep at night and you say to yourself, “I have to get some sleep; okay, try really hard now to sleep!”

So what’s a person to do?  Get ready for a surprise and a paradox—give up the need and demandingness!  When you fully accept not-sleeping, and just notice it, you fall asleep.  So with speaking, just accept the stuttering and notice it and welcome it by practicing it.  This paradoxical injunction: Try to not-sleep.  Try to not-be-fluent.  Go ahead and notice your non-sleeping— your non-fluency.

In the movie, Lyonal asked Bertie to sing it. Find a tune that you know well and whatever it is that you are trying to say, sing it.  “Sounds let it flow” Lyonal explained.  This both accepts the experience and changes one element in the experience.  The King thought it silly, ridiculous and refused to do it, at first, then he found that he could move through the blocking and stuckness by using a tune and putting the words to the tune.

From the Meta-States Model perspective, applying the state of fear to mis-speaking creates a phobia and panic about it.  It frames the utterance of words with fear.   Mis-speaking now becomes a member of the class of fear.  So when you meta-state the mis-speaking with a very different state— acceptance, exploration, curiosity, fun, playfulness, humor, etc.— it radically changes things.  That’s what I always do.  I will intentionally stutter on “s” or “f” or “p” or other letters and then provoke and tease the person, “Can you do better than that!?”  The purpose is to get the person to play with it, to bring fun and humor to the mis-speaking.

This reduces the semantic loading and changes the frame from fear to fun.  For most, it is the first time in their lives that they have ever treated the mis-speaking from a non-serious and even playful way.

2) Cruel Judgments and Judgmentalism. In the movie, the King did not want to talk about his personal history or anything personal.  He viewed the problem as strictly and as only behavioral.  But the problem isn’t behavioral, it is semantic— it is the frames of meaning that the person gives to the behavior.  So it took a long while, but eventually the King talked about being mercilessly teased about the mis-speaking as a young boy, teased by his brother who put him down and judged him for it, as well as by his father.  Lyonal’s comments?

“You don’t need to be afraid of the things you were afraid of at five.  You are your own man now.”

What great frames!  The past-is-the-past and what you feared as a five-year-old doesn’t need to be fearful now as a man.  You once were controlled by others, now you are your own person.  Breaking the judgment frames is critical.  First we have to master the childish fear that others will judge us and that will be terrible.  And yet even more important is that we have to master our own self-judgments.

The movie portrayed this in a fascinating way.  It occurred when Lyonal invited the King to read a famous writing.  When he did, because he could hear himself, he was simultaneously judging himself.  But when Lyonal turned up some music and played it so loud the King could not hear himself reading, he read the literature fluently, only he did not recognize it.  And because he was so impatient, so self-critical, so non-accepting of the process—he stormed out.  He did take the recording with him that Lyonal had made and at a later time, late at night, he put on the record and listened.  He was amazed!  The recording only recorded his voice and not the loud music and he was reading fluently.  Why?  What was the difference?  When he could not hear himself, he was not judging himself.

The problem that creates stuttering is the judgment frame! This is so human.  This is so common.  I’ve never met a human being who didn’t have the well-develop skill of judging him or herself!  And judging self or judging others seems to be so developed with us that what most of us have to learn is how to suspend judgment. [By the way, we have a Neuro-Semantic pattern just for this, the “Releasing Judgment” pattern which we have all Meta-Coaches and Neuro-Semantic Trainers experience on day one of the training.]

The movie portrayed another process in the movie was Lyonal provoking the King to anger.  He noticed that when he got angry enough to curse, that at that point he did not stutter.  “Do you know the F word?” he asked.  At another time he “reproved” and “commanded” him regarding sitting in a chair, “You can’t sit there!” and that frustrated and angered the King to be talked that way by a commoner!  Lyonal brought his fluent-while-cursing to his attention.

So what’s going on with that?  When he moved beyond the frame of caring what people think, when he was frustrated or angry enough to curse— he was fluent!

Finally there was the scene where Lyonal brought Bertie into his home and there was a model plane on the table in the process of being put together.  When the King was a child he was not allowed to play with model planes, so Lyonal encouraged him to play with it and as he became preoccupied and focused on the plane, his speech became more and more fluent.  Ah, again, it was an experience that moved him outside of his usual frames of judgment, disapproval, and over-consciousness of speaking.

Whenever you have an automatic, non-conscious behavior like sleeping or speaking, when you become conscious of such and then meta-state yourself with states like fear, demandingness, and judgment—you can really mess things up! It is the same process when you learn something so well, when you over-learn it, then the performance drops out of conscious awareness and operates automatically like playing any sport, driving, tying a tie, etc.  Then if you start noticing it, and especially with judgment, you can really screw it up. [By the way, this is why some people fallaciously think that consciousness is the problem.  It is not.  The problem isn’t awareness, but the kind of awareness— judgmental, fearful awareness.]

Mis-speaking is just that— mis-speaking.  So don’t over-load it with too much meaning.  Don’t put your self-esteem as a person on the line for that.  Don’t semantically load it with meanings about relationships.  Instead, welcome it.  Embrace it.  Play with it.  Enjoy it!  Yes, enjoy the stuttering! That’s why, when I coach a stutterer, I always give the assignment: “Every morning when you are dressing and getting ready for the day, practice stuttering for five minutes.”  Why?  Because if you can “turn it on” then it becomes yours!  You have it instead of the experience having you and you hating its control over your life.