The Art of Enjoying Non-Fluency

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.

You have a very special human power or ability, a power unique to us humans, one that sets us apart from the animals and one that enables us to engage in "time-binding."

What is this power? It is the linguistic power of speech. By words, language, and speech we use the power of symbols that can stand for and represent the thoughts in our heads the ideas that we create. And by speech and writing, we can pass this knowledge on to the next generation so that they can begin where we ended. That's time-binding according to Korzybski (1933).

Yet what and how we think about our speech abilities determines how we experience this power. This really becomes obvious when it comes to "public speaking." That most people fear and dread and anxiously seek to avoid this experience tells us something about some of the personal and culture frames in which we have embedded "public speaking." Imagine someone giving you the following assignment before an audience of five hundred people.

Stand up and speak for ten minutes on Einstein's theories of the time-space continuum and relate how he developed his relativity theories and the difference between his general and special theories of relativity.

Would you stand up and speak fluently in that context? Most of us would not. We would hesitate, search for words, stumble over various terms and unfamiliar vocabulary words and then, if we dislike making a fool of ourselves (yes, some people have that frame in their mind), we might stammer and stutter. Or if we anticipate that we're going to stutter, we might block ourselves from doing so by restraining our breathing. That would enable us to generate some strange facial gesturing which we might then feel self-conscious about and feel embarrassed.

The World of Non-Fluency

We are all non-fluent whenever we are put on the spot in a situation where we want to do well and make a good impression and are under pressure to speak about things outside of our area of knowledge or expertise. We are all non-fluent with language and vocabulary that's beyond our experience. We are all non-fluent when we are searching for words, thinking aloud, and indecisive about what to say or how to say it. We are all non-fluent when we are feeling unresourceful and out of our league.

And, just as interesting, we are also all non-fluent when we are in a creative state, searching for new words to articulate a new idea that's just on the edge of our awareness. Non-fluency occurs to us when we're excited, thrilled, and experiencing ecstasy. It occurs when we're making love and almost speechless in passion.

But far, far more important than the fact of non-fluency is how we respond to our non-fluency. What do we think-and-feel about such? How do we react to our non-fluent responses?

Do we like it or dislike it?

Do we enjoy it or hate it?

Do we feel embarrassed and then feel ashamed of our embarrassment or do we feel embarrassed and then have fun with that feeling?

Do we become self-conscious in a painful way or in a pleasant way?

Do we make a big deal out of the non-fluency or do we not give it that much thought?

All of these questions, of course, are meta-stating questions and introduce the meta-states or frames that govern the higher levels of our mind. They all essentially ask,

How do we meta-state ourselves when we experience some non-fluency?

What frames of mind do we create and set for ourselves when we speak non-fluently?

What emotional states do we apply to ourselves when we feel embarrassed?

These are the questions that identify, define, and create our mental-emotional frames of mind about the experience. They create our internalized neuro-semantic environment. Then, we don't have to depend on the thoughts-and-feelings of others or of our culture, we can now take our own internalized culture with us. Yet if our internalized semantic environment is judging, harsh, insulting, critical, and/or negative then we can abuse ourselves easily, automatically, and systematically regardless of the attitude of others, especially supporting and validating attitudes.

What's a Neuro-Semantic Environment?

Wendell Johnson's original work (People in Quandaries, 1946) on stuttering focused on the significance of semantic environments in relation to stuttering. He focused on the mental-emotional environment of the family about speaking. He did so as to identify and explain the "second-order evaluations" that a person would learn about non-fluency. Second-order evaluations was the old General Semantics terminology for Meta-States. Here's what Johnson wrote:

"We see certain inter-relationships among the child's semantic environment, his own evaluations, and his overt behavior. The more anxious the parents become, the more they hound the child to 'go slowly,' and 'stop and start over,' to 'make up his mind,' to 'breathe more deeply,' etc., the more fearful and disheartened the child becomes, and the more hesitantly, frantically, and laboriously he speaks... It is a vicious spiral, and all the factors involved in it are closely interrelated." (447)

"An attempt was made to create a semantic environment for the child in which there would be a minimum of anxiety, tension, and disapproval for him to interiorize. In this way we undertook to produce in the child such evaluations of his own speech as would permit him to speak spontaneously, without pleasure, and with confidence, confidence not in his ability to speak perfectly but in his ability to speak acceptably." (448)

"Just as you might speak hesitantly in a situation in which you feel that you are not welcome and that what you say is not being well received, so a child tends to be less fluent when too much criticism and too little affection raise doubts for him as to whether his parents like him and will stand ready to give needed help and encouragement." (450)

Semantic environment refers to the interpersonal context and explains why context plays such a key role in our responses. As long as we care about how we do and what others think, as long as we are ready to evaluate our very Self in terms of any particular thing we do we semantically load up an environment or context. This increases our sense of pressure and stress. This changes speech from just being talk, it over-loads talk so that neuro-semantically it becomes all kinds of things:

Demonstration of my effectiveness.

Demonstration of my worth as a person.

Expression of who I really am.

Expression that will determine what others will think about me.

Caring too much about Fluency and Non-Fluency

Bob has been asking the a powerful neuro-semantic question of many people who stutter,

"If you didn't care about whether you stuttered or not, whether you blocked or not, whether you speak fluently or not, would you stutter? What would happen to your stuttering?"

Time and again, people respond to him by saying that they would not stutter. This is insightful. And it was for that reason that Bob and I put together The It's Doesn't Matter Pattern. It's a simple pattern. Think of something small and simple that you have a "It doesn't matter" response. Set an anchor1 on that state and then apply it to the state of mind that you experience when you speak non-fluently. We do this to unload the semantic (or meaning) load on the experience. The same thing happens through The Drop-Down Through to Rise Up Pattern.

This awareness of de-emphasizing fluency and non-fluency and treating these experiences as just experiences of talking has been around in General Semantics for a long time. Again, notice what Wendell Johnson wrote about such in 1946. He begins with making a clear distinction between non-fluency and stuttering.

"The fact of the matter is that the stutter cannot talk non-fluently. He can speak fluently all right; so long as his speech is fluent, as it is 80 percent or more of the time in the majority of cases, his speech cannot very well be distinguished from that of a normal speaker. To say that stutterers cannot talk fluently is to commit a fantastic misrepresentation of the facts. If they talked non-fluently as well as they talk fluently the could only be regarded as normal speakers. Their peculiarity lies in the fact that whenever they do hesitate or repeat they make a great show of fear and effort, instead of proceeding to stumble along calmly as normal speakers do." (452)

Do people who stutter already speak fluently? Yes. For this reason, Bob always begins when he works with a new client if there are times and places where the person already speaks fluently. Are there people with whom you speak fluently most of the time? Yes. And, of course, that's a state to anchor and use as a resource.

"In a fundamental sense, stuttering is not a speech defeat at all, although excessive non-fluency might sometimes be so regarded. Stuttering is an evaluation disorder. It is what results when normal non-fluency is evaluated as something to be feared and avoided; it is, outwardly, what the stuttered does in an attempt to avoid non-fluency. On such a basis his reluctance to speak at all, his shyness, his excessive caution in speaking, his great effort to speak perfectly shows up in his facial grimaces, bodily contortions, and strained vocalizations--all this, which is what we call stuttering." (452, italics added, MH)

"An evaluation disorder" is the General Semantics terminology for having created a negative meta-statea dragon state. The speaker has attacked him or her self with negative thoughts-and-emotions, with fear and dread, with shame and anxiety, with the fear of what it will mean. This creates the semantic damage.

"In the normal speaker non-fluency is simply a response occasioned by some external stimulus or, perhaps, by a lack of vocabulary or preparation. As a response, in this sense, non-fluency is normal. For the stutterer, on the other hand, non-fluency has become a stimulus to which he reacts with anxiety and with an effort to avoid it and its supposed social consequences. Non-fluency as a response is hardly a problem; non-fluency as a stimulus is something else again. ... [It is the attitude] ... that constitute stuttering. Simple hesitancy in speech is normal and harmless. But to hesitate to hesitate is relatively serious in its consequences. It is these attitudes of fear and embarrassment, and this second-order hesitating to hesitate, these anxious exertions of effort to speak perfectly and without non-fluencythese are the symptoms of stuttering that stand out in the adult." (453)

Stuttering consists of a special attitude? What if stuttering is created and results through refusing to tolerate non-fluency? What if it is the meta-state of dread, anxiety, fear, worry, etc. that itself sets the frame against "talk" and which also demands fluency? What if it is these frames of mind (i.e., "attitudes") that makes up stuttering and blocking?

If this is so, then reversing these frames and undoing this attitude becomes fairly easy. Then, all we would have to do is access states of acceptance and even appreciation of non-fluent talk and meta-state it with such. Then, it would be a matter of welcoming and enjoying non-fluency as just that, non-fluent talk.

This is what most speakers do. It's what I do. I really don't care all that much about fluency or non-fluency. I hardly ever think about it. When I search for words, repeat letters or phrases several times, I never think of it as "stuttering," much less as myself as a "stutterer." I frame it as just talk. Nothing more. It means nothing more than just talk.

There's a particularly pernicious frame that can tempt us, especially those who stutter. That frame is the idea that we should speak fluently. Subtle, isn't it? "I should speak fluently." Says who? Why? What will it mean if I don't? It's the should in that statement that can do semantic damage to us. Should?

The should implies that "I should not speak non-fluently." Oh really? It is this taboo or prohibition that prevents us from accepting and appreciating and using our non-fluency for searching for words and for being human beings who use speak in this way to develop new and different ideas. That's why we should be very, very careful when praising a person who stutters for fluency, that can strength the idea that the person should not speak non-fluently.

Again, Johnson writes:

"Most people are inclined to praise a stutterer when he speaks fluently. The practical effect of this is to strengthen the stutter's conviction that he should never speak non-fluently; as a consequence, he tends to become a bit more anxious and to exhibit more tension in his attempts to avoid non-fluency... It is better to praise the stutterer whenever he handles his non-fluency calmly and without undue strain. ... What there is to do is to adopt the attitude that the stutterer is under no obligation whatever to speak fluently." (455)

"Most stutterers will benefit from speaking in those situations in which no premium is placed on fluency. As the stutterer loses his dread of non-fluency, he speaks with less anxiety, and with less hesitation and strain with less stuttering. (456)

Practicing Non-Fluency

How do we train our mind-body-emotion system to stop over-loading fluency and non-fluency with too much meaning? Paradoxically, by practicing non-fluency.

"When they do speak with such deliberate non-fluency, wholeheartedly, they loosen up very considerably, speak more smoothly, stutter much less." (461)

"For a stutterer to speak with repetitions, hesitations, etc. on purpose, is to reverse drastically long-established habits." (461)

This is what we suggested in our original (1998) article on stuttering (Meta-Stating Stuttering: Approach Stuttering using NLP and Neuro-Semantics). We suggested that a person actually practice the stuttering and blocking. Play with it. John Harrison recommends the same thing and goes further. He suggests to play with it and do it on purpose while public speaking!

What will that accomplish?

Mostly, a change in our orientation to non-fluency. It attaches positive emotions like fun, playfulness, outrageousness, and humor to non-fluency. This works as an antidote to the fear and shame of non-fluency, to the taboo against it, and counter-acts it as we assume permission. Then, we can begin to enjoy our human non-fluency and quit making such a big deal over it.


Created by diagnosis:

Diagnosogenic: stuttering is a diagnosogenic disorder in the sense that the diagnosis of stuttering is one of the causes of the disorder. The evaluations made by the parents (usually) which they express, overtly or implicitly, by diagnosing their child's speech as 'stuttering,' or 'defective,' or 'abnormal,' are a very important part of the child's semantic environment. Insofar as the child interiorizes this aspect of his semantic environment, he too evaluates his speech as 'defective,' 'difficult,' 'not acceptable,' etc., and his manner of speaking is consequently made more hesitant, cautious, labored, and the like." (446)

End Notes:

1 An anchor is any stimulus that's attached or linked to an experience or state. It can be a touch, word, look, sound, etc. See User's Manual of the Brain for a complete description of how to set an anchor.


Hall, L. Michael; Bodenhamer, Bob G. (1997). Figuring Out People: Design Engineering with Meta-Programs. Wales, UK: Crown House Publications.

Hall, L. Michael (1999). The Secrets of Personal Mastery. Wales, UK: Crown House Publications.

Harrison, John C. (1989/ 2002). How to Conquer Your Fears of Speaking Before People: A complete public speaking program plus a new way to look at stuttering. Anaheim Hills, CA:

Johnson, Wendell. (1946/1989). People in quandaries: The semantics of personal adjustment. San Francisco, CA: International Society for General Semantics.

Korzybski, Alfred. (1933/ 1994). Science and sanity: An introduction to non-Aristotelian systems and general semantics, (5th. ed.). Lakeville, CN: International Non-Aristotelian Library Publishing Co.


L. Michael Hall, Ph.D. is a psychologist turned Neuro-Semantist trainer, researcher, and modeler. He lives in the Rocky Mountains of beautiful Colorado and is author of over 30 books.

2002 L. Michael Hall, Ph.D. All rights reserved.