How I Recovered from Stuttering

A keynote speech by John C. Harrison to the Annual Meeting of the
British Stammering Association London, September 8, 2002

John C. Harrison

It is always a pleasure to come to my favorite city.  Especially when I get to talk about my favorite topic.  Stuttering had a big impact on my life, and I wrestled with it more or less for 30 years.

My stuttering was always very situational.  Around my friends, I could generally talk okay.  But if I had to speak in class, or talk to authority figures, or get on a bus and ask for a “transfer, or stop a stranger on the street, I’d block.  And as far as standing up and speaking in front of a group...forget it. 

And yet I recovered.  When I say I recovered, I don’t mean that I’m a controlled stutterer.  I mean that the impulse to block is no longer present.  It’s gone.   

Now, according to most people, that’s not supposed to happen.  I’ve heard hundreds and hundreds of people say, “There’s no cure for stuttering.  Once a stutterer, always a stutterer.  Nobody knows what causes stuttering.”  Many of those people have been in the professional community.  Mostly, they talk about controlling one’s stuttering.  But they don’t talk about disappearing it.

That at least some people can make their stuttering disappear -- and I’ve met a number who have -- is an important statement on the nature of stuttering.  That’s what I’m here to talk to you about...the nature of stuttering.

The reason why we haven’t been more successful in addressing it over the last 80 years is that for all this my opinion and in the opinion of a growing number of others...stuttering has been incorrectly characterized. We’ve been using the wrong paradigm.  We’ve been solving the wrong problem. 

If you’re trying to solve a problem, the way you define and frame the problem has everything to do with whether you’ll be able to come up with an answer. 

Employing the right paradigm is important because a paradigm filters incoming information. Anything that doesn’t fall within the defined characteristics of the paradigm is deemed to be unimportant and irrelevant, although much of what remains unnoticed may be necessary to solve the problem.  

Another reason why we’ve been stuck in our thinking about stuttering is that, by and large, most of us focus our attention in looking for answers in all the familiar places. 

It’s like the man who’s walking home one night, and comes to a fellow on his knees under a street light, obviously looking for something.

“Hey, buddy, need some help?”

“Sure do,” says the man.  “I lost my car keys.”

“Well, let me give you a hand,” says the passer-by.  And for the next five minutes they both crawl around under the street light, looking for the keys.

Finally, the passer-by says, “Are you sure you lost the keys here?”

“Oh no,” says the man.  “I lost them over there,” and points to a section of grass outside of the light.

“Well, for Pete's sake,” says the passer-by in frustration.  “Why are you looking here?”

“Light’s better,” says the man.

The reason why I’m standing here talking to you today, having disappeared my stuttering, is in part because I never looked for answers in the “well-lit” familiar places.  Why?  Well, for one thing, I had a simple block and never developed a lot of secondary behaviors.  Therefore, I never worked with a speech therapist.  Therefore, I never got into the traditional thinking about stuttering as something you had to control.  Therefore, my search for answers was not colored by other people’s ideas.  I was not told what was important and what was not.  I never developed the familiar filters through which most people viewed stuttering.  And that’s why I was able to see more clearly what was going on with my speech. 

What I discovered over time was that my stuttering was not about my speech per se.  It was about my comfort in communicating with others.  It was a problem that involved all of me — how I thought, how I felt, how I spoke, how I was programmed to respond.  And yes, there were also some things I did with the muscles that created speech that I needed to correct. 

Before we go on, there’s something we need to do.  We need to define what we mean by “stuttering.” 

The easy disfluencies that many people experience in emotional situations are essentially different from the struggle behavior characteristic of a full-fledged stuttering block.  One is a reflex triggered by emotions and probably influenced by genetic factors related to how one relates to stress, etc.  The other is a learned strategy, a set of behaviors designed to break through or wait out a speech block.  They are, in short, not simply points on a continuum but entirely different phenomena.   By using a common name, we imply relationships and similarities that may not in fact exist, and it only creates endless confusion to call them by the same name—"stuttering"—even if we distinguish one as “primary” and the other as “secondary”. 

For this reason, I propose that we give up the word "stuttering" (except in the broadest of discussions) and differentiate each of five different behaviors by assigning to it its own separate and unique terminology. 

Today, we’re looking at the blocking form of stuttering, which can be more accurately understood as a system involving the entire person.  This system can be visualized as a six-sided figure—in effect, a Stuttering Hexagon—an interactive system that's comprised of at least six essential components: behaviors emotions, perceptions, beliefs, intentions and physiological responses. 

Each point of the Hexagon is connected to all the other points.  Like a spider’s web, a jiggle anywhere is felt throughout the entire network.  Everything affects, and is affected by, everything else.  It is the moment-by-moment dynamic interaction of these six components that maintains the system’s homeostatic balance. 


It is precisely because of the self-perpetuating nature of the system that it is so difficult to bring about permanent change at only one point.  What usually happens is that after therapy most people who stutter slide back.  This is because many therapy programs simply adopt a strategy of control in which only speech issues are addressed.  Little is done to transform the system that supports the dysfluent speech. 

A strategy of disappearance, on the other hand, calls for breaking down the stuttering system into its separate components and making changes concurrently at other points around the Stuttering Hexagon—specifically addressing the individual’s emotions, perceptions, beliefs and programming.  Pursuing this global strategy can lead to a self-sustaining fluency system because not only are the speech blocks addressed but also the supporting factors which lead the person to block.  It can also lead to a different perception of what stuttering is all about.    

I’ve had many people ask me through the years, “Can everybody make their stuttering disappear?” and “How did you do it?”  Theoretically speaking, most everybody can make their stuttering disappear. Theoretically.  Practically speaking, there are a lot of factors to deal with, and some people have more to deal with than others.  Also, not everyone is interested in attaining a high level of fluency.  So not everybody is going to be able or willing to completely get rid of their stuttering.  But that’s not a requirement, if they can reach a level of fluency that they’re happy with. 

After all, not everyone who studies English as a second language is interested in speaking it perfectly.  I have a friend, Olga Peshkova, who comes from Russia.  Olga has a great job in a large corporation and her English is almost totally fluent.  That was her goal: to speak perfect English. 

Then you have Mr. Galetski who runs a restaurant in San Francisco and emigrated here some years ago.  He took English As a Second Language (ESL) classes, but left after he acquired a rudimentary ability to speak the tongue.  Yet, he’s perfectly satisfied with his skill level.  He can run his business.  He can talk to his customers.  They totally understand him.  And that’s all that matters. 

It’s all up to the individual -- how much the person wants to work, how difficult the task is, whether the person has natural language abilities, what skill level the individual is satisfied with, and other contributing factors.  There is no “right” way.

Although I’ve shared pieces of how I recovered, I’ve never really told the whole story.  So that’s what I’m going to do today.  In as much time as I have, I’m going to talk about the key factors that contributed to my recovery.  I’ll also relate this to the Stuttering Hexagon so you can see how the changes in my speech were a reflection of the way I changed as a person.  

My disfluent speech began when I was three years old.  My mother and grandmother had gone to Europe for six weeks, and the day my mother returned, I took her into the garden and said, “Mommy, look look look at the flower.”  I don’t remember that day.  But I do know that by the age of four, my father was very concerned about my speech and started running me around to various experts.  One of them told my father that I was a nervous child, and that I seemed to stutter more when my mother was around.  

There are also indications that, although I started out with a very close and intimate relationship with my mom, that something happened to change this.  I don’t know what it was.  But by the age of 7 or 8, I no longer liked to have her hug me.  I was prone to hold in my feelings.  I also remember that I was an extremely sensitive child and that it didn’t take much to hurt my feelings. 

Libby Oyler, who is both a person who stutters and a speech language pathologist, conducted some fascinating research on the relationship of sensitivity and stuttering for her Ph.D. thesis.  The numbers she gave me were astounding.

Although 15% to 20% of the general population can be classified as “highly sensitive,” that number climbs to an amazing 83% for people who stutter. 

What does “highly sensitive” mean?  On the plus side, it means that you’re more intuitive.  You pick up feelings and subtle aspects of communication, both verbal and non-verbal, that don’t register with less sensitive people.  But it also means you’re more quickly aroused.  Your senses are easily stimulated and sometimes, overwhelmed.  You react more strongly when somebody yells at you.  It’s easier to get you excited or upset.  If somebody doesn’t like the way you act, they don’t have to yell at you or openly mock you to deliver their message.  They just have to raise an eyebrow or give you a look, and the message comes through loud and clear.

Libby’s research also highlighted something else that was interesting.  About 10-15% of the general population can be classified as behaviorally inhibited.  What does that mean?  Behaviorally inhibited people find it harder to be out in the world.  They're profoundly more vulnerable.  It's harder to calm them down.  They’re more subject to over-arousal.  Their brain doesn't regulate sensory integration well and doesn’t filter out information efficiently so they can relax.  For the stuttering population, the percentage of behaviorally inhibited people is not 10 or’s 42%.

Did all that apply to me?  I think so.  If someone was cross with me, or raised their voice, just like that, I’d be upset.  I was totally focused on pleasing others and on being nice.  And because I was a sensitive kid, I was quick to pick up any signs of disapproval. 

Is this hyper-sensitivity what caused my stuttering?  No.  But it was part of it.

How do I know I was worried about my speech?  I recall that back when I used to say my prayers at night, they always began with, “Please, Oh Lord, help me to talk without stuttering, help me keep my back straight, and help prevent all wars.”

Help me keep my back straight?  What kid in his right mind would pray for that?  I’ll tell you what kind.  A kid who didn’t feel he was okay the way he was and who was totally focused on pleasing his mom.  And if I had that much of a charge on keeping my back straight, imagine the charge I had about stuttering which was number one on the list.  

Here are more things about me.  I never got angry.  In fact, I was afraid of feelings, just like everyone else in my family.  It wasn’t until the age of 30 in an encounter group that I ever got angry and blew up at another person.  Imagine that.  I went 30 years without ever getting angry.  And I thought that was perfectly natural.

Then there was my compulsive need to do things right.  In middle school, if I wrote a character too quickly and it filled in, I’d cross it out and write it correctly right above it....until the teacher finally commanded me to stop doing that.

Is this perfectionism what caused my stuttering?  No, it’s not what caused it.  But it was a contributing factor.

My earliest memory of being really scared about speaking was when our seventh grade class had to perform a scene from a play at a middle school assembly.  The play was Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I was playing the part of Puck.  I only had a couple of lines which started out -- “I came with Hermia hither.”  

Well, did I worry about that for four weeks.  I was afraid I couldn’t say the “h” words.  I was panicked about being up in front of 100 kids and teachers and standing there with my mouth open, not being able to say a word...because I had this speech problem. That’s all I could see.  I had this speech problem.

I did survive it, because I had a trick.  I discovered that if I could evacuate most of the air in my lungs, I could talk on the residual air and get the word out.  And that’s what I did.  When the time came, I said, “I came with (long exhale) Hermia hither.”  Oh, I got some funny looks.  But I got the words out. 

Nevertheless, that experience reinforced my belief that I had a speech problem.  How wrong I was.  I didn’t have a speech problem. I could speak just fine when I was alone.  The problem lay in my relationship with the people I was speaking to.  I had a problem with the experience of communicating to others.  It was my EXPERIENCE of expressing who I was that I had fears about.  And it manifested itself in my speech.

Let’s see what my hexagon looked like at the age of 12.  I had a belief that it was dangerous to show my emotions.  It was dangerous to be assertive.  I believed that I had to do everything correctly.  I believed that everyone was judging me...not just my speech...but me.  I had very low self-esteem.  I didn’t think that I was very important.  I had a fear of not being good enough.  And a fear of acting out of character with my passive self-image.  Speaking forcefully in front of the middle school, on the other hand, required self-esteem.  Consequently, I had a conflict, and I resolved it by holding myself back. 

By the age of twelve I had so completely made myself over to fit the expectations of others that I didn’t know who I was.  Looking back to that “Hermia hither” moment, it’s very clear what I was afraid of.  I was afraid of experiencing the excitement of being me.  I was holding back me.  For some reason, there was something bad about showing up as myself.

How did this happen?  How did I get divorced from my real self.  How do any of us get so cut off from who we are that we feel compelled to hold back and create a false self?

One of the most elegant statements of how we lose ourselves was written back in 1962 by Abraham Maslow.  Maslow was part of a group called the “third force psychologists.”  These were psychologists whose main interest was not in pathology.  They wanted to understand the self-realizing individual.  The person who was super healthy, who consistently operated on a higher level than the rest of us.  The person who frequently had what they called “peak experiences.” 

What stops us all from being able to reach that same level of functioning?

As little children, we need the approval of others.  We need it for safety.  We need it for food.  We need it for love and respect.  The prospect of losing all that is terrifying.  So if we have to choose between being loved and being ourselves, it’s no contest.  We abandon ourselves and die a kind of secret psychic death. 

Maslow wrote a seminal book called, Towards a Psychology of Being which looked at these issues.  In that book was a beautiful description of how it is possible to lose yourself and isolate yourself from your deepest sources of power...and not even know that you’re doing it.   Listen to Maslow’s description of a child who’s forced to make that choice:

He has not been accepted for himself, as he is. "Oh, they 'love' him, but they want him or force him or expect him to be different! Therefore he must be unacceptable. He himself learns to believe it and at last, even takes it for granted. No matter now whether he obeys them, whether he clings, rebels or withdraws -- his behavior, his performance is all that matters. His center of gravity is in 'them,' not in himself.  Yet, if he so much as noticed it, he'd think it natural enough. And the whole thing is entirely plausible; all invisible, automatic, and anonymous!

"This is the perfect paradox. Everything looks normal; no crime was intended; there is no corpse, no guilt. All we can see is the sun rising and setting as usual. But what’s happened? He’s been rejected, not only by them, but by himself. (He is actually without a self.) 

But he’s not dead. 'Life' goes on, and so must he. From the moment he gives himself up, and to the extent that he does so, all unknowingly he sets about to create and maintain a pseudo‑self. But this is a 'self' without wishes. He’ll go through the motions, not for fun or joy, but for survival; because he has to obey. From now on he will be torn apart by unconscious, compulsive needs or ground by unconscious conflicts into paralysis, every motion and every instant canceling out his being and his integrity; and all the while he is disguised as a normal person and expected to behave like one!

So there I was, afraid to say, “I came with Hermia hither”...feeling that it was not okay to be myself in front of the middle school.  But all I could see was that I had a stuttering problem.   

Something that greatly contributes to the holding back process is the relationship you have with those around you.  How many of you have noticed that it’s easy to speak to some people and impossible to speak to others without stuttering?  I noticed that.  When I was in middle school, I was shy and unassertive.  I was not much of a presence in the class.  But I had an experience around that time that caused me to wonder.

My parents had some friends who lived in New Jersey, and they had a daughter named Barbara Lee.  We were invited out there one weekend, and I spent two days with Barbara Lee and her crowd.  I hardly recognized myself.  I was outspoken, I was funny, I didn’t hold back, and I didn’t stutter.  People listened to me if I had something to say.  Then I went back home and instantly turned back into this shy, quiet kid that nobody listened to.  A shy, quiet kid who held himself back in his speech.

In retrospect, it became clear that over time, my friends expected me to show up as shy and unassertive, and they related to me accordingly.  I, in turn, related to them the way they related to me, and presto!  I was locked in a role I couldn’t get out of. 

Over the last 26 years, I’ve seen many examples of how a person gets locked into a role and how it affects their speech.  One of these moments took place at an NSA chapter meeting about 20 years ago.  We had an older fellow in the group named Frank.  He was a really nice, unassuming guy with a moderate stutter.  One evening, it was my turn to run the meeting, and I came in with some silly poetry for people to read.  What I gave to Frank was a stanza from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland in which the Mock Turtle is singing this plaintive song in a voice choked with sobs  Now keep in mind that Frank is a software engineer.  It goes this way: 

Beautiful Soup, so rich and green,

Waiting in a hot tureen!

Who for such dainties would not stoop?

Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!

Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!

     Beau—ootiful Soo—oop!

     Beau—ootiful Soo—oop!

Soo—oop of the e—e—evening,

     Beautiful, beautiful Soup!

I told Frank to ham it up and be as silly and outrageous as he liked.  And he did.  He was totally silly.  Instead of speaking in his usual flat voice, he was really passionate.  And Frank was totally fluent. At the end of the meeting, I asked Frank how he managed to let go so much.  You know what he said to me?  He said, “You gave me permission.”

What was interesting was that Frank’s wife also came to the meeting.  She was a severe, stern-faced women who had no interest in participating.  She came to observe.  And she spent the entire meeting knitting.  I looked at her and thought, “I know why Frank doesn’t let go and be himself.  He married his mom.  He was still caught up with being a good boy.” 

So the people around you and how you relate to them will have a big impact on your willingness to let go, that is, if you choose to hand over your power to them.

What I discovered through my own recovery process was that, at the heart of it, stuttering isn’t a problem with the production of speech.  All of us can talk just fine when we’re alone.  It’s a problem with the experience of speaking.  It’s a problem with our discomfort when we communicate to particular individuals and in particular situations.  And it’s about the strategies we adopt to manage this discomfort.      

What really frustrated me in high school was that one moment I’d be talking, and the next moment I’d be locked up and unable to say a word.  I could talk to my friends in the school yard and be perfectly fluent, but giving a book report in front of those same friends in the classroom, I’d only get a few words out before I’d block.  Sometimes I wished that I’d stutter all the time.  At least then I’d know who I was.

I spent hours in my room, trying to figure out what was happening with my speech when I locked up.  I’d tighten my tongue or purse my lips, but it just wasn’t the same. When I actually blocked, it seemed like something was happening to me.   In fact, it was not until I got to college that I made any kind of progress with my speech.

In my sophomore year of college I took a class in public speaking, and because I was anxious about my stuttering, I decided to confess to the professor that I had a problem.  He was very interested in helping, and asked if I’d like to come by after class.  One thing he did was to get out some books and pictures and explained to me how speech was created.  It sounds like such an obvious thing, but nobody had ever done that before.  For almost 20 years I had been totally in the dark about what was going inside my throat and chest when I spoke and when I blocked.

Now, for the first time, I could actually picture how speech was produced...what it looked like.  How many people here know exactly how speech is produced? 

The effect of that session with the speech professor was to take some of the mystery out of the speaking process.  I could picture in my mind what I might be doing when I blocked.  I don’t know about you, but when I understand something, I don’t fear it as much.

I also took a big leap by giving a talk in my speech class about stuttering -- the first time I talked publicly about it.  The reaction of the class was great.  People were interested.  I didn’t feel like a weirdo, and it made speaking much easier for the rest of the semester. 

By the time I graduated college, I still blocked, though not as much.  But more than anything, I had started to observe, not just my stuttering, but all the areas around my stuttering.  And while I didn’t have any answers, I was starting to define the questions. 

The ability to observe is absolutely critical if you want to change yourself in any way.  Observing, in its highest form, is called mindfulness.  It’s a meditation term. What it calls for is to clear your mind and simply notice what’s going on.  Don’t just notice the familiar things.  See if you can observe dispassionately, without an agenda.  When you can do that...when you can observe without trying to fit what you see into any pre-existing paradigm, it’s amazing the kinds of things you start to pay attention to.  

For example, back in the 60’s when you couldn’t pump your own petrol, I’d drive into the service station near our apartment and have to ask the attendant to “Fill it up.”  Some days I could say it perfectly without a hitch.  Other days, when the attendant came over, I knew I was going to block, and I’d have to resort to starter phrases like, “Eh, man ‘ow are ya can you fill it up please.” 

Why was that? 

If I was focusing only on my speech, I’d never been able to explain it.  But by then I was routinely looking at all aspects of the speaking situation.  You know what I finally realized?  On the days when I was getting on with my wife, I had no trouble.  But on days when I was feeling angry or resentful or hurt and was holding all my feelings in, those where the days I’d have trouble.

Then why was I having a problem with the attendant?  I wasn’t hurt or angry at him?  I discovered that if allowed myself to connect in a personal way with the attendant, what you might call “having an encounter,” those other feelings would want to come out.  That was scary.  I didn’t want to experience them.  So I would get this danger signal from my body that there was something to fear, and I’d hold back and block. 

What encouraged me to make observations like this?  A big thing was that I never really had any formal speech therapy.  Consequently, my mind was never shaped by the traditional beliefs about speech therapy, including the big one, which is having to control your speech.  Consequently, I never focused on my speech.   It was amazing all the things I discovered just by keeping a broad focus.

Most people are not very good observers.  But they can learn to be.  And this is critical if you want to get over this problem. 

I never had any formal speech therapy, but I did undertake my own.  Whether or not you work with a therapist, there are a lot of things that you can do by yourself.  For example, just experimenting, I discovered that if I released a little air before I spoke, I was less likely block.  I later found out that this was the air flow technique promoted by Dr. Martin Schwartz in New York.

If I did block, I discovered I could get a better handle on what I was doing if I repeated the block and then said the word the way I wanted to, without the block.  Later I found out that this is was the “cancellation” process developed by Charles Van Riper. 

I found that if I was really tense and took a deep breath, it helped to relax my body. This is somewhat similar to the costal breathing that’s an integral part of the McGuire program. 

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not against speech therapy.  In a very real way, I did go through speech therapy.  My own.  And it really does help to know what you’re doing when you stutter, to know it so well that you can reproduce it on purpose.  It’s like taking apart your tennis swing.  The reason you hit too many balls into the net may be because you have a performance fear.  But it may also be because you’re not swinging right. 

Will changing your swing make you as good a player as Serena Williams?  Probably not.  But having a proper swing is one of the factors that makes a good tennis player.  And speaking in a way that does not interfere with the production of speech is one factor you may need to address in the recovery process. 

So again, proper speaking technique is not the whole story.  But it’s a part of it. 

Personality characteristics can also play a role in the recovery process.  I just hate it when something doesn’t work right.  As Doris can tell you, I’ve stayed up many nights until 3 a.m. troubleshooting a problem on my Macintosh computer.  Sometimes, that compulsiveness drives me a little wacko.  But as far as stuttering goes, it worked in my favor.  Because whenever I couldn’t speak, I was compulsively drawn to figuring out why. 

It also helps if you’re a counterphobic.  When I’m afraid of something, I attempt to manage the fear by moving toward the threat and dealing with it directly, rather than running away from it.  Every time I got on a bus, I’d ask for a transfer, whether I wanted it or not. Sometimes I could say transfer, but most of the time, I couldn’t. I had to keep pushing it, because I was afraid of what would happen to me if I didn’t.  I was afraid to hide.  

At the age of 25, I left New York and a safe job in my father’s ad agency and got on a plane and went to California.  Smartest move I ever made.  I needed 3,000 miles between me and my family, not because they controlled my life, but because I needed them to tell me who I was.  In California, I didn’t have that crutch.  For the first time in my life, I was really on my own. 

I found a job as an advertising copywriter.  I found an apartment.  And I joined the junior advertising club.  The very first meeting, there were 45 people seated around a very large conference table, and the president of the club said, “Let’s start out by having everyone introduce themselves.”  I was next to last.

I couldn’t belong to this club if I had to fear introducing myself each meeting.  I had to find a way to confront the fear directly, and that’s when I joined Toastmasters. 

Toastmasters is one of the truly great organizations for those with speaking fears, because it gives you an opportunity to speak in front of others in a risk-free environment.  Oops.  Did I say “risk free?”  Not quite!  It’s true, there no consequences if you block or give a jumbled speech or even stand there with your mouth open and saying nothing.  Nobody is going to fire you.  And people in Toastmasters are always very supportive.  But there is a risk.  The risk is to your ego and your self-image.  I don’t know how many times I left a Toastmasters meeting feeling like I came off poorly. 

However, what those three years in Toastmasters did for me was to provide a place that offered both absolute safety and the experience of risk.  It was safe in that, even if I blocked or went blank or totally screwed up, there were no consequences.  Nobody would fire me from a job.  Nobody would make fun of me.  They were a very supportive group. 

It felt risky because my ego was on the line.  I would sometimes go home sometimes totally mortified about how stupid I must have looked in the meeting.  Probably, I wasn’t stupid.  It just felt that way.   It was my old stuff coming up.  But showing up week after week, I slowly became more comfortable in front of people.

Very slowly I was starting to change how I saw myself.  And that accelerated in a big way when I became involved with the Synanon Foundation.

To give you a little background -- Synanon was a unique 24-hour, residential, self-help rehabilitation program.  The residents were all hookers, junkies, ex-felons and others you’d classify as people with acting out character disorders.  I was drawn to the organization as a sponsor, as were many others in the community. 

One of the unique contributions of Synanon was a form of group therapy called the Synanon Game.  Drug addicts and other repeat offenders are hard to reach because they’re so manipulative.  Being street-wise, they know all the right words to make a psychiatrist or counselor feel good.  This makes it really tough to get them to change their behavior. 

So the founder of Synanon, an ex-alcoholic named Chuck Dederich, created a group dynamic in which people could learn to manipulate each other into telling the truth.  The only way to “win” in this game was to be candid and honest.  If you weren’t, you’d get manipulated from Boston to Bombay, and end up looking very dumb and foolish.  The focus of the group would drift from one person to another.  At one moment, you’d be on the hot seat.  An hour later you’d be running the riot act on someone else.  The game was good, because not only did it force you into telling the truth, it also improved your ability to deal with others, and it gave you a chance to explore your feelings.

One evening in 1965 I and a group of others were playing a Synanon Game in a living room in Sausalito, right across the bay from San Francisco.  In the group were a builder, a lawyer, a travel agent, a cartoonist and a dozen others like myself who you’d classify as ordinary people.      

We also had one Synanon resident with us by the name of Jack Hurst.  During the game he said to me, “John, if you stay around for a while, we’re going to make your stuttering disappear.”

After three years of having people see the most unflattering sides of me,

I realized one day that Jack’s prophesy had come true.  I still blocked on occasion, but after interacting with hundreds and hundreds of people in a very intimate setting, I had a different perception of myself, my speech, and other people.  

I realized that I didn’t block because I had something wrong with the way I talked.  I blocked because I had difficulties with the experience of communicating to others, especially in particular situations.  It was as if I finally looked under the hood to see what was really making the car run.  And it wasn’t what I thought it was. 

What did I find?  Well, you name it.  I had difficulties with self-assertion.  I found it hard to express my feelings.  I was a rampant perfectionist.  I was overly sensitive.  Most times, I didn’t know what I felt.  I had very low self-esteem.  I was obsessively focused on being nice and pleasing others.  I was constantly beset by my conflicting intentions.  Oh yes, I also had a tendency to hold back by tightening my throat and holding my breath when I moved too far out of my comfort zone. 

If I wanted to survive in those Games, something had to give.  I couldn’t survive by being nice and trying to please everyone, because every time I did, I’d find myself pushed into corners and looking totally stupid.  You see, people wanted you to define who YOU were.  What YOU wanted.  What YOU stood for.  Problem was, I didn’t start out having answers to any of these questions about myself. 

In the Games, I also had my first exposure to strong emotions.  In my family, people didn’t laugh hard and cry hard and argue hard.  We were always restrained and guarded.  But in the Games, quite the opposite was true.  People laughed a lot.  And cried a lot.  And sometimes people got really angry and blew up.      

Far from being intimidated, I found the energy exciting during those moments, like when a flight of jet fighters thunders in low overhead and every part of you vibrates with the noise.  When I finally let go and blew up at somebody, was that ever a good feeling. 

After many, many hours of interacting with others in these games, I stopped seeing what I was doing as something called “stuttering,” and I started seeing it as a system of behaviors and personal characteristics that were organized in a particular way to cause me to hold back and block. 

One of the big surprises was how much I was like everyone else.  In the beginning, I felt different, in part because I stuttered.  But week after week of listening to other people’s stories, I began to see that we were all pretty much the same.  People are people.  Eventually, it got to where, after just 10 minutes into the game, I would find a point of connection with everyone in the room.  

Another thing that changed was my relationship to authority.  How many here find it more difficult to talk to authority figures like a boss or a parent or an expert of some sort?

I began to change in this area when I started taking graduate classes at San Francisco State College in the mid-60s.  The most fascinating of those classes was taught by a nationally known general semanticist by the name of S. I. Hayakawa who had written a landmark book called Language in Thought and Action.   Hayakawa was the most innovative and unorthodox teacher I’ve ever experienced. 

In the first class, Hayakawa began by describing his grading system.  “Everyone in the class is guaranteed a B,” he said.  “No matter what you do, you’ll still get a B.  At the end of the semester, if you deserve A work, all you have to do is come and ask me, and I’ll give you an A.  No questions asked.  I only reserve the right to give an A to someone who deserves it but is too modest to ask for it.”

Now, what did this have to do with stuttering?  It was in Hayakawa’s class that I first realized how much I was intimidated by authority and how that undercut my own sense of self.  Hayakawa asked us to write a paper a week on anything we wanted.  Any length.  Any subject.  Any language.  Because I didn’t have any requirements to fill, every word, right from the beginning, was mine.  I wrote on the things that I wanted.  What a wonderful (and bizarre) experience that was.  Back in college, if the professor asked us to write a 1000 word paper, my paper would start with word 1001.  But in Hayakawa’s class, with every word I wrote, I experienced what it felt like to be my own person, to write from the heart, and to be supported and recognized by the authority at hand. 

You know how the classes unfolded?  Twenty-five people would sit in a large circle.  Then Hayakawa would walk in, sit down, look around, and say, “Well, what’ll we talk about tonight? 

Some people were intimidated by the lack of structure.  I LOVED IT!!!  How liberating it was!  I felt I could finally take a deep breath and be myself.  I had never had that as a child.  People were always telling me what to do, and how to do it.  I never knew what it felt like to speak spontaneously freely and honestly in the presence of a non-judgmental  authority figure, and be totally supported. 

In General Semantics, which is what Hayakawa taught, I learned something about how my mind worked, and especially, how the way I used language shaped my sense of reality.  In particular, I learned how debilitating labels can be. 

For example, you invite me to your home for dinner, and a few days before someone says to you, “I’m not sure how to tell you this, but John Harrison is a thief.” 

Would you put out the good silver?  Or would you put out the stainless?  Probably the stainless. 

Suppose your informant had said instead, “You know, John stole something once.”  What then?  Since I didn’t have the label of being a thief, you probably wouldn’t be overly concerned.  But you still might be alert. 

On the other hand, if you asked your informant, “Well, what did John steal?” and she said, “Oh, John stole 15 pennies from his cousin’s piggy bank when he was 9 years old” (true story!), the issue of the silverware probably wouldn’t even come up. 

In the general semantics class, I got to see how the way I used language forced me to see things as either-or propositions.  I’m a success.  I’m a failure.  I’m a stutterer.  I’m not a stutterer.  I got to understand how language led me to see myself in a particular way.  

I was encouraged to constantly challenge my own perceptions.  If I blocked, and somebody smiled, I automatically assumed they were laughing at me.  General Semantics taught me to question how I saw things.  It taught me that my perception of reality was not reality at all.  It was only my perception.  The person could be smiling for any number of reasons.  Maybe I just said something that reminded them of a funny experience.  Maybe their drawers were too tight, and that smile was a grimace of pain.  

I began to see that if someone became upset, I automatically thought it was because of something I’d done wrong.  That created a lot of stress.  It also put me in a one-down position.  Once I got in the habit of challenging my perceptions, I started to see very interesting things.    

So changing how I thought played a very big part in my recovery from stuttering. 

There were many, many things like those I just described that contributed to the broadening picture of myself and of the world at large.  But I’m hoping that touching on some of the highlights will give you the flavor of the recovery process...and that stuttering is a problem that involves all of you.  

Do all perfectionists stutter?  No.  Does everyone who holds back his feelings, stutter?  No.  Are all highly sensitive people subject to stuttering?  No.  Do all people who grow up with a higher level of childhood disfluency stutter?  No.  Does everyone who gives up their real self and creates a false self stutter?  No.  Do all people who use the language in a non-self supportive way stutter?  No.

But what happens when you take all these factors and put them together?  If you put them together in the right way, you create a self-reinforcing system that’s greater than the sum of the parts. It’s not the parts, but how they go together that creates the blocking behaviors that most people call stuttering.

Remember, unless you put the parts together correctly, you don’t end up with chronic blocking. 

By the age of 35, stuttering had pretty much disappeared from my life. To understand why, it might be useful to compare my hexagons as an early teenager, and as someone in his mid-30s. 

John, age 15

John, age 35




I have no worth (low self-esteem)

I am worthy (good self-esteem)

I must be nice at all costs.

I must be genuinely me.

What I have to say is unimportant.

What I have to say is important.

I have to please everybody.

I have to please myself.

People are focused on me.

People are focused on themselves.

The world wants me to be good.

The world wants me to be me.

Expressing feelings is bad.

Expressing feelings is desirable.

The world has to meet my mother’s standard.

The world is perfect the way it is.

My needs always come second.

I can decide when my needs have priority.





People are judging me.

I’m the one who’s judging me.

I’m not measuring up.

I’m doing the best I can.

I’m being aggressive.

I’m being assertive.

The other person is speaking the “truth.”

The other person may be speaking the truth (and maybe not.)





My intentions to speak and not speak are fighting each other.

My intentions are in alignment.  I’m clear when I want to speak, and it’s okay to speak.



physiological responses

physiological responses

I am sensitive and quick to react.

I am sensitive and quick to react.



physical behaviors

physical behaviors

I tighten my lips and vocal chords and hold my breath when I’m worried about speaking.

I keep everything lose and supple.

I hold back.

I let go.

Where are we going with stuttering?  Are we finally starting to make some progress?  I think so.

My guess is that within the next five years, there will be definitive answers to what chronic stuttering is all about and how to approach it.  In fact, I believe we have a lot of the answers right now, if we only recognize what we already know.  The reason why I think this will happen is similar to what is happening with the SETI project. 

SETI, as you may know, stands for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence and is the program that is organizing the effort to find life in outer space.  Among other things, SETI is collecting voluminous amounts of radio broadcasts from deep space.  These data need to be processed and analyzed for instances of intelligent transmission.  This takes enormous processing power, more supercomputer power than will ever be available to the organization. How could they take on such a Herculean job.

Then several years back, someone came up with a brilliant solution.  Break the data down into small chunks and send them to hundreds of thousands of home computers.  Instead of running screen savers, the computer owners would allow their machines to process the data when their computers are not being used.  The data would then be sent back to SETI to be assembled and further processed.

A similar process is already started to happen around stuttering.  With hundreds of thousands of consumers working to solve the problem, and with the Internet as the means to share their experiences, we now have the firepower to solve what so many people have thought was an unsolvable problem.  That’s because everyone is empowered to be part of the solution.  Coming up with answers is no longer the exclusive domain of the professionals.  It’s an effort that involves all of us. 

For example, how many people are on Stuttering Chat?  How many people are on some other Internet forum relating to stuttering?  Check out the various Internet resources on stuttering if you’re not already familiar with them. 

Because of this huge dialogue that’s been taking place on stuttering, ordinary people are doing extraordinary things.  They’re writing books.  They’re coming up with suggestions for therapy.  And they’re helping researchers and speech pathologists to be better informed.  

At this year’s annual conference of the National Stuttering Association, we held the First Joint Symposium for Researchers and Consumers.  This meeting, which was two years in the making, is, as far as I know, the first such gathering in the history of stuttering research. It was designed to facilitate interactions between and among researchers and consumers on the subject of fluency disorders. For a day and a half, fifty scientists and clinicians, along with fifteen consumer advocates, discussed the current and future state of stuttering research and drafted ideas for future studies.  This is the kind of cooperation I’m talking about. 

There have also been a number of speech professionals who have been intimately involved with the stuttering community through the Internet over the last 10 years, and through attending NSA chapter meetings and conferences.  It’s been interesting to see how much they’ve grown and how their points of view have been transformed as a result. 

I’m sure that people here are saying, “Well, what can I do?”  How can I start dismantling my stuttering hexagon.  How can I start getting past my speech blocks?  How can I get to where speaking is fun?

Here are some things you can do.

Start reading.  Not just about stuttering.  Start reading in all those areas that have to do with who you are as a human being. 

Start being a good observer, not just about yourself as a stutterer, but about you as a person.  Notice the subtle ways in which the way you function as a person affects your speech.  Start asking questions like -- “Suppose I didn’t block in this situation, what might happen?”  Don’t stop with the obvious answers like, “Well, if I didn’t block, I might stutter.”  Go further.  What else might happen if you really showed up as the full version of who you are?  Keep a journal.

Get out of your comfort zone.  Experiment.  Try new things.  Remember, there’s a good chance that the answers may not be under the street light, but in the dark where you have to feel your way around. 

Get to know your stuttering behavior in intimate detail, so you can duplicate it on purpose, down to the finest degree.  Know what you’re doing when you block.  Don’t allow yourself to go unconscious.  Work with a speech professional, if you need to, in order to get a handle on this.

And for Pete’s sake, get on the Internet if you’re not there already, and start dialoging with people who have an enormous amount of wisdom and insight to share.

I’d like to conclude by reading a couple of emails posted on the neuro-semantics website by several list members who have been participating over the last six months.  These are people who have been deeply affected by their participation on the net.

The first is from Robert who says...

I would like to share a little of my realizations that would have been somewhat foreign to me 6 months ago.  I, too, and probably most of you out there, wanted to consciously be rid of stuttering.  I now realise that just letting go of my stutter would have left the same old me, just without a stutter.  If I had “fixed” my stutter, life may have been easier, but I would have been in the same model of my world.  It is myself that I have needed to heal.  Healing myself enables me to change my life for the better... I have started a new journey that I didn't realise was even there for me.  And.... here's the EPIC part about it... the stutter leaves me as a consequence.  Yes... it just leaves of it's own free will. Wow! I don't know about you guys and gals, but that bloooows me away.

And finally, this is from Prasun, who is in the audience and who wrote this not very long ago...

This group is really making a difference to people's lives. It’s amazing how technology facilitates this. I have progressed quite a distance, and have reached the point where I realize that effective speaking is so much more than just NOT stuttering! Since the last month or so, I have just not been caring whether I stutter or not, it is not that big a bother as it was some time ago. John's 'free fall' concept is so useful, and when I free fell in the situations I earlier consistently avoided, things turn out real cool. In general there is so much less tension, feverishness, worry...maybe the real me is coming out. The most important thing of course is my own relationship with myself, which has improved vastly. What would we do without this group!

Ladies and gentlemen, big changes are now taking place in the way we view stuttering.  It’s happening now.  There are thousands participating in the process. 

Won’t you join in the fun?                                      

John C. Harrison can be reached at


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