Audio interview with Chazzler DiCyprian and John Harrison
Articles by John Harrison
How We Developed An Incorrect Picture of Stuttering
This is a slightly edited version of a keynote presentation by John C. Harrison delivered at the 2004 World Congress for People Who Stutter, held in Freemantle, Western Australia on February 15 – 20, 2004.
(Begin with stuttering demonstration)
There was a time when I was so petrified by having a moment that was not filled by words that I would sooner die than stand up here and be silent. I’m pleased to say those days are long past. I can’t think of anything more fun or more fulfilling than standing in front of an audience and feeling like I have something worthwhile to say.
The stuttering you saw a moment ago is indicative of how I would have spoken if you were my high school class, and I was up in front of you giving an oral report. My disfluencies began when I was three and my speech blocks started appearing a few years after that.
Unlike those who stutter most of the time, my stuttering was very situational. I could talk just fine when I was in the schoolyard chatting with my friends or playing football. But when I had to talk to the very same people in a classroom…or when I had to talk to an authority figure…or stop a stranger on the street to ask a question…or go to the market and ask for a container of milk…or get on a bus and ask for a transfer…I almost always had periods when I would lock up and not be able to speak.
So I know a lot about stuttering from the inside. I dealt with it until I was about 30 years old. And as a member of the National Stuttering Association for over 27 years, I’ve been intimately involved in all aspects of the stuttering community.
My participation in the NSA has given me exposure to a huge stuttering population. Not only did I function as the Associate Director for 14 years, I also participated in meetings of the San Francisco chapter for over a decade. And I was editor of the NSA newsletter, Letting GO, for nine years.
I’ve also conducted workshops all over the U.S. for people who stutter. And I’ve run workshops in Canada, Ireland, the U.K. and Australia.
Over the last 15 years, I’ve had extended correspondence on the Internet with literally thousands of stutterers around the world. I’ve taped scores of interviews. I mentor people on the net from many countries. I do coaching sessions over the phone. And I’ve followed people’s lives, some for as long as three decades. All this has been quite a learning experience. It has also validated the conclusion I came to almost 35 years ago…that for all the years we’ve been trying to understand stuttering, we’ve been using the wrong paradigm or model. We have incorrectly characterized what stuttering is all about.
But first, how many people are good at math? Okay, I have a little puzzle for you. These numbers are in this order for a particular reason. Can you tell me why they are in this sequence?
Take about five minutes or so and see if you can solve it.
(Really take five minutes! And don’t cheat. Remember, you’re being watched.)
Figured it out?
Many of you could spend a week trying to solve this puzzle (as I did) and still not find the answer.
Why is that?
Let me ask you — did I make it easier or harder for you to solve?
Harder, you say? Why is that?
Oh, you’re telling me I led you astray. I got you thinking along mathematical lines when I asked, “How many of you are good at math? I got you to use the wrong paradigm.
I’ll cop to it. That’s just what I did. And you went for it.
Do you know what a paradigm is? A paradigm is a filter through which we look at the world. A paradigm tells us what’s important to pay attention to…and what’s not. It’s the way we frame reality.
For example in governance, a democracy would be one kind of political paradigm. A dictatorship would be another. Communism would be a third. There’s also a monarchy, oligarchy, socialism, and so on. Each paradigm shapes how you look at governing people. Thus a crowd gathered in the square might be perceived by the head of state very different, depending on whether he was looking at it through the filter of a democracy, dictatorship, or another kind of political paradigm (filter).
In order to find the answer to the number puzzle, you had to approach it from within an entirely different paradigm. You had to drop the idea that this was a numerical puzzle and think outside the box.
If you still haven’t figured it out, flip forward to end of the article for the answer.
So what can we conclude from this? We can conclude that if you don’t use the right paradigm, the problem at hand becomes impossible to solve. This is precisely what has happened with stuttering since the development of speech pathology over 80 years ago.
Let me give you a little background. The birth of speech pathology is attributed to Carl Seashore who back in the early 20s was head of the Department of Psychology and the dean of the Graduate College at the State University of Iowa.
Although interest in speech and hearing processes was developing in a number of universities, it was Seashore who really molded the new discipline.
The next point I find particularly interesting. Originally, speech pathology was not just focused on the production of speech. Rather, it was conceived as an interdisciplinary specialty that focused on the scientific study of human communication. And listen to what it included — psychology, speech, psychiatry, otolaryngology, pediatrics, child development. In short, it was a discipline that looked at the whole person.
Now, into the picture comes Lee Travis. In the early 1920s, Lee Travis was a brilliant undergraduate at Iowa. Seashore recognized the potential of the young student, and in part, designed the new specialty of speech pathology around Travis’ talents. In 1924, Travis became one of the first people in the world to receive a Ph.D. based on study in this new field.
Travis stayed on at Iowa and headed the program through the 1930s, a period during which many of the future leaders of the field ended up as graduate students.
In the late 30s he left Iowa to become a professor at the University of Southern California. When Travis left Iowa, Wendell Johnson, one of his prize students, took over the speech program.
Johnson was a different kind of bird. Whereas Travis was basically a research scientist, Johnson’s interest was in developing effective therapy programs. He had made a name in General Semantics, and his diagnosogenic theory soon became the prevailing view of how stuttering developed. Johnson maintained that stuttering was caused by the parents’ misinterpretations of their child’s speech. They confused the child’s normal dysfluency for stuttering. In doing so, they required from the child a level of performance that the child could not attain. The subsequent reactions of both child and parents resulted in a worsening of the child’s speech.
By the early 1940s, the way people viewed stuttering was being influenced by four widely accepted misconceptions. First, there was the belief that all the various different kinds of stuttering were basically a manifestation of the same problem. This idea goes all the way back to Lee Travis. Listen to this quote from a chapter on how to deal with stuttering that Travis wrote in 1926 for a book called The Classroom Teacher.
“Basically,” said Travis, “stuttering and stammering are the same; practically, there is a slight difference. Both are due to the same causes and consist in the malfunctioning of the same mechanism, yet there is a slight difference in this malfunctioning.
“Stuttering,” said Travis, “may be thought of as an inability to combine syllables and words into words and sentences, which results generally in the repetition of the sound or word causing the difficulty. It is in the majority of cases an incipient form of stammering.
“Stammering, on the other hand, is a complete block in the flow of speech. At times the individual seems utterly incapable of producing the desired sound. He is, for the time being, obliged to give up entirely his efforts at speech production.”
Travis goes on. “More often the same person will stutter one time and stammer another. In this discussion stuttering will be used to include both terms.”
Believing that all stuttering was essentially a variation on the same theme was misconception number one. And it caused more confusion through the years.
Misconception number two was fostered by Wendell Johnson. His diagnosogenic theory, as I mentioned previously, focused on the way the parent related to the child’s speech. That, according to Johnson, was what caused stuttering. Period. End of discussion.
Well, he didn’t have the answer. All he had was a PIECE of the answer. But as a result, people stopped looking for any other contributing factors.
The third misconception came about because many of Johnson’s students at Iowa were headed for jobs in the school system. What do teachers and parents and school administrations look for? They look for fast, efficient answers. If Johnny can’t read, let’s teach him to read. If Johnny can’t do math, let’s teach him math. And following the same logic, if Johnny can’t speak properly, then let’s teach him to speak properly.
It built on the belief that stuttering could be addressed with a simple, direct approach, similar to how you might approach an articulation problem. Once again, it discouraged people from looking at the whole person.
The fourth misconception had to do with the belief that a third party observer could determine to a certainty whether or not someone was stuttering. Most stuttering research involved third party observers. I’ve had people tell me, “I know you’re a stutterer because I heard you stumble on a few words. The truth is, someone may be fairly disfluent and yet be totally relaxed and unselfconscious about their speech and never once actually block. Another person may sound totally fluent, and yet may be doing a great deal of avoiding and substituting and be living in constant fear of blocking.
What was lost over the years was the original idea that dealing with stuttering called for an interdisciplinary approach that addressed the entire person – their emotions, perceptions, beliefs, intentions, physiological make-up as well as the physical things they did when they spoke.
What I’m saying is that almost a century ago, when people attempted to characterize stuttering and how to address it, they did the best they could at the time.
But they got it wrong.
And those misconceptions have been perpetuated to this day and accepted as truth.
As a result, the first professors of speech pathology installed the wrong paradigm of stuttering in their students. Some of those students became professors, themselves. And they, in turn, passed along the same misconceived paradigm to their students. And so it went from generation to generation.
By the way, this kind of thing has happened in other areas. I remember when it was a commonly held belief that peptic ulcers were caused by worry and an overly acidic stomach. Then in 1982, Dr. Barry Marshall right here in Perth discovered that most peptic ulcers are actually caused by H. piloroi bacteria and could effectively be treated by antibiotics.
Until then, treatment of peptic ulcers was not very effective, because doctors were looking at these ulcers through the wrong paradigm. That’s the same thing that happened with stuttering.
Why didn’t anybody question the model of stuttering? First, the problem was very complex and therefore, very elusive and hard to define. The contributing factors were all things that lurked beneath the surface.
Secondly, the opportunities for self-discovery that exist today did not exist back in the 40s and 50s. Third, we in the west were not used to thinking holistically. Interdisciplinary studies were not very prevalent when I went to college. Every discipline was fit into its own separate pigeonhole.
Finally, there was little likelihood that students would challenge accepted beliefs. For one thing, they didn’t have the background to do that, especially if they didn’t stutter themselves. Would YOU have challenged the information in YOUR textbook? So the basic misconceptions of 80 years ago were passed along as the truth from one generation of teachers to the next. This made it extremely difficult for anybody to think outside the box.
But things began to change due to several major developments. The first was the evolution of holistic thinking, thanks to ideas coming to the West from Asia and to the evolution of new computer technology.
The second was the personal growth movement, which in the early 60s was just then taking root in California.
And the third, in the late 80s, was the birth of the Internet.
I came to San Francisco from New York in 1961. It was one of the best moves I ever made. Not only was northern California a Mecca for those seeking a different way of life, it was also the center of the burgeoning technology industry in Silicon Valley. As an advertising copywriter, I was exposed to systems thinking as I turned out promotional material for technology companies on the San Francisco peninsula.
I got to read the trade publications, and although a lot of it was over my head, I could usually pick up the gist of what they were saying. I saw how systems interacted and how and why computer intelligence was possible. I could see how, when you combined the right elements together, you could come out with something entirely new…something that was greater than the sum of the parts.
The second major development, as I mentioned, was the personal growth movement that began in California just about the time I came west. Two years with a psychoanalyst didn’t do much for me, but being a participant in self-discovery groups did. I got involved with them….not because of my speech, which was bearable…but because I was living on my own 3,000 miles from home without a clear sense of who I was. I was suffering enormous separation anxieties because I was away from the people who defined me, and I was unable at that time to define myself. And so, at the age of 26, I was feeling very desperate.
I made some enlightening discoveries in those groups. I discovered that I was a very emotional person who long ago had buried his feelings. And that wasn’t all.
I had a major self-assertion problem. I was afraid to speak my truth and say what I wanted. I was an approval junkie. I wanted everybody to like me and was devastated if somebody didn’t approve of what I did. I was overly impressed by authority. If I said “red” and somebody else said “blue,” I would automatically assume that it was blue. I didn’t trust my intuition. I had little self-confidence and self-esteem. And I was a perfectionist who was constantly afraid of doing something wrong. In short, I was so busy pleasing others that somehow the real me got lost.
As a by-product of three years of intense interaction with others in a group environment, I began to see that my blocking was not primarily a speech problem. Sure, my speech was involved, but even though I had figured out what I was doing when I blocked, that knowledge was only a small piece of the puzzle. My blocking MOSTLY had to do with the difficulties I had with the EXPERIENCE of EXPRESSING myself to others. That’s what drove the speech blocks.
I began to see that my stuttering was not a single problem, but a constellation of problems in a dynamic relationship.
It’s like this Lego car. I got this car at Toys R Us in San Francisco. But if you go into Toys R Us and look for this car, you know what? You won’t find it. You will not find this car. What you will find is a box of parts. It’s up to you to put the parts together in the right way to create the car.
That’s what I discovered about the nature of speech blocks. It’s not just any one element by itself that creates the blocking behavior. It’s how these elements go together. It’s about how they relate to one another.
This is why researchers looking for the cause of stuttering haven’t been able to find the answer. There’s nothing exotic about the parts of the system. What’s exotic is in how the parts come together.
So what are the parts?
Stuttering can be more accurately understood as a system involving the entire person—an interactive system that’s comprised of at least six essential components: behaviors, emotions, perceptions, beliefs, intentions and physiological responses.
This system can be visualized as a six-sided figure—in effect, a Stuttering Hexagon—with each point of the Hexagon connected to and affecting all the other points. It is the moment-by-moment dynamic interaction of these six components that maintains the system’s homeostatic balance.
You’ll understand this a little better when I tell you about the Hawthorne Effect. Anybody know what it is?
For many years until the breakup of AT&T, Western Electric Company was the manufacturing arm for all the phone companies of the Bell System. In the 1920s, the Western Electric plant in Hawthorne, Illinois, employed a small army of over 29,000 men and women in the manufacture of telephones, central office equipment, and other forms of telephone apparatus.
In the mid-20s, the plant began a series of studies on the intangible factors in the work situation that affected the morale and efficiency of shop workers. They figured – “Hey, we make so many parts here that even if we can increase production 1 percent, that can add up to big numbers. So let’s see if we can figure out how to improve worker output.”
In particular, the company wanted to know whether changing the lighting, break schedules, and other workplace conditions would lead to higher production.
One of the earliest experiments involved a group of six women from the coil winding production line. These volunteers were pulled from the line and relocated into a smaller room where various elements such as lighting, room temperature, and frequency of work breaks could be manipulated.
The first experiment looked at whether changing the intensity of the lighting would have a positive impact on production. The experimenters started out with the same lighting intensity the workers were used to on the production line. They then increased the light a few candlepower.
Production went up.
Wow. Were they excited! They really had stumbled on something. So they increased the room light by another few candlepower.
What do you think. Did production go up?
You’re right. Production went up again.
By now they were sure they were really onto something. So they continued to increase the room lighting a little bit more until the lighting in the room was several times the normal intensity. And each time they did, the production of the six women went up.
At this point, the researchers were really pleased with themselves.. But being good scientists, they felt they should validate their hypothesis that the lighting made a difference. So they brought the lighting back to the original starting point and dropped it by a few candlepower.
What do you think happened? Production went up.
So they dropped it even more. And once again, production went up. They continued to reduce the lighting in the room until the women were working in the dimmest of light. And production continued to rise until the lighting was so dim that the women could barely see their work. At that point, their output leveled off.
What do you think was going on?
The researchers finally determined that it wasn’t the lighting or any other environmental factor that accounted for the increase in production. It was the development of a social system. Something they weren’t even paying attention to.
Before the experiment began, the women were just cogs on a production line. They lacked any sense of importance. They had few meaningful relationships with their co-workers. Their supervisor was seen as an adversary. They had little personal responsibility for turning out a quality product. Someone else set the standards, and they just performed according to instructions. There was not much pride in what they did.
In short, it was just a job.
But all this changed when the six women were pulled from the production line and given their own private workspace. From the very beginning they were special, and they loved the extra attention. Each of the women was not just an impersonal face on the production line. She was now a “somebody.”
Because the women were organized into a small group, it was easier to communicate with one another, and friendships blossomed. The women began socializing after hours. They even began to visit each other at home. They joined together in recreational activities like picnics.
The relationship with their boss also changed. Instead of being feared, he was now someone they could turn to. A group identification formed, and with it came pride in what they did.
The improvements that took place were primarily explained by the impact of the social system that formed and the ways in which it impacted the performance of each individual group member. The authors of the study concluded that:
The work activities of this group, together with their satisfactions and dissatisfactions, had to be viewed as manifestations of a complex pattern of interrelations.
In other words, it was changing the nature of the social system that mostly accounted for the change. Over time, this phenomenon came to be known as the Hawthorne Effect. The Hawthorne Effect goes a long way to explain what causes the blocking and struggling we label as “stuttering.” The Hawthorne Effect also explains why stuttering therapy does or doesn’t work. And it explains why it’s hard to maintain your gains in the outside world.
What I want suggest is that when therapy does work, it’s not just the fluency techniques employed by the therapist that account for the improvement. Often, the speech therapy only plays a minor role. It’s the speech related therapy plus the personal relationship between clinician and patient that leads to a greater level of confidence and self-acceptance on the part of the client.
The more the client feels okay about himself, the less he blocks his spontaneity, and the more he’s willing to reveal his true self. Ultimately, this can lead to a dissolution of the holding back that underlies his speech blocks.
In short, fluency is to a large degree a by-product of the Hawthorne Effect. In fact, once you adopt this explanation, you can explain just about any question that anyone has ever had about stuttering.
Let’s set up a hypothetical situation. Let’s say that, as someone with a stuttering problem, you decide to work with a speech therapist. Let’s call him Sean. Sean has set up a two-week intensive program for a half dozen clients and is holding it at a local hotel. You’ll not only attend the program, you’ll also live at the hotel during that time…away from your familiar environment in a whole new world.
In addition, let us say that Sean employs a fluency shaping approach, which involves hours and hours of practice. In the first week you will also learn a whole lot about how speech is produced so that you can visualize the process in your mind. The second week is then spent practicing the technique in real-world situations, such as on the telephone, on the street, and in shops and restaurants.
At the end of the first week, you begin to see real progress. You have now demystified your stuttering by learning what’s going on in your voice box when you block. And because of the electronic feedback, you can now distinguish the difference between tight and relaxed vocal folds, something you were not aware of before. All this is very helpful.
But is that all that is going on?
Hardly. There’s a lot more, and it relates to the Hawthorne Effect.
Sean is an open and accepting person, and as you interact with him, you feel totally self-accepted, even during difficult speaking situations. Virtually every communication between you and Sean is designed, not just to pass along information, but to bolster your self-esteem. Every piece of negative feedback is accompanied by a positive statement that reinforces the idea that you’re okay. Sean really listens to all your concerns, and he shows infinite patience in exploring the issues with you. Nothing you say is ever devalued. And that’s true in your relationship with all the others in the training as well.
If you were in that situation, how would that affect you?
Pretty obvious. You begin to trust. Your self-esteem builds. Your self-confidence grows. And you become more self-accepting.
Now, in this environment, does it feel safer to express the real you? Well, sure it does. You feel acknowledged. You feel accepted. You feel validated. You’re no longer in crisis mode. All these positive changes begin to organize themselves into a self-reinforcing system that leads to letting go, and in many cases, to fluency which is a by-product of letting go. That is the Hawthorne Effect in action.
So lo and behold, by the end of the two-week program, your speech is easier and more fluent. And because, by this time, the system is self-supporting, your fluency continues…at least for a while…as you go back to your regular world.
How many people have had the experience of coming out of speech therapy really speaking well?
How long did it last for?
Why did you slip back?
Chances are, you didn’t slip back because you stopped practicing the right techniques. A lot of people continue to practice proper technique and they still slip back.
Why is that?
The answer is, it wasn’t just proper technique that made you more fluent to begin with. Sure, that was important. But it was also your relationship with those around you. They were there to support you. You felt good. You felt okay about yourself. But what happened when you left the training? Was everyone in the world committed to supporting you in the same way?
Uh-uh. In the real world, people were caught up in their own issues. They weren’t thinking about you. In fact, they may have actually put their needs before yours. Imagine that! How many here have had to fight for a parking place or deal with a rude bus driver or sales clerk?
How’d that make you feel? Wasn’t it more risky to let go and assert yourself in those situations?
So what happens? If you’re not also working on the other parts of the stuttering hexagon…such as the way you think and feel…you end up reacting to these cues from other people and start losing your trust and self-confidence. Then one day you find yourself blocked. This triggers a downward spiral, and eventually you’re back where you started.
All this is due to the Hawthorne Effect that’s operating in the background.
Over the years I’ve met many people who ended up relapsing after they had spent, in some cases, thousands and thousands of dollars in speech therapy programs. Some of the stories I heard really upset me.
I’m thinking of one very popular program in the U.S. that uses a fluency shaping approach. For years, people who went through this program were told in no uncertain terms that stuttering did not involve emotions and therefore, emotions would not be addressed. They were only going to work on mastering speech technique.
That’s crazy! And yet there are many people – maybe most people — who still believe this.
It’s not that the therapists in these programs aren’t sharp. They are. It’s just that the model of stuttering that they grew up with…the model they were given in school and on which they base their therapy…is flawed. It’s the wrong paradigm.
The concept of stuttering as, not a thing but a system, explains why stuttering is so hard to change. It’s not just your speech that has to change. IT’S YOUR ENTIRE SELF. This includes how you think. What you feel. What you believe. How you perceive. What your intentions are. What your self-image is. How you speak. All this is tightly organized into an interlocking, interactive system. It’s a living, self-perpetuating system that does everything it can to maintain itself.
Try and change just one part of it and you push the system out of balance. To reestablish that balance, the rest of your stuttering hexagon will try and bring back your speech to the point it was at before you began therapy.
THE DIFFERENT KINDS OF STUTTERING
One aspect of the stuttering system that has through the years caused major problems has been the use of the word “stuttering.” The ineffectiveness of this word to describe what’s really going on has caused all kinds of problems and has led to immense confusion and muddy thinking.
Let me give you an example of how the sloppy use of language leads to problems. One of the most enduring lines of all time was spoken by Bill Clinton on TV when he said, “I did not have sex with that woman.” Clinton took a very liberal interpretation of the word “sex.” And it led to all kinds of interesting problems.
How many of you have seen Oprah Winfrey? Oprah is the most successful and admired TV personality in the world and has enormous influence on millions of people in America.
On one of her programs, the subject was young, teenage girls who were having sex. There was this one 15-year-old who was going to parties and performing oral sex on some of her male classmates and this girl didn’t thing there was anything wrong in it….something that was shocking to millions of viewers. When she was asked by Oprah whether she knew that young girls shouldn’t be doing this, you know what her response was?
“That’s not sex.”
“What do you mean that’s not sex!” says Oprah.
“Well,” says the girl, “I know it’s not sex because the President of the United States says it wasn’t.”
That’s what happens when you don’t use language precisely. It leads to confusion. And it has consequences.
The same thing happens with stuttering. What do you mean by “stuttering?”
Are you talking about pathological disfluency? Developmental disfluency? Bobulating? Blocking? Stalling? Even though they may look alike at times, they’re all different. Each is driven by a different set of dynamics.
For example, bobulating is kind of a relaxed, stumbly disfluency that you hear when people are upset, embarrassed, confused or discombobulated. The person is able to talk, but their emotions are causing them to trip all over themselves.
On the other hand, when a person blocks, they are, for the moment, unable to talk. They’re feeling helpless. That helplessness can lead to panic and embarrassment. They become self-conscious. It’s a totally different kind of experience even though it may look the same.
When you call both of these stuttering…instead of bobulating and blocking…it forces you to make incorrect assumptions just like the girl did on the Oprah show.
An ineffective vocabulary is just one reason why this problem has not been clearly understood and in most cases, incorrectly characterized and addressed.
WE NEED TO APPROACH THE PROBLEM DIFFERENTLY
What does all this mean? It means we have to start approaching the problem of stuttering in a more, all-inclusive way. If I hadn’t done that, I’d still be blocking.
Practitioners in the field need to broaden their perspective. That’s tough, because there has been in the past…and I think still exists in most places…a prejudice among professionals against those who take a holistic approach. I’ve had many conversations with speech pathologists who have taken this approach, and I’ve heard many of their sad tales.
I have a speech therapist friend, Claudia Dunaway at San Diego State University who I met about seven years ago. She had read a paper that I had delivered in a workshop at an annual meeting of the American Speech-Language and Hearing Association. Turns out, I was the first person from the stuttering community to confirm her own observations that this problem involved a lot more than just speech. She knew it did, but nobody had ever validated it for her. So when she read my article about the Stuttering Hexagon, she was so excited she flew up to San Francisco and bought me dinner. And we talked into the wee hours.
What’s interesting about Claudia is that when she was younger, she was involved in the free speech movement. Meaning what? Meaning that she spent several years exploring her feelings and her beliefs. She examined different lifestyles and her own life issues. She became very open minded and sensitive to who people were as people. She learned to look below the surface. Later on, she applied this knowledge and sensitivity and perspective to her clients very successfully when she became a speech therapist.
But talk to Claudia and her associates at San Diego State and you hear about the closed minds they encounter at professional conferences. So many of the professionals just don’t want to deal with this holistic view of stuttering.
If I have one bone to pick with the professional community, it’s that more of you don’t take advantage of the most important resource you have…the actual people who stutter…and especially, the most overlooked resource of all — those who have recovered.
I mean, if you wanted to get to the top of Everest, where would you go for guidance? Would you only talk to people who have read books about climbing Everest or those who tried to climb it but haven’t yet succeeded?
Or would you also chat with the 500 or so who have actually achieved the summit and ask them, “Hey guys, how did you do it? Tell me in detail what the problems were? What worked? What didn’t? What did you need to know? What was helpful? WHO was helpful? What did you learn? There are a hundred questions you could ask.
But do researchers seek out recovered stutterers and ask those questions?
As a member of the National Stuttering Association, I’ve been in contact with the professional community for over 27 years. How many researchers would you guess went out of their way to ask me how I recovered?
The answer is…only two! Two people in 27 years.
You saw at the beginning of this talk, how, in trying to solve the puzzle using the wrong paradigm, you could have worked on it for a week with no success.
From what I have seen, and from my own recovery, I am convinced that the mysteries of chronic stuttering have eluded us for the same reason. All this time, the pieces to the puzzle have been sitting there right under our very noses. The answers are found by using a different model of stuttering that takes into account the many aspects of the individual – his emotions, perceptions, beliefs, intentions, physiological makeup, speech behaviors – and how all of these factors are woven together to create what we call chronic stuttering.
If you professionals see us as partners, and not just patients, and if we in the stuttering community continue to play an active role by offering our own personal observations… and if we continue to share our thoughts and ideas and findings all over the Internet…we will begin to see answers to a problem that has eluded us for over 5,000 years.
So what do you say? Are you ready to challenge your old beliefs? Are you ready to open your mind to new possibilities? Are you ready to make a paradigm shift?
It’s been a real pleasure speaking with you today.
Answer to the puzzle: the numbers are in alphabetical order
My Five Stages of Recovery – How my stuttering disappeared
by John C.Harrison
Pour la traduction française, cliquez ici
People often want to know when I first became fluent, and I sometimes feel as if they’re looking for the particular moment when I could speak without blocking. It’s not like that at all. Recovery from chronic stuttering does not happen overnight, except in very rare instances.
Most people change gradually, in stages, and although you can create mechanical fluency overnight with various speech techniques, true fluency occurs when the constant fear of blocking has disappeared. Your total system has changed sufficiently so that you do not automatically default to a speech block when you are under stress.
It is not necessary to achieve this level of recovery to feel that you’ve successfully licked stuttering. I know many people who are elegant, charismatic speakers, even though they still manifest an occasional block. And I know others who still have significant blocks and yet are successful people and compelling presenters. Eloquence does not revolve around fluency. It has to do with the ability to connect with people and to say what is in your heart. It has to do with being genuine. It has to do with never compromising your convictions but speaking your mind, regardless of the circumstance. This is when chronic stuttering has truly been defeated.
The history of my stuttering can be characterized by five distinct stages: denial, acceptance, understanding, transcending, and reprogramming.
STAGE ONE: Denial.
Almost everyone I’ve met who’s had a chronic stuttering problem spent his (or her) early years in denial, and I was no exception. Why my speech would suddenly freeze up was a total mystery to me. I just knew that it happened, and I was terrified by the social consequences. I dreaded doing anything that could be made fun of, so when I blocked, I never displayed any bizarre struggle behaviors, or what the therapists call “secondaries.” I simply out waited the block until it released, and I could say the word. But those breaks in my speech were harrowing. I was very self-conscious and overly sensitive about deviating from the norm. I was your classic “closet stutterer” and distanced myself from anything that appeared even slightly out of the ordinary.
I remember one day when my father referenced the fact that I stuttered, and I immediately shot back, “I don’t stutter, I hesitate.” Though I was constantly afraid of speaking situations, such as talking in class or speaking to authority figures, I would never acknowledge that there was any problem. This mindset continued until the summer of my senior year in high school.
That summer my parents sent me to a daytime program at the National Hospital for Speech and Hearing Disorders in New York City. Not much changed in my speech as the result of my two months participation in the group since I don’t think we ever did speech therapy or modification per se. But there was one significant change in my attitude. By the end of the summer, I was willing to acknowledge that I had a stuttering problem. I could say the word “stuttering” without feeling like a pariah; however, I still had not reached a point of acceptance where I could share my problem with the non-stuttering world.
STAGE TWO: Acceptance.
Being in denial keeps you stuck, and although it may be painful to accept your present circumstances, it is essential that you do so if you want to move forward.
To create an analogy, imagine you suddenly find yourself standing in a four-foot hole. “Omygod,” you say, “I’ve really gotten myself in a hole,” as you push and struggle to climb out. But suppose you believe that smart, intelligent people should never be seen standing in a four-foot hole. Since you consider yourself smart and intelligent, and since you want people to think well of you, you immediately fall into denial about your current situation.
“Me? Standing in a hole? That’s crazy! Why would I be doing that?” you ask, but then, when you go to walk away, you find yourself strangely hampered.
Of course, the situation is absurd. Yet people cast themselves in this position all the time. Consider the individual who gets himself into a hole financially, but is unwilling to accept his current lot. “I have plenty of money,” he says. “Of course I can buy that car. Of course, I can take that vacation. Of course I can buy those new clothes.” So he spends and spends until one day everything crashes down around him.
Why would someone be in denial about his lack of funds? Because it’s scary to be in that position. If he is unwilling to feel the fear, he’ll try and change his reality into something that is more comfortable. Similarly, when people are unwilling to accept their stuttering, it’s not the actual stuttering they fear, but the feelings that are brought up when they stutter. It’s scary to feel helpless. It’s scary to feel like you’re different from other people. It’s scary stand there and not be able to talk.
But emotions are simply emotions, and choosing to experience them does not mean that you’re stuck with them forever. Quite the contrary, when you accept and experience what you’re feeling, the emotions release, and the way is open for another, more positive set of emotions to take their place.
In the fall of my eighteenth year, I left home for university.
As incoming freshmen, we were subject to various tests to evaluate our proficiencies in foreign language, English composition and mathematics. We were also called to the speech lab to see if there was any aspect of our speech that needed to be remedied. When I heard this, I was immediately on guard. My knee-jerk reaction was to hide my stuttering.
I kept my date at the speech lab and read through the required paragraph without a hitch. Had the evaluator been able to measure my anxiety level, it would have been a different matter, but I was able to pass for “normal” and left the lab greatly relieved. However, it was a hollow victory. Though I was not identified by the university as someone with a problem, in reality I very much had a problem, even though I was the only one who knew about it.
The maddening thing about my speech blocks was that they didn’t show up in everyday conversation. They only appeared when I had to speak in front of the class or in time-bound situations such as having to stop someone on the street to ask a question. This intermittent problem left me with a confused self-image. Was I a normal speaker, or was I a stutterer? I never seemed to be one or the other, and this left me in a state of limbo. I lived in constant fear of suddenly blocking with a person with whom I had been fluent up to then. I was afraid of how they would look at me. I did not want to answer their questions. And most of all, I did not want to seem strange or different.
What brought matters to a head was a philosophy class in my sophomore year. The professor, a short, intense Russian-born man, was popular among the students, and the class was large, numbering over 100. In each class the professor asked several of the students to stand and read their paper. I lived in terror of being called on, and finally went to the professor and asked if I could simply hand in the paper and not be called upon to read. He was quite amenable, but I was mortified at having to ask him to make this concession.
That was when I decided it was time to do something about my problem. The school had no speech therapist who was knowledgeable about stuttering, but I did find a professor in the speech department who said he could help me. As I recall, I didn’t see him for very long, nor do I remember much of what we did. But what he did offer me – which made a big difference in my life – was a clear and detailed explanation of how speech was produced. For the very first time, my mysterious speech blocks were correlated to specific physical behaviors. They weren’t something that struck me out of the blue. They were something I was doing, and I could actually picture how the vocal folds could close and prevent air from passing. It was the first step in de-mythifying my stuttering.
Later that year, I also took another big step in coming out of the closet. I took a public speaking class, and in one of the speeches, I gave a talk on stuttering. The cat was finally out of the bag. I still have the outline for that talk in a box of school papers. It’s one of my university mementos I’ll never throw out.
STAGE THREE: Understanding.
The seven years from the time I graduated college until I was 30 years old were marked by a dramatic increase in my level of self-knowledge. After six months of active service with the army and a two year stint working in New York City in various entry-level jobs, I boarded a plane one day and relocated to San Francisco.
By this time I was very much caught up in trying to figure out who I was and what my stuttering blocks were all about. Before I left New York, I had attended a 14-week Dale Carnegie course and had my first positive experience with public speaking. In every evening class each of us had an opportunity to make two short talks, usually no longer than 60 to 90 seconds each, after which we received vigorous applause and several positive comments from the instructor. I found out that, although it ramped up my anxiety level, I rather enjoyed being in front of people, and in the totally accepting environment of the class, I discovered I was a bit of a ham.
When I came to San Francisco, I joined Toastmasters, and eventually became president of the Chinatown Toastmaster Club. During my three years in Toastmasters (I rejoined 35 years later and am still a member), I became more and more comfortable in front of an audience.
Aside from helping me become more comfortable in front of people, these speaking programs gave me an opportunity to experiment with my speech in safe, yet “risky” situations. If you want to explore your stuttering with the intent of understanding what it’s about, you must put yourself in a variety of speaking situations. And this is precisely what I did.
I began to notice some interesting things.
I discovered that if I released a little air before I spoke, it often made speaking easier. Some years later, I discovered that Dr. Martin Schwartz had developed an entire therapy around this airflow technique.
In addition, whenever I blocked, I would also routinely repeat the block to see if I could discover what I had done to cause it. Then I would repeat the word without blocking. I later learned that this procedure is called cancellation and was a technique regularly used by Dr. Charles Van Riper.
What I have come to realize is that most of the techniques used by speech clinicians can be figured out by an enterprising stutterer who’s willing to experiment.
I was also helped by my involvement with a unique organization that helped to foster my development as a person. Synanon was started in the late 1950s by Charles Dederich, a recovering alcoholic, as a 24-hour residential facility where recovering drug addicts, felons, and other acting out character disorders could be brought back into society. It was an organization that ran strictly by the seat of its pants, without any government funding. The underpinnings of Synanon were honesty and self-reliance.
Their major vehicle for self-discovery was a group interaction called the Synanon Game. This was a group dynamic without formal leadership where you could develop proficiency in confronting yourself and others. The only rule was that there would be no acting out of feelings, except through verbal expression. People were free to run through their whole range of emotions. The game would be focused on an individual’s unacceptable behavior, and that individual would feel compelled to defend himself.
The subtle ways of getting people to see the truth was often awe-inspiring. The leadership in the group shifted from one person to the other as an individual took on the job of building an indictment against an individual for some kind of unacceptable behavior. Experienced people played the most dominant roles, and the way you gained experience and proficiency in the game was to look, listen, defend, and attempt to lead the charge in building an indictment on somebody else. People were verbally cornered into exposing their lies and weaknesses as they tried to make themselves look good.
Ironically, individuals looked the best when they were completely honest, open, candid and forthcoming. They looked their worst when they tried to defend themselves and hide. Moment by moment, it was a big verbal free for all, sometime soft, often loud, frequently funny. Any emotion was fair game, provided it stayed as an emotion and was not acted out.
The game was also very, very manipulative. Those who were in touch with their emotions and could express them easily and openly played the most powerful roles. This also helped to build skills in dealing with society at large.
As newcomers came back week after week, they, too, began to build their own skills as they dug deeper into their own emotions and peeled back the layers of their own personality. The only hard and fast rule was – no physical acting out.
Today, the concept of personal growth and development in a group setting is commonplace with many kinds of creative programs available to the public in many countries. These by and large follow a much gentler approach. (Keep in mind that the Synanon game was designed for hardcore drug addicts and other character disorders). But even today’s personal growth programs, like the Landmark Forum, which is available worldwide, have advanced programs where the environment becomes more challenging.
I should emphasize, however, that formal programs of any sort – either in speech or in personal growth – are not essential if you’re a good observer and have the willingness to put yourself at risk. But it does help to have people in your life who are of like mind and with whom you can share your challenges and successes.
When I began my involvement with the Synanon Games, I could not say more than a few sentences before my anxiety level went through the roof, causing me to become uptight and stop talking. I was totally intimidated by stronger personalities, and always felt I had nothing of value to say. It was a year into my involvement with the Synanon Games that I had my first breakthrough. One night, all the strongest and most experienced people in the Game were absent, and I found myself among the most season people present. Suddenly, my mouth became unshackled. Without authority figures in the room, I began assuming roles that just a week before I would have totally avoided. And you couldn’t stop me from having my say.
STAGE FOUR: transcending.
I stayed involved with Synanon for about three years, during which I participated in a variety of activities. They ranged from two-day stay-awake marathons that helped us probe deeper into our psyches to hawking tickets to a boxing match with nationally ranked fighters at a local sports palace. This was a big fundraiser for Synanon and a huge stretch for me who had always hated to ask people to do anything for fear of rejection. These activities that pushed me out into the larger community played an important a role in my recovery.
Throughout all this, I tried to remain a good observer of myself, and very slowly, a new picture of John Harrison began to form. I wasn’t as nice or as good as I thought I was. I saw sides of myself I wasn’t proud of. I saw how I routinely capitulated to those who I felt were stronger or more knowledgeable. And I got in touch with how much anger I’d been holding in since I was a little boy.
In this open environment, I began to understand that my speech blocks were only marginally about speech. I saw that at the heart of it, I was blocking out my own experience of myself. I was trying to present myself from knowing and experiencing ME. The awful me. The arrogant me. The scared me. The pushy me. The weak me. The strong me. All those me’s had been suppressed years ago as I tried to adapt to what I thought the adult world wanted of me.
Once the genie was out of the bottle, so was my ability to express myself. When that combined with all the work I’d done in building awareness of my physical blocking process, I began speaking more easily and with only infrequent difficulty.
STAGE FIVE: reprogramming.
As I carried what I learned into the larger world, my default behavior – the automatic blocking behavior that I had built up during my first two decades – slowly weakened and gradually disappeared. Simply understanding what my blocking was about was not an automatic cure. This was, after all, a survival strategy that had been ingrained into every muscle and fiber of my being. Even though they happened only infrequently, I still hated those blocks. I was still uneasy around authority figures. But now I knew that those fears would only go away if I taught the primitive part of my brain – the part that initiated the fight or flight response – that these were not life-or-death situations.
Chronic blocking and stuttering is like a large black spider. There’s nothing inherently frightening about spiders. After all, spiders don’t scare entomologists. There are actually people who keep tarantulas as pets and pick them up and allow them to walk up and down their arm.
So it’s not the spider we fear, but the feelings they bring up. We see the spider as a threat, and our sympathetic nervous system triggers an instant flight-or-fight reaction to protect us from a perceived danger. But if the spider is no longer perceived as a danger, the feelings are not triggered.
Changing default behavior is like anything else. It comes through practice and persistence. It’s like the martial artist student who one day is surprised that he automatically did the right thing when attacked by an opponent. The recovering stutterer discovers one day that he just spoke without thinking in a situation where normally he would have never risked speaking.
And if he happens to block, he says, “Oh look at that. I just blocked. I wonder what’s going on?” Then he can review what he experienced and what he did and heighten his awareness of his automatic fear response. In so doing, he can stop himself from slipping into a full-blown panic response.
If he (or she) has studied an approach for managing the block such as McGuire technique, air flow or fluency shaping, he can call that up to handle the mini-crisis, and then slip back into automatic speech.
By and large, for those who have beaten chronic stuttering and blocking, communicating has become fun, and they welcome any opportunity to talk. Remember that the bottom line is not perfect fluency. Some people will naturally be more fluent than others. The bottom line is whether you can say what you want, the way you want, when you want, and to whom you want. And whether you can truly show up as yourself.
As I was finishing this piece, I found myself wondering whether some PWS will take all this as a precise blueprint for their recovery. So I would like to add this postscript.
These five stages of recovery described here are five general stages. Your details will be different because after all, you and I are different people. We see things in unique ways. We have different backgrounds and experiences. Each of us has his own personal story.
What’s important is to understand the essence of each stage so that you can apply it to your own recovery. Through the years I’ve observed recovery as an evolutionary process. And if a person tries to jump over something that requires attention, his or her psyche will make it difficult to accommodate the change.
The only time that quick fixes seem to work is when the individual has already laid the groundwork for recovery. Everything is in place. They are a recovered person just waiting to happen.
John can be reached at . His book REDEFINING STUTTERING is available from Amazon. It is also a free download at http://holdingback-forpeoplewhostutter.weebly.com
More Articles by John Harrison
See several articles by John Harrison on the Minnesota State University Mankato Web Site
Understanding the Speech Block
John C. Harrison
At the heart of chronic stuttering — specifically, the kind of dysfluency that ties you up so you momentarily cannot utter a word — is something called a “speech block.” We have traditionally seen speech blocks as having a life of their own, mysterious and unexplainable. Speech blocks seem to “strike” us at odd moments, usually without our knowing why.
You’re standing in line at Macdonalds, about to say “hamburger,” when suddently, a speech block zooms out of the ether and (WHUMP!) hits you in the vocal cords and renders you speechless.
The blocks seem as if they are not connected to us, giving rise to such phrases as “I was hit by a speech block.”
In response, we search for explanations. You hear statements such as, “Speech blocks are genetic.” — a prime example of using one unknown to explain another.
But when you understand what a block is about, it begins to make sense. There is no need to resort to such esoterica as genetics. Sometimes, simple explanations are the most compelling.
I’d like to invite you to undertake a little exercise. Hook your hands together with your elbows pointed outward in opposite directions. Now try and pull your hands apart while making sure that your hands stay locked.
This is an example of a block. You have two forces of equal strength pulling in opposite directions — the force you’re exerting to pull your hands apart opposes the force you’re exerting to keep your hands locked together. As long as the two forces are equally balanced, you remain blocked.
If you want to get past the block, what are your options? Well, you can.
- decide to stop trying to pull your hands apart;
- decide to stop clamping your hands together;
- decide that this silly demonstration is not worth wasting another moment of your time and go do something else.
Any of these alternatives will instantly resolve the block.
Let’s look at what these three options have in common. All of them involve your intentions — in this case, your conflicting intentions. The block is caused by attempting to do two things simultaneously that pull you in diametrically opposite directions — pull your hands apart and hold them together.
How does this relate to speech?
A speech block is created when you intend to do two things that are directly opposed to one another. As long as you keep trying to do them both, you will experience yourself as blocked.
Shooting the horse
To better understand the nature of a block, let us examine it within a totally different context. Let us say that one beautiful summer afternoon you’re riding your favorite horse in the back country. Your mount is a splendid Arabian that you’ve raised from a colt. Riding this gallant steed has become your most beloved pastime, and over 15 years the two of you have become fast friends. When you’re not riding, you’re in the stable, grooming the horse and caring for it.
Today, as you canter through the tall grass, you’re lost in a magical, timeless world. Then suddenly, disaster! Your world collapses! The horse steps into a hidden hole, crashes to the ground and hurls you over its head. You roll. You pick yourself up, knees and elbows raw. But you’re oblivious to the pain, because the unthinkable has happened. Your best friend, the Arabian that you’ve loved for 15 years, is lying on the ground with its leg broken. It is in pain. It is suffering. It cannot be saved. You know that the only humane thing is to put it out of its misery. Right here. Right now.
Because this is snake country, you have gotten in the habit of wearing a side arm. You have one with you now, a .38 colt. You draw the pistol, and walk slowly up to the horse. You can see its pain. This has to be done. You stretch your arm in front of you, hand gripping the .38. You aim the pistol at the horse’s forehead, and slowly squeeze the trigger.
But your finger freezes. The horse is looking straight into your eyes. You look back. This is your best friend. How can you possibly pull the trigger? You think of all the years you’ve spent together, all the happy hours in the back country. How can you just stand there and kill your best friend?
You try again, but again, you cannot get yourself to pull the trigger. Your index finger is rigid and won’t move. You’re aware of what’s holding you back. You are not willing to experience the grief you know will arise the second after you pull the trigger, the pistol lurches in your hand, and the horse’s eyes glaze over. You just cannot pull the trigger!
At this moment you are experiencing a block. Two forces of equal strength are pulling you in opposite directions. Pull the trigger and lose your best friend. Don’t pull the trigger, and cause your best friend to suffer needlessly. You find yourself frozen.
How can you get past the block?
You can choose not pull the trigger and allow the horse to suffer, or perhaps have someone come and do the job for you. Another option is to pull the trigger and accept the pain you’re sure to feel. Whichever route you take, to get past the block, something has to give.
Were you in this position, there would be no mystery about what was going on. You’d know why you couldn’t pull the trigger. You loved the horse, and the pain of shooting it was something you could not bear.
Now let’s modify this story. Let us say that you were out of touch with the fact that you cared for the horse, because you traditionally hid your feelings from yourself. You were just not the type to admit that you cared.
Okay, same scenario. The horse falls and breaks its leg. You draw your pistol and point it at the horse. You start to squeeze the trigger, and again, your finger freezes. But now, the frozen finger is a mystery, because you are out of touch with your feelings. You do not allow yourself to know that you care for the horse, although you care terribly. You have pushed this caring out of your awareness. Nevertheless, the fear of having to confront those feelings is holding you captive. Some thing is stopping you from pulling that trigger. It seems beyond your control because you’re out of touch with your fears about shooting the horse. It’s a matter of will. What is stopping you is your own reluctance to act.
The speech block
This is analogous to what happens with a speech block. You have a divided intention — speak/don’t speak. But because you have learned to prevent yourself from experiencing painful emotions, you close up and hold back. You push the fear (embarrassment, discomfort, etc.) out of your conscious awareness.
Thus, the block seems outside of your control, because you’re only aware of half the conflict. You know you want to speak, but you are not aware of the simultaneous reluctance to speak because of the underlying fear and pain. You hold yourself back without being aware you’re doing so. That is why speech blocks seem to happen to you.
The antidote is to begin paying attention to what you’re feeling…or at least start noticing and questioning what’s going on when you block. The most compelling question I used to ask myself when I was afraid of blocking was, “Suppose I do speak right now in this situation. What might I experience? Usually, the first thing I thought of was, “I might stutter.” Perhaps. “But what else, might I experience?” Here’s where so many people go blank. They simply don’t know what else might be lurking down there.
Is it a fear of asserting yourself…of looking aggressive or coming on too strong…of being the real you? Usually, the problem lies in this area. There is something about yourself that you feel is unacceptable, so you hold back until it feels safe to talk. “Safe” means that you can now talk because the intensity of the feelings has dropped and you can now remain within your comfort zone.
A second scenario
Just to confuse things, there is another, completely different scenario that can also lead to a speech block. It, too, involves a divided intention, but it is driven by different forces. It has to do with one of the body’s natural responses — the valsalva reflex.
William Parry in his excellent book, Understanding and Controlling Stuttering (available from the National Stuttering Association or from Amazon) postulates that a speech block can result from the misapplication of a valsalva maneuver.
What is a valsalva maneuver? A valsalva maneuver is what your body does whenever you try to lift a heavy suitcase, open a stuck window, give birth, take a poop, or do anything that involves a concentrated physical effort. Your chest and shoulders become rigid. The muscles in your abdomen tighten. And your throat — in particular, your larynx — becomes completely locked. The locking of the larynx is the body’s way of closing the upper end of the windpipe in order to keep air in the lungs. It is called an effort closure.
Why does your body do this?
Blocking the upper airway at the same time as you tighten your chest and abdominal muscles puts pressure on your lungs and creates internal pressure. This, in turn, creates strength and rigidity. It allows you to push harder. It gives you strength. It’s why four inflated tires can hold the weight of a heavy automobile.
Initiating a valsalva maneuver makes sense if you’re lifting your new 32-inch TV onto its stand. You need the added strength. But it is a non-productive strategy if you’re asking someone where the post office is, and you expect to have difficult saying “post,” so you start preparing yourself to push the word out. The very muscles that are tight and rigid and clamped together to give you strength are muscles that should be soft and pliant and relaxed in order to create the resonant tones associated with speech. No wonder you can’t speak.
Then why do we tighten everything?
Professor Woody Starkweather in an e-mail on the Stutt-L listserv on March 29, 1995, offered an excellent description of how some children end up misapplying the valsalva maneuver as they first struggle to learn to speak. Here’s what Woody said:
Personally, I think that most “garden variety” people who stutter (PWS) when they are very young find themselves repeating whole words. At this point, they aren’t usually struggling (there are exceptions), but they are still being impeded in their ability to say what they want to by these sometimes long, whole word repetitions. Their first reaction to this is usually frustration. They want to talk and they can’t go forward as quickly as they want to. Typically, this happens between two and four years of age.
At this age, the most common strategy for a child to use who is hindered by something in a task he or she wants to perform is to push hard. If something is in your way, you push it out of the way. The idea that some things work better if you don’t try harder is an alien concept to the preschool child, by and large. So they start to push the words out, and it works a little and some of the time because eventually the word does come out, in spite of the pushing, and it feels as though the child has pushed it out.
So he or she learns to push (with subglottal air pressure) when they feel stuck, and a nonproductive, maladaptive strategy for coping with stuttering has been born. The effect on the stuttering behavior is that the repetitions get shorter, i.e., part-word instead of whole word, blockages may increase because at a certain threshold of pushing the vocal folds clamp tighter together (the valsalva reflex), and the tempo of the repetitions increases because pushing harder usually also involves trying to talk faster through the stuttering behavior, that is, trying to stutter faster to get it over with.
There are a variety of strategies — some kids focus on speeding up during stuttering, others just push hard, others learn very early to avoid by turning away, stopping talking, saying “never mind,” etc. And I believe quite strongly that the only way to recover from this problem is first to become very aware of what you are doing during the stuttering. For an adult, this will usually involve learning about even more strategies that have been layered ontop of those early ones, but eventually the PWS comes to know and understand those very early pushing, speeding up, and avoidance behaviors.
So there you have it. Not just one but two credible explanations for what causes a speech block, and not once did we have to mention genetics or faulty brain functions.
Losing awareness of your intentions is not specific to stuttering. People develop blocks around all sorts of things. I once knew a guy who was not able to urinate in a men’s room whenever someone else was in the room with him. Same problem. For whatever reason (usually such fears are deep-seated) he held himself back by tightening his sphincter, but he didn’t know he was doing this. He just knew he couldn’t urinate. When the person left the room, then his sphincter relaxed, and he could complete his business.
As with most problems like this, the recovery process begins by developing your awareness of what’s going on and bringing these unconscious behaviors back into consciousness. This calls for observing each blocking situation carefully, perhaps keeping a diary so you can keep track of what threads are showing up consistently from one blocking experience to another.
Do you block around authority figures. Do you block when you’re afraid you’ll be wrong. Or when you’re afraid of looking foolish? Or aggressive? Or embarrassed? Do anxious feelings come up when you have to assert yourself?
Do you notice that each time you block, you also seem to be holding your breath? What else do you notice you’re doing? What else can you begin to bring back to conscious awareness.
Either of the scenarios I described above can cause a speech block. And sometimes, both are operating at the same time. So you really need to pay attention. Nobody said that recovering from blocking is easy. It’s not. But making the effort — and keeping at it — will eventually pay off by helping you take conscious control of an unconscious reflex.
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 time…in 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.
- The dysfluencies related to primary pathology such as cerebral insult or intellectual deficit we’ll call pathological dysfluency.
- The disfluencies that surface as the young child struggles to master the intricacies of speech we’ll call developmental disfluency. This has a developmental model all its own which is separate and distinct from the developmental model of adult blocking behavior. Developmental disfluency often disappears on its own as the child matures. It is also highly receptive to therapeutic intervention, so much so that when treated early enough, most children attain normal speech without any need to exercise controls.
- The easy and unselfconscious disfluency characteristic of those who are temporarily upset, embarrassed, confused, or discombobulated does not have a word, so we’ll need to create. We’ll call this kind of disfluency bobulating. Almost everyone bobulates under certain stressful conditions. However, this is usually not a chronic problem, and even if it were, the person is generally unaware of his behavior and is, therefore, unlikely to have negative feelings toward it.
- The struggled, choked speech block that comes about when someone obstructs his air flow and constricts his muscles we’ll call blocking because the person is blocking something from his awareness (such uncomfortable emotions or self-perceptions) or blocking something from happening that may have negative repercussions. This is the chronic disfluency that most people think of when they speak of “stuttering” behavior that extends into adulthood. Unlike developmental disfluency and bobulating, blocking is a strategy designed to protect the speaker from unpleasant consequences.
- Finally, there is a fifth kind of dysfluency related to blocking that occurs when the person continues to repeat a word or syllable because he has a fear that he will block on the following word or syllable. Since he is just buying time until he feels ready to say the feared word, we’ll call this kind of dysfluency stalling. Because stalling is an alternate strategy to the overt struggle behavior associated with speech blocks, the two must be considered in the same vein.
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 15%…it’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!
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?
Why Are Speech Blocks So Unpredictable
John C. Harrison
For years, I used to bite through pencils in frustration, trying to come up with some logical explanation for the seemingly capricious nature of speech blocks.
— Why do I have good days and bad days?
— Why do I sometimes block on words I usually can say without effort?
— Why does the feeling that I’m going to block seem to come out of the blue and for no apparent reason?
— Why can I go along for three minutes without a block, and then suddenly have everything fall apart?
I used to think I’d be better off if I stuttered on every word, rather than only in special situations. At least then, my life would be more predictable. Non-stutterers have no idea of the uncertainties that are created when something as basic as your speech stops and starts and lurches like a car with carburetor problems. It casts an uncertain shadow on every aspect of your life.
I once tried to explain this mindset to a non-stuttering friend. Imagine, I said to him, that you’re walking merrily along the street after an uneventful shopping trip to Macy’s when all of a sudden this gloved hand comes out of nowhere and — WHUMP! — it bops you on the nose. Not hard. Not so it draws blood. But sudden enough to startle you.
“Hmph!” you say. “Now where did that come from?”
A bit ruffled, you continue on down the street. You walk into the bank to make a deposit. Just when you step up to teller window and open your mouth to speak, a gloved hand comes out of nowhere and — WHUMP! — it bops you on the nose. Not hard, but hard enough to disconcert you.
You make your deposit and leave the bank. Walking by a newsstand, you feel a bit rattled and decide to buy a magazine to take your mind off of your anxieties. You fish around for the right change, hand it to the man behind the counter, open your mouth to ask for the magazine…and suddenly this gloved hand comes out of nowhere and — WHUMP! — it bops you on the nose.
How is the world feeling right now?
It’s lunchtime, so you walk into a local eatery. As you walk through the door, you notice you’re doing something you didn’t do before. You’re scanning the room ahead of you, looking for that damned gloved hand. Your schnozz is tired of getting bopped. Except nothing happens. Reassured, you find an empty table, sit down, and open up the menu. Ah, the roast beef sandwich looks great. The waiter comes over to take your order.
“What would you like,” he says.
“The roast beef on whole wheat,” you answer.
“Anything on the side?”
“Yeah, an order of fries.”
“And to drink?”
“A Miller Lite.”
“What was that again”
“A….” You go to repeat Miller Lite, but you never make it, because suddenly a gloved hand comes out of nowhere and — WHUMP! — it bops you on the nose.
Oh stop it!!! Why is this happening? None of it makes any sense. Why could you buy a shirt in Macy’s without incident, and then walk into the restaurant and get bopped. This constant surprise is driving you crazy.
My friend said he now understood why I found the world so unpredictable.
Speech blocks have many triggers
Traditional thinking says that stuttering is all about what we do when we’re afraid we’re going to stutter. Speech pathologists and most PWS have professed this for almost 80 years. But like many explanations of stuttering, this is only a partial truth. A fear of stuttering can definitely cause more stuttering, and it also explains the self-reinforcing nature of the problem. But it certainly doesn’t explain what triggers all stuttering blocks. And it does nothing to explain the fact that stuttering can come and go at odd moments and often seems to have a mind of its own.
During my own recovery process, I identified many situations that had nothing to do with stuttering fears per se and yet were fully capable of triggering a speech block.
In this article, we’re going to set aside the familiar and obvious reasons why people block, most of which have to do with a fear of stuttering. Instead, we’re going to look for the less obvious causes that often play a key role in initiating a stuttering block.
But before we do that, there are several things we need to get clear about. First, I need to explain what I mean when I say “stuttering.” I’m not referring to bobulating, which is a coined word that describes the effortless, disfluent speech you hear when someone is uncertain, upset, confused, embarrassed, or discombobulated. I’m talking about speech that is blocked. The individual feels locked up and helpless to continue.
Next I need to define my understanding of what blocking in speech is all about. I have come to understand blocking/stuttering, not simply as a speech problem, but a system involving the entire person—an interactive system that’s comprised of at least six essential components: behaviors, emotions, perceptions, beliefs, intentions and physiological responses. This system can be visualized as a six-sided figure in which each point of the hexagon affects and is affected by all the other points.
Thus, it’s not any one thing that causes a speech block. It’s not just one’s beliefs…or emotions…or physiological make-up…or speech behaviors that lead the person to lock up and feel helpless and unable to speak. It is the dynamic interaction of all these six components that leads to struggled speech.
I also need to share my understanding of the way that emotions contribute to the speech block.
The emotion track
If you’ve ever seen a piece of 35mm movie film — the kind they use in a movie theater — you’ll notice one or several wiggly lines to the left out of the picture frame that are constantly varying in width, like a line on a drum on a seismograph that measures the intensity of earthquakes. This is the optical track that contains the sound for the movie. No matter what is going on, that optical track is always there. If there is no sound, the optical track is simply a straight line. But the track is always there.
Using this as a metaphor, imagine that every moment you’re awake, there is a similar “emotion track” running alongside that contains the underlying emotions associated with what is transpiring. Your brain is constantly processing data, experiences, meanings, etc. If you could somehow record the “emotion track,” you’d see it constantly expand and contract, depending on the feelings associated with the particular environment, what you were saying, who you were saying it to, what words you were using, what thoughts you were having, and how you were feeling at the time.
Having difficulty with a particular word like “for” may not be about that word in particular. It may have to do with what has come before that word, or what you anticipate might come after and the emotions that this moment are engendering.
If you’re resistant to experiencing those emotions, you’ll be inclined to hold them back (block) until the feelings drop to a manageable level.
Optical sound tracks
How does the emotion track function? Let us say George, a person who stutters, is in a meeting with Mr. Peters, his boss. George suddenly realizes he has another meeting coming up that he’d forgotten about, and he has to interrupt his boss to find out the time as he may have to cut this meeting short. (He also feels a bit incompetent because he absentmindedly left his watch home that day.)
Notice that George has little emotional charge on the words “excuse me.” But when he goes to say the word “Peters,” he has a short block, because his boss’ name has an emotional charge for him. That charge pushes his feelings beyond his comfort zone, prompting him to hold back for a moment until the intensity of those feelings drops. The block is indicated by the spike in the emotion track that indicates that George’s emotions have suddenly shot outside his comfort zone.
Now George has to deal with the hard consonant “c” in “can.” Not only has he had trouble with “c” in the past, but he has a fear that Mr. Peters will not like that he has to interrupt the meeting. This makes it even more difficult to let go. George’s feelings spike again on the “t” in “tell,” but they really spike on the “t” in “time.”
Why is that?
The word “time” not only begins with a feared constant, it also completes the thought. Once he says “time,” Mr. Peters will know that George has a time issue and wants to leave the meeting. In anticipation of Mr. Peters’ annoyance and how small and unloved that will make him feel, George blocks on the “t” and has to try three times before he can push the word out.
What’s amazing is that all this is going on, and George isn’t aware of any of it. But then, George isn’t aware of a lot of things. He isn’t aware of his feelings about authority figures, and how they intimidate him. He isn’t aware of his compulsion to please others and to make sure they always like him.
But most significant, George isn’t aware that his mind is programmed to constantly processes his experience, evaluating each moment to look for what may further his health and survival, and what might threaten it. In fact, neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) claims that we process over two million bits of information via our senses every second and that we delete, distort and generalize this information to “suit” ourselves. As motivational speaker Anthony Robbins says, “Everything you and I do, we do either out of our need to avoid pain or our desire to gain pleasure.” This probably sounds too simple, but virtually all life functions this way. It’s just that the complexity of the human mind tends to mask this basic drive.
There is never a time when you are without an emotion track. Sometimes, that track is quiescent, such as in moments of deep relaxation. But that track is always there to guide you away from those things that may cause you pain, and toward those things that are likely to give you pleasure.
This is what I have come to observe about the relation between emotions and speech blocks. Now let’s look at another key part of the puzzle: the way our experiences are stored.
The holistic nature of engrams
As I better understood the dynamics of the speech block and the strategies I employed to break through or avoid it, the behaviors I used to find so bizarre were no longer strange. But it was not until I stumbled across the concept of the engram that I found a credible explanation for the unpredictable nature of those damnable speech blocks.
The engram can be defined as a complete recording, down to the last accurate detail, of every perception present in an experienced moment — a kind of organic hologram that contains all the information derived from the five senses—sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch—as well as whatever thoughts arose at the moment. This cluster of related stimuli is imprinted on the tissue at the cellular level. Permanently fused into the body’s circuits, it behaves like a single entity.
Here’s an example of an engram. You’re in a shopping mall buying a pair of jeans when you suddenly hear a scream. You quickly look up and notice that a scruffy guy with long hair and a skull tatooed on the back of his left bicep and wearing a jeans jacket is holding a gun on the poor clerk at the checkout counter, and he’s demanding that she give him the contents of the cash register. Instantly, your heart starts racing The man grabs the cash from the girl and starts walking briskly toward you. In a panic, you wonder what to do. Should you run? Should you look away. Should you stand still? The man is now looking at you full in the face, as if daring you to challenge him. You instantly look away and hold your breath. He continues on and in a moment, he’s lost in the crowd. You give a big exhale. Behind you, the sales girl is hysterical.
Ten minutes later, you are providing an eyewitness account of the incident to the mall’s security police. You recall his estimated height and weight. You describe, as best you can, his tattoo and the kind of jeans jacket he was wearing. Perhaps you even had the presence of mind to notice his shoes and the color of his hair. But there were many other perceptions that you didn’t report, partly because they did not seem important and partly because you did not consciously notice them. These experiences were woven together into a single engram.
For example, there was a Mariah Carey song playing on the store’s audio system. If someone were to ask, you probably couldn’t recall this detail, but your subconscious mind recorded the song as part of the engram. When the robber walked past you, your olfactory senses picked up a whiff of motor oil from the spill on his pants. Your subconscious mind saw his rough complexion and the fact that he had a small scar at the very bottom of his chin. That was part of the engram, too. Your eyes recorded the harsh store lighting that radiated from transparent globes. Also part of the engram were the crowd noises from the mall, the emotional overtones of the clerk’s screams, the feel of the carpet under your feet, the tension in your legs and body, how thirsty you were. And of course, there were all your emotional reactions—the fear, panic, shallow breathing, tightness in your neck, the cramp in your stomach. All these perceptions and more were recorded and organized into an engram.
Why is all this important? It’s important because the engram plays an important role in your body/mind’s survival strategy, especially in its relation to a little almond-shaped node within your brain that represents the seat of your emotional memory.
This node is called the amygdala and is located within the limbic system, the most primitive part of the brain that has elements dating back several hundred million years. It’s function is reactive—designed to quickly trigger a fight-or-flight reaction whenever the organism (you) feels threatened.
The amygdala has connections, not just to the autonomic nervous system, which controls physiological reflexes such as your heart and breathing rates, but also to other brain regions that process sensory input. It has a special high-speed pathway to the eyes and ears that give it access to raw and unprocessed sensory information. It’s like a neural hub with a trip wire that’s primed to fire whenever danger arises. In short, the amygdala is designed to by-pass the higher, conscious brain that controls cognitive processing so we can act first and think later.
Thus, when we perceive a threat, our body initiates a rapid fire sequence of events, comprising both a fear response and an instant reflex to pull back from whatever we’re doing that triggers that fear.
The problem is, the amygdala is not very smart or discerning and doesn’t differentiate between physical threats (tigers, robbers, fires) and social threats. When any kind of a threat is perceived, the amygdala interprets it as an issue of physical survival. It triggers the sympathetic nervous system, and all at once your breathing becomes shallow, your blood pressure rises, blood rushes to your limbs, heartbeat increases, adrenaline rushes into your blood — a reaction that is designed to give you the physical resources to challenge the threat or run from it.
How does your amygdala know when to trigger a reaction?
It triggers it when there is some element within the moment that suggests the situation is threatening.
Thus, a month later you’re in a bookstore and suddenly find yourself feeling uneasy. What you’re not aware of is that Mariah Carey has just started singing the same tune over the audio system. This one sensory experience recalls the entire jeans shop event. Yet, you’re not consciously aware of this. You just know that your heart is beginning to race.
Later that week you’re on a bus and you suddenly become uneasy. What you don’t realize is that the guy seated next to you works in a garage, and you’re picking up the same scent of motor oil that you experienced in the jeans shop.
In the fast-food restaurant the guy behind you has a tattoo on his shoulder. You feel yourself holding back.
Several days later you walk into a clothing store that has the same harsh lighting as the jeans shop, and suddenly you find yourself edgy without knowing why.
A person you’re talking to at work asks you a question. His voice has the same timber and quality as the robber’s, and as you respond, you find yourself wanting to hold back.
Notice that your circumstances are vastly different from the day you witnessed the robbery. You’re in a McDonalds, not a jeans shop. The guy with the tattoo is there to eat a hamburger, not rob the store. And yet, your emotions are doing a number on you. The reason has to do with how your reactive mind operates. In short, anything that looks like or feels like or even vaguely reminds you of the original experience has the ability to recall and recreate the original experience.
The scruffy guy is the hold-up. The scent of motor oil is the hold-up. The Mariah Carey record is the hold-up. The harsh lighting is the hold-up. The co-workers voice is the hold-up. Each sensory cue functions as if it were a minute piece of a hologram. Shine a strong beam of light on that one little piece of a hologram, and you can see the entire event. Similarly, the most “inconsequential” sensory experiences have the power to recall the entire engram and the emotional responses attached to it.
In the case of speech blocks, a fear of blocking is the most obvious trigger that can cause a person to lock up and be unable to speak. But there are many more ways to trigger this same response. Let’s look at some of the non-stuttering-related circumstances that can trigger a stuttering block.
Reacting to a tone of voice
One trigger is an individual’s tone of voice. Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco is in the business of rehabilitating drug addicts, prostitutes, convicted felons, and others with acting out character disorders, and they are more successful at it than any other organization in the world. Over a 30-year span, I’ve periodically donated my services to Delancey as an advertising copywriter and have supported them in other ways.
In 1993, I volunteered to teach a public speaking class at Delancey. One day after the class was concluded, I was on my way to my car when I decided to drop by the Delancey Street restaurant located in the same building to say hi to Abe, the maitre d’, whom I had known for 20 years. I didn’t see Abe when I walked in, so I asked the acting maitre d’ to tell Abe that John Harrison had stopped by and asked for him.
I turned to leave when suddenly the fellow I’d just spoken to abruptly called out, “What’d ya say ya name was?”
I turned back to give him my name again, and suddenly I found myself blocked. More specifically, I was in a panic state, frozen and unable to say a word.
Totally flustered, my head swirling, I was catapulted back 30 years to when I used to regularly block in situations like this. Feeling totally self-conscious, I stopped, took a deep breath, and finally was able to bring myself back to “consciousness” so that I could say “John Harrison.”
I left the restaurant upset and puzzled by the sudden appearance of an old reaction. Why did it happen? I’d had a wonderful class. I love Delancey Street—both the people and the organization. This was our favorite restaurant in San Francisco. I wasn’t thinking about my speech; that had stopped being an issue over two decades ago.
The more I thought about it, the more I felt there was something in the fellow’s tone of voice that had triggered my response.
This is precisely how an engram works. It’s not necessarily the situation that triggers you, but some part of the situation that recalls an older event that was threatening in some way. Perhaps it had been a similar situation in which I’d blocked. Or perhaps there was something about the fellow himself. After all, almost all of the residents in Delancey had been in prison. Almost any of the guys could sound tough. Maybe I was intimidated by his tone of voice. He may have barked the question because he saw me leaving and realized that he hadn’t properly heard my name. Maybe that caused him to panic, and maybe I interpreted that panic as something else. A threat? A command? His tone did catch me off guard. Or perhaps there was something about my mindset that day that simply made me more susceptible to his tone of voice. I’ll never know. But I do know that for an instant, I was reliving an incident from an earlier time and place.
Single incidents like this only happened every few years. But when they did, they provided a quasi-laboratory setting to study the circumstances leading to a stuttering block.
The big difference between my response that night and how I would have responded 25 years ago is that, once the event was over, it was over. Though I was curious about it, I didn’t brood about it. Nor did I see it as a problem with my speech, so it did not reawaken any speech fears. It was just one of those things that occasionally comes out of the blue.
This story is just one example of how a situation not involving a stuttering fear per se can suddenly cause a shift in one’s “hexagon” and trigger a speech block.
Reliving a familiar scenario
Now let’s go back even further. By the late 1970’s I had been free of speech blocks for more than a decade, although every several years I would be surprised by an isolated incident. Like the Delancey Street encounter, these moments happened so infrequently that they gave me a laboratory-like opportunity to examine under a mental microscope the inner workings of the block.
This particular episode took place at Litronix, a manufacturer of light emitting diodes in Cupertino, California. I was the advertising writer on the account, and I and Bob Schweitzer, the account executive from the advertising agency, were at the company to present text and layout for a new ad.
Our appointment was for 10 a.m., but since we were a few minutes early, we found ourselves hanging out in the doorway to the office of Litronix president, Bruce Blakken, while he completed a phone call. As I stood chatting with Bob, I suddenly found myself feeling uneasy about introducing myself to Blakken, whom I had not previously met. I had the old familiar feeling that I would block on my name.
That was crazy. I hadn’t dealt with speech blocks in a dozen years. I never thought about stuttering in these situations. Why was this feeling making an unexpected reprise? The closer Blakken seemed to be to completing his phone conversation, the more I found myself worrying about my introduction. Eventually Blakken finished his call and motioned us in. Bob shook hands and immediately introduced me, avoiding the need for my having to say my name. Could I have said it without locking up? I would like to think so, but at the moment, I wasn’t sure. I only knew that I was off the hook.
Later that evening I sat down at home and mulled over the experience. What was going on at Litronix? Where did those feelings come from, and why did they show up at that particular moment?
I kept turning over the incident in my mind, looking at various parts of the tableau in an effort to find a clue that would explain my reaction. Eventually, something began to jell.
Two decades previously I had worked for my father in New York City. Our ad agency was housed in a small four story building on 50th Street where I worked downstairs. My father’s office was on the third floor, and sometimes I would go up to his office when he was on the phone. Unlike visitors from the outside who had to follow a formal protocol (receptionist, waiting room, secretary, and then be ushered in), I’d just hang out in his doorway until he finished his call. After all, I worked there, and besides, I was his son. I could take liberties.
The incident that day at Litronix felt remarkably similar. Because the company was informal, there were no official protocols to follow. We had waited in the reception area before being escorted to Blakken’s office, but after the young woman escorted us down the hallway, she simply said, “Oh, he’ll be done in a minute, and left us standing in the doorway.”
I had been here before. My emotional memory did not acknowledge the differences; rather, it responded to the similarities—head of company, standing in doorway, need for approval, attitudes about authority. These were pieces of a familiar engram that recalled the times when I waited for my dad to get off the phone. Not only did it recall the earlier experience, it became the earlier experience. He was my dad. I was his son, worrying that he wouldn’t approve of what I had done. And consequently, all the old feelings came back. These, in turn, brought back attitudes and feelings I had as a young man, including those about being judged and having to perform.
My amygdala, charged with protecting me from bodily harm, had made another mistake. Once again, it had inappropriately set off my general arousal syndrome to get me ready to fight or flee the saber-tooth tiger.
Fear of having your ideas rejected
A third type of fear-of-blocking scenario involves speaking to teachers, employers, or anyone who we cast in a higher position because of what they know, what they do, or what they can do for or to us. I used to think it was always because I might stutter in front of them. Now I know better. Fear of stuttering can be a valid fear. But fear of having my ideas rejected, something I took very personally in those days, can be equally intimidating, even if you no longer deal with stuttering.
In the mid-90s I was in a workshop sponsored by the Northern California Chapter of the National Speakers Association. Mariana Nunes, who taught the class, was a wonderful, supportive person and an accomplished professional speaker.
Among the subjects she addressed in the workshop was the need for an effective speech title. I had a talk that I’d given to local community organizations, and at the time, it was entitled, “Is It Fun, or Is It Work?” The talk was about how we tend to separate work and fun and how to build a relationship with work in which work and fun can become synonymous. Mariana felt my title would leave people unclear about the nature of my speech. I liked the title and was resistant to changing it. She said that during the workshop we’d have a chance to try out our speech titles on the other members of the group.
She was half way through the workshop when she asked if anyone had a speech title they’d like to test. At first, I did NOT raise my hand. Other people tried out their speech titles, but I held back. I should also mention that virtually all the people in the workshop were either professional speakers or wannabe speakers, so the caliber of those attending was high. I felt intimidated. Offering my speech title to this group meant that I would be judged by those whose opinion I held in high esteem. I had a fear of having my title rejected. But I didn’t want to feel rejected, so I kept holding back.
Eventually, I did raise my hand, but when I did, an old familiar feeling enveloped me. I felt like I was going to block. Now, at that time I hadn’t dealt with chronic speech blocks for over 25 years, although every once in a while, a situation would arise that brought up the old feelings. Though I felt as if I would block, I was also aware that it had nothing to do with my speech. It had to do with my divided intention. I sort of wanted to offer my speech title, but at the same time, I didn’t want to make myself vulnerable to the judgments of others. So I really DIDN’T want to speak. This pull in two different directions was creating a familiar sensation that I would lock up and not be able to talk.
I’d like to say that I ignored my feelings and spoke up, but I am embarrassed to admit that I finally put my hand down, and never did share my speech title. I felt bad about it afterward. However, once again, I was aware that the issue wasn’t about stuttering. It was about making myself vulnerable.
Fortunately, I had a second chance two months later when Mariana held another workshop. Once again, there was an opportunity to share speech titles. This time, my intention was clear, and mine was the second hand that shot up. When I did share the title, the words just flowed. I even felt surprised that it was so easy. As you can see, my mindset was totally different because my intentions were clear, aligned, and focused.
Had I only focused on my fear of stuttering the first time around, I would never have broadened my purview to include all the other issues that were involved. I would have reinforced the belief that I had a speech problem, and that it was a fear of stuttering that was keeping me back. I would have overlooked the real issues.
By the way, Mariana was right. They didn’t like the title. It wasn’t communicating. (I survived that revelation.) My presentation is now entitled, “Why Can’t Work Be More Fun?” and organizations are much clearer about the nature of the speech.
Talking to an unresponsive listener
A fourth situation in which a fear of blocking may have nothing to do with fear of speaking occurs when we speak to a totally unresponsive listener. The person just sits there, stone faced. Brrrrrr. Even now, that’s a tough one for me. I’m getting absolutely no clues to how I’m being received.
The need to be heard is one of the most powerful motivating forces in human nature. It has enormous bearing upon our development throughout childhood. Being listened to is the means through which we discover ourselves as understandable and acceptable…or not. It spells the difference between being accepted or isolated.
This also makes not being understood one of the most painful human experiences. When we’re not appreciated and responded to, our vitality is depleted, and we feel less alive. We are also likely to shut down.
Talking to an unresponsive listener is a lot like looking into a pitch black room. We project our own boogiemen into the darkness. In the absence of a response, our insecurities are awakened, and questions start undermining our self-esteem. Are we making sense? Are we well-regarded? Or are we being seen as the total fool, acting stupid and prattling on and on.
These questions wouldn’t be so important if we didn’t give the listener such power over us—the power to validate us, to tell us we’re okay.
Why don’t we just validate ourselves? Why do we need them? Because we create our own feelings of low self-esteem, and then turn to the other person to make us feel okay.
They have power over us because we want something from them—approval, love, acceptance. Sometimes, they’re in a position to dole it out because of their position. But often, it’s simply that we make them important and then look to them to validate us.
Our fear, of course, is that they’ll do just the opposite. They won’t like us or want us. So we desperately try to become presentable. We hold back our unworthy self. We second guess what they want, so we can provide it, or be it. We hide our dysfluent speech…our assertiveness…our spontaneity…our real self. Careful! Something may come up that the other person will find offensive. Because of their sphinx-like, expressionless manner, we tread lightly around them, as carefully as if we were walking on broken glass. We do everything we can to make ourselves liked. And when they don’t react, we hold back even more.
Our ultimate fear? It’s that they will abandon us. I call it the ultimate fear, because in our child-like state, if we’re helpless and abandoned, it means that we may die.
No wonder I grew up obsessed with always having to know whether I was coming across and whether people were receptive to what I had to say. I constantly looked for non-verbal clues to tell me whether or not I was connecting—a smile, a look of interest, an attentiveness.
But some people are just not expressive. It’s not that they don’t like you or don’t appreciate what you’re saying. It’s just not in their nature to be responsive.
I’d like to tell you I’ve outgrown all this, but the fact is that unresponsive people still make me uncomfortable. It has nothing to with a fear of stuttering. It has to do with a fear of not being validated, and 30 years ago in these situations, I would be highly likely to block.
The Alarm Clock Effect
A participant on the Internet’s neuro-semantics discussion group raised an interesting question. He asked, “If a person blocks to hold back and to avoid experiencing an emotion, etc., how does that relate to neutral, meaningless words such as ‘the’ and ‘and,’ as opposed to words with real content.”
One explanation for why we sometimes block on “meaningless” words is something I call “The Alarm Clock Effect.” This has nothing to do with a fear of stuttering per se, but about feeling that we’ve been speaking too long. We’ve been acting too assertively, and now it’s time for us to pull back.
When I first came to San Francisco years ago and joined the Junior Advertising Club, I periodically had to get up and speak in front of the group. On these occasions, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. In the beginning, I could speak for about 10 seconds before my “alarm clock” went off, and my anxiety level climbed to an uncomfortable level that would cause me to block. This had to do with my level of comfort in the situation and how long I could tolerate being in the power position (i.e.: in front of the group) before my feelings zoomed outside my comfort zone. Thus, I might block on the word “for,” not because that word was threatening, but simply because I had been letting go in front of the group for too long, and now I felt compelled to rein myself in. (A related fear is when someone speaks “too long” in a performance situation without blocking and the self-imposed pressure to keep up this perfect performance becomes overwhelming.)
However, the more opportunities I had to be up in front of the group, the more ordinary it began to feel, the more comfortable I became in the situation, and the longer I’d be able to speak—30 seconds, 45 seconds, one minute—before my alarm clock “rang.” This was an indication of my gradually expanding comfort zone as well as my growing willingness to assert myself.
As your self-esteem grows, as you build confidence in your ability to express yourself and become increasingly comfortable with projecting your power, you’ll find yourself able to speak for longer and longer periods without constantly hitting the brake. Speaking will cease to be an activity that wears you down; rather, speaking will energize you as you release more and more energy, because you are no longer working against yourself. Your “alarm clock” will allow you to go for longer periods without “ringing,” and eventually, may stop ringing altogether.
In analyzing a speaking situation, get in the habit of noticing what your emotions are doing and whether, just before you blocked, your feelings moved outside your comfort zone, causing you to pull back. Then ask yourself what the threat was. You can speed up the learning process by keeping a diary or writing down the incidents you remember on file cards. If you do this over time, you’ll begin to see definite trends and patterns. And those, in turn, will identify problem areas that need to be addressed.
How about people who seem to block in all situations?
After more than 26 years with the National Stuttering Association, I’ve seen every kind of stuttering you can imagine. I’ve met people who only block occasionally, and I’ve met those who struggle with every word.
What accounts for the people who seem to stutter all the time?
To help explain this, I devised something I call, “The Principle of the Upside Down Triangle.” This metaphor refers to the time in the child’s life at which particular sensitizing events take place. The earlier they occur, the broader the impact they will have on the person’s life later on.
Let’s say an 18-year old speaks up in class and is severely criticized and humiliated by a male teacher. There is the likelihood that the student will develop a fear of that teacher, or similar male teachers, and be discouraged from contributing further in that class.
If the event takes place at age 12, the student may not be as discerning and may project that fear onto all teachers.
If it happens at age eight, he may end up being afraid of all adults.
If it happens at age three, his fear may become generalized, not only to adults, but to any situation in which he’s called upon to be assertive.
At age three, he is not so much relating to the shoulds and should-nots of specific situations as he is to whether certain emotions are safe to express at any time.
For example, assertive feelings are an integral part of sex, creativity, and the expression of anger, hate, tenderness, and love. They’re part of one’s ego. If early in the child’s formative years he is put down for expressing his wants or needs in any of these activities, his fear of expressing strong feelings can easily become generalized.
He may come to the conclusion that his true self should never be revealed under any circumstances. Self-assertion per se may become a no-no. Then, almost all speaking situations will be threatening, and he’ll find it difficult to speak anytime, anywhere, without blocking.
Similarly, if not being listened to commences during early childhood, this would also have a broader impact on the individual’s life.
Compare this to the individual who’s sensitizing experiences occurred later, and whose fears are generally limited to specific situations.
As you can see in the above diagrams, the earlier the sensitizing events take place, the broader the impact they will have on an individual’s life, and the more widespread will be the incidence of speech blocks.
Imprinting the brain
Changes are also more difficult to implement when the unwanted behaviors are acquired early in life. An article in Time magazine in February 1997 explains why. The article starts out by describing how neural circuits are established:
- An embryo’s brain produces many more neurons, or nerve cells, than it needs, then eliminates the excess.
- The surviving neurons spin out axons, the long-distance transmission lines of the nervous system. At their ends, the axons spin out multiple branches that temporarily connect with many targets.
- Spontaneous bursts of electrical activity strengthen some of these connections, while others (the connections that are not reinforced by activity) atrophy.
- After birth, the brain experiences a second growth spurt, as the axons (which send signals) and dendrites (which receive them) explode with new connections. Electrical activity, triggered by a flood of sensory experiences, fine-tunes the brain’s circuitry—determining which connections will be retained and which will be pruned. [My emphasis]
The article observes that “by the age of three, a child who is neglected or abused bears marks that, if not indelible, are exceedingly difficult to erase.”
That would also be true of children who are subjected to anxieties about self-expression and who develop strategies and patterned behaviors designed to help them cope.
Then, from later in the article: “What wires a child’s brain, say neuroscientists…is repeated experience. Each time a baby tries to touch a tantalizing object or gazes intently at a face or listens to a lullaby, tiny bursts of electricity shoot through the brain, knitting neurons into circuits as well defined as those etched onto silicon chips.”
This process continues until about the age of 10 “when the balance between synapse creation and atrophy abruptly shifts. Over the next several years, the brain will ruthlessly destroy its weakest synapses, preserving only those that have been magically transformed by experience.”
No wonder some people have such overpowering difficulties with speech. Through repetition, their early fears of self-expression, with all the attendant perceptions, beliefs, and response strategies, have become deeply etched in mind and body and incorporated as part of the individual’s personality. In a similar manner, the blocking strategies they adopt also become habituated.
Can early programming be defeated?
The good news is that you can reformat these early experiences by reframing them so that the old reactions are not called up. You can also provide yourself with a choice of responses by developing new behavior patterns and repeating them over and over again until you automatically default to them. You will have to work much harder at creating those new response patterns, because your mind is no longer a blank slate and a certain amount of unlearning is now required. You will also have to address much more than your speech. You’ll have to address the perceptions, beliefs, emotional responses, and conflicting intentions that help to create the reactive patterns leading to a block.
Can it be done?
Yes, says author Daniel Goleman. In his book, Emotional Intelligence, Goleman talks about a problem that, like chronic stuttering, usually starts in one’s early years: obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). He reports that those being treated for OCD, which is another hard-to-break and deep-seated disorder, have been able to change their feelings and responses. They do it by confronting their fears, examining their beliefs and generating repeated experiences of a positive nature.
For example, one of the more common compulsions of the OCD sufferer is repeated hand washing. People are known to wash their hands hundreds and hundreds of times a day, driven by a fear that if they failed to do this, they would attract a disease and die. During therapy, patients in this study were systemically placed at a sink but not allowed to wash. At the same time, they were encouraged to question their fears and challenge their deep-seated beliefs. Gradually, after months of similar sessions, the compulsions faded.
Repeated positive experiences did not eradicate the old memories. They still existed. But it gave the individuals different ways of interpreting them and alternative ways to respond. They weren’t stuck playing out “the same old tune.” True, it took more effort to counteract the old responses whose roots reached back to early childhood. But motivated individuals were able to disrupt the old reaction patterns and relieve their symptoms, as effectively as if they had been treated with heavy-duty drugs like Prozac.
Says Goleman, “The brain remains plastic throughout life, though not to the spectacular extent seen in childhood. All learning implies a change in the brain, a strengthening of synaptic connection. The brain changes in the patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder show that emotional habits are malleable throughout life, with some sustained effort, even at the neural level. What happens with the brain…is an analog of the effects all repeated or intense emotional experiences bring, for better or for worse.”
The same principle applies to chronic speech blocks.
By venturing outside your comfort zone, being willing to experience your way through the negative emotions, and by reframing the old learnings using Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), Neuro-Semantics® and other tools from cognitive psychology—you can build alternative responses, even though the old memories will always exist in your emotional archives. The adage, “What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger” really applies.
But to effect these changes, you have to put yourself at risk (at least, in your own mind) by such things as disclosing to people that you stutter, deliberately looking for speaking opportunities, and finding regular opportunities to speak, especially in those situations that feel risky but are actually safe, such as Toastmasters.
Such repeated risk-taking activities affect, not just your speech, but your total self. They reprogram your emotional memory. They help you create a broader, more honest and grounded sense of who you are by building positive beliefs, perceptions, and emotions. In effect, you’re changing, not just your blocking behaviors, but the whole ground of being that supports those behaviors. By giving your Stuttering Hexagon a more positive spin, you are assuring that the old ways of holding back and blocking will no longer be appropriate for the newer, expanded, more resourceful you.
Keep looking at the big picture
I have to confess I’m really frustrated when, year in and year out, people maintain their tunnel vision about stuttering. For years and years, people were mystified by their speech blocks. Nobody knew what they were about. Then along came the speech clinicians and researchers who offered a simple and logical explanation: “Stuttering is what you do to keep yourself from stuttering.”
The world hungrily claimed this as The Explanation. “Hurray!” said everyone. “We now have an answer that makes sense.”
That’s when the blinders went on. People stopped looking. We assumed that this explanation was the entire answer. We limited our perspective. We stopped questioning whether there were other parts of the problem that had to be factored in.
Fortunately, not everyone has fallen into that trap. I’ve met many individuals who have substantially, or fully, recovered from stuttering, and all of them looked beyond the obvious. They developed a keen awareness of themselves as people. They made an effort to notice how they thought and felt, and they correlated those actions and experiences with their ability to speak.
Ultimately, they came to understand that underlying their speech blocks was a need to hold back, and that the reasons for holding back were linked to many facets of their life, not just to a fear of stuttering. The self-knowledge they developed became an integral part of their recovery.
If you’re one of those individuals for whom constant practice of speech controls is not working…or if the effort to remain fluent has become too difficult…perhaps it’s not because you haven’t been practicing hard enough. Maybe it’s because you haven’t established a Fluency Hexagon to support the fluency goals you’re working toward. Your hexagon is still organized around holding back, rather than letting go.
If that’s the case, it’s time to broaden your field of vision. It’s time to look beyond your fear of stuttering and start discovering the ways your speech blocks are intimately connected to all the various aspects of who you are.
Nash, J. Madeleine. (1997) Fertile minds from birth, a baby’s brain cells proliferate wildly, making connects that may shape a lifetime of experience. The first three years are critical. Time, 00:55, 47-56.
Robbins, Anthony. (1991) Awaken the Giant Within. New York: Simon & Schuster, 53.
Goleman, Daniel. (1995) Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books, 225-227.
The Feelings of Fluency
John C. Harrison
What is it like to be fluent? What does it actually feel like? When those who stutter think about fluency, their focus is almost always on their speech, rather than on their feelings. They see fluency as simply an absence of blocking. They believe that once fluent, they will be exactly the same person they are now; only their speech will change.
But fluency goes far beyond that. Fluency is a state of being. This state of being is called for whenever a person is called upon to perform any spontaneous act.
Real fluency is not about controlling speech…or about controlling anything for that matter. It’s about letting go, so that blocks become irrelevant.
Real fluency is about speaking without self-consciousness. You have an intention to express a thought or an idea, and suddenly, you realize you’ve done so. It just seems to happen.
This mindset will be found, not just in speech, but also in other forms of expression where the person operates fluently and intuitively without any awareness of self.
What follows is a short collection of personal stories that illustrate the components required to create the experience of true fluency.
Why have I used stories?
I discovered years ago that the best way to communicate an idea is by framing it in real life experience. You may think that some of the details are unnecessary. However, I’ve found that when I want to understand what someone else has experienced, it helps for me to be there with them, in their skin, to understand what they’re thinking and feeling. I want to feel what they felt. So let me take you along on some personal journeys that helped to clarify my difficulty with the feeling of fluency.
The need to surrender
This first story is an account of how I learned to read at 3,000 words a minute and then lost the skill because I could not tolerate the feeling of fluency.
“Whoa!” you’re probably thinking. “People can’t read that fast and actually understand what they’re reading.”
Not true. A certain percentage of the population is comprised of naturally fast readers. President John F. Kennedy was one of those people. So was my sister Joan. Back in grammar school, Joan routinely read two to three books every weekend. And she comprehended everything she read.
Most people crawl along at 200 to 300 words per minute. They’re constantly going back to reread sentences and paragraphs. By contrast, Joan could read an entire novel standing in a bookstore and be able to tell you what she read. I’ve met people who could read at 10,000 words a minute. And I’ve heard of one woman who could read at 50,000 words a minute by running her eyes down one page and up the facing page.
I know this sounds unbelievable. It did to me, too. And if I hadn’t learned to read at 3,000 words per minute, I never would have believed it.
There are some interesting parallels between verbal fluency and reading “fluency.” They involve a similar mindset. I’m going to tell you about how I learned to read at super fast speeds, how I lost that ability, and what I learned from that experience that related directly to my stuttering.
One day back in the mid-1960s I happened to notice a newspaper ad for a speed reading program. It was called Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics, and I was totally stunned by their claims. The typical ad for remedial reading classes talked about doubling or tripling one’s reading speed. That by itself would have been compelling. But the ad for Reading Dynamics was promising much more.
“Imagine,” said the ad, “that you were able to read at speeds as high as 4,000 or 5,000 words a minute.
“Impossible,” I thought. “Must be a misprint.” I read it again. No, that’s what it said; in fact, those same high reading speeds were alluded to several times in the ad.
In those days I was reading around 200-300 words a minute, so the idea of increasing my reading speed 15 times was an outrageous thought. Yet, the ad quoted people who said they were reading at astronomical speeds. Of course, I couldn’t resist, and the next week I signed up.
In the first class I attended at a downtown hotel, Doreen, the instructor, explained that this would be a different reading experience than we had ever had before.
“You mean we’ll really be skimming the material,” someone volunteered.
“No,” she answered. “You’ll actually be seeing all the words, but you’ll be using your eye and mind in a different way.” Doreen explained that the typical person scans left to right, line by line. We, on the other hand, were going to read in a zig-zag pattern, using our hand as a pacer to keep our eye moving down the page.
“But how can you understand what you’re reading?” someone asked
“That’s not a problem,” she said. “Let me demonstrate.”
Doreen explained that our eye was capable of picking up chunks of text at a glance, and if we concentrated, not on the words, but on using a broad focus and following the thought expressed in the text, our brain would automatically gather in the words and put it all together. We would totally understand what we were reading. But it would take a great deal of practice until we could do this. She then pulled out a soft cover book that someone had bought in the shop downstairs just minutes before class began.
“Find me several pages to read,” she said to one of the students as she handed him the book. The student opened the book at random.
“Here,” he said, “read the next three pages.”
As we sat transfixed, Doreen ran her hand down the first page in a zig-zag fashion, then the next page and the one after that. She read the three pages in about 12 seconds. Then she handed the book back to the student.”
“Okay, let me tell you what I read.”
Doreen took three minutes to summarize in detail what she had just read while the student corroborated her remarks. She had indeed read and understood what was on all three pages.
Seeing someone read this fast was impressive. But my reading this fast was another matter.
In the first class of this 10-week program, we were asked to give up our old way of reading and start practicing the new way. That was unbearably frustrating. Week after week, none of us could even get close to understanding what we were reading using this new technique. True, some general impressions were getting through, but to say I was understanding what my eye was “reading” was an overstatement. The only thing I accomplished was to chew up a lot of pencils.
“Don’t worry,” said Doreen. “You’ll get it. Just keep working.”
During class in the eighth week, something happened that spurred me on. I was involved in yet another frustrating practice exercise when a woman student suddenly shouted out excitedly, “I’m doing it! Wow! This is wild!”
Sonofabitch! Someone broke through. Instantly, my competitive spirit was engaged. Dammit, if that woman could do it, why couldn’t I? I applied myself with additional fervor. All I could think of was being left behind by someone who did what I couldn’t do. It was maddening.
The ninth week found me still deep in frustration. It just wasn’t working. What kind of an experience was I looking for? It wasn’t clear. I simply couldn’t imagine running my eye in a criss-cross pattern down the page and understanding what I was reading. How could you read anything that way? True, I could get an impression of the material, similar to what I routinely did when I scanned. But that wasn’t “reading.” However, I continued to conscientiously practice every night.
In the tenth and final class, I still hadn’t had a breakthrough experience, but I did notice that there was something different. I had this feeling that something was going to happen. I couldn’t put my finger on it. It was just a sense that I was close to something. While nothing dramatic happened in that last class, that expectant feeling continued to hang over me.
The course was officially over. But I decided to attend the practice session that was held on Saturday to give it one last try.
I showed up on Saturday feeling both resolute and desperate. This was it. If I didn’t make it now, my investment was for naught. Besides, there was the matter of that woman who broke through and perhaps others as well. I just hated being left behind.
Half way through the class I was reading a short novel by John Steinbeck called The Pearl. The writing was visual and graphic, and the text was easy to comprehend. I found myself racing faster and faster to see how the story unfolded.
Then it happened.
Suddenly, I was no longer reading. I was thinking the book. The story was taking place inside my head. It was like watching a movie. As my hand criss-crossed down the page, it felt as if I was scooping up the text and funneling it directly into my brain. It required no effort. I was racing along, and all I had to do was to surrender my mind to the page. The meaning seemed to float over the text as the story with all its visuals played itself out on my internal movie screen.
I was reading, but it was unlike any previous reading experience I had ever had.
As I practiced reading this new way, I felt oddly different. It was a reckless, powerful, fluent feeling, like being able to predict the future or move pencils with my mind. I was giddy with success.
I took the bus back to my apartment, and on the ride back, I made another interesting discovery. I could run my eyes across the advertising cards inside the bus and know instantly what they said. I didn’t have to read them in the normal way. One quick impression, and I could tell you what was on a particular card. My eye and brain were now functioning differently.
I had learned the skill. But I suddenly found myself with a new set of problems.
This new skill made me very uncomfortable. True, I could read a novel at 3,000 words a minute. That felt good. But I was not comfortable with the feeling that I had to surrender my mind to the page. I found it difficult to trust the process.
All my life, I had strived to keep myself under control. I never trusted my intuitions. I never gave in to my instincts. I constantly worried about being wrong. I always had a tight grip on my emotions. However, reading this way called for doing just the opposite. I had to let go and give up control. I had to give in and simply follow along with my mind. I had to surrender, and that made me feel vulnerable. I just didn’t want to give in to the experience.
So instead of practicing at two to three times the speed I could comfortably read at, as they had recommended, I went the other way. I began to slow down my speed to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I began to grab for meaning. What I was doing was trying to gain “control” over my reading experience, like years before, I had tried to gain control over my speech. Gradually, my reading speed dropped lower and lower as I worked to get every last detail. 2,000 words a minute…1,500 words a minute…1,000 a minute…each day I read a little slower, until one day, I was reading so slow that the eye/brain connection could no longer work, and I found to my despair that I had lost the skill.
Try as I could, I wasn’t able to get it back.
An unwillingness to change
Why couldn’t I hold onto the skill? It is clear that at that time, I was not ready to handle the trust and surrender required to read “dynamically.” What was called for was just too uncomfortable for me and not compatible with my need to be in control.
I subsequently did research for an M.A. thesis on Reading Dynamics at San Francisco State College. In preparation, I interviewed several instructors from the course. I was curious to find out which professions had the easiest time with dynamic reading, and which had the most difficulty.
“Musicians have the easiest time,” said Doreen, the instructor who had taken me through the program. “They’re used to working intuitively.” Musicians know what it’s like to give themselves to the music. They recognize the importance of surrendering to the experience, trusting their feelings, and not consciously controlling what they’re doing. I guess you’d say that in those performance moments, ‘the music is playing them.’”
One of the program’s best instructors was an accomplished organist. When she realized that certain complex pieces called for her to read music at thousands of notes a minute, she suddenly understood that she already had the proper mindset, and it was just a question of applying that same feeling to reading. In fact, she told me of musicians who were able to actually “hear” the music in their mind when they read sheet music using the same dynamic reading techniques.
“I’m curious,” I asked her. “Which profession has the most difficult time with this reading technique?”
“Lawyers,” said Doreen.
Of course. Lawyers do not automatically trust words. They’re constantly looking for shades of meaning. Wrong phrasing can make or break a case, so they feel compelled to scrutinize every word. Because of this habit of thought, attorneys were not, as a rule, successful in mastering dynamic reading.
One thing I concluded from my research was that most people were not able to master the dynamic reading technique. Apparently, the Reading Dynamics organization eventually came to the same conclusion. They ultimately changed their advertising claims, promising only to triple a student’s reading speed.
My speculation was that the experience of surrender was not something that most people were comfortable with. I certainly wasn’t. True, I was able to by-pass that problem for a short time when my competitiveness was awakened. I broke through because another person in the class had done it before me. But the feeling of competition was short-lived. And so was my reading skill. Without the crutch of competition, I could not sustain the ability to read dynamically.
Some time later, I developed further insight into the ability of my mind to “see” meaning when my wife Doris and I took up conversational Spanish in preparation for an upcoming trip to Mexico. My teacher was Ralph, a Spanish translator at the company where we both worked.
We only had six weeks to get up to speed before we left for Mexico City. In our hour sessions with Ralph, he drilled us in familiar phrases, and to my delight, I noticed that eventually, if he talked slowly and clearly, I could understand exactly what he was saying provided I didn’t focus on the words. If I focused on the meaning, I could follow his train of thought. My brain made sense of it. But if I worried about missing something and shifted focus to the words themselves, everything he said turned instantly to gibberish. It was the Reading Dynamics experience all over again. To understand Spanish, I had to surrender. I had to simply allow my mind to follow the sense of what Ralph was saying and trust that I would understand without worrying about what I might be missing. I could not grasp at the meaning. I had to let it happen to me. As I became familiar with more and more words and phrases, I was able to understand more and more of what Ralph said to me. But if at any moment I was afraid of missing the meaning of a word and changed my focus to the words themselves, I instantly lost the train of thought.
In short, I could not directly control the experience in order to master it. Mastery only came through repetition, trust and surrender.
This parallels my early experiences with stuttering. Back in my school days, I did not automatically trust that I would be okay when speaking to another person. My comfort with the verbal transaction would constantly ebb and flow. Often I was afraid of doing it wrong. I did not trust.
But there was something else I was missing, something that at the time I could not put my finger on.
“The consciousness of self is the greatest hindrance to the proper execution of all physical action.” – Bruce Lee
With Reading Dynamics, you’re working with the brain’s higher centers. These higher centers routinely allow a person to do remarkable things. I have seen individuals perform feats that could only have been done by trusting their higher intelligence. You’ve surely seen some of these as well.
- The first time I watched a young Olympic gymnast work the balance beam, not only did she twirl on the beam, she even performed backward flips without using her hands. The next contestant astounded me even more. She mounted by leaping on a springboard and doing a forward somersault, landing securely on the beam. How could anybody trust themselves enough to do that? It was just stunning.
- I have seen even more astounding feats of trust. Some years ago the Russian circus came to San Francisco. Tight rope acts are de rigeur for any circus. But in this circus I saw a performer who walked up the slanted guy wire that supported the tight rope from the ground. Can you imagine how difficult that is? Then he did a truly “impossible” feat. While still on the guy wire, he did a backward flip! To this day, I don’t know how anyone could land on a slanted wire. And he did it six times a week!
- Have you ever watched the Blue Angels, the daredevil aerial acrobatics team that performs air shows around the world? In some acts two planes fly toward each other at over 350 mph. They clear each other by inches at a combined air speed of over 700 mph. That’s trust.
- How about the pianist who sits down with the symphony orchestra and plays Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue without ever looking at a page of sheet music. He has memorized the music, the fingering, everything. He simply trusts that his mind and body will perform it, and as he plays, the music unfolds automatically in his mind like the perforated roll that controls a player piano.
- Ditto the actor who loses himself in the role of Hamlet. Beautiful phrases in Elizabethan English roll off his tongue, and he or she simply trusts that they will come out the right way in the right order.
- Practitioners of aikido must retrain themselves to react differently when physically attacked. Instead of defensively challenging the attacker, they turn their body to flow with the assailant, then guide the person to the ground. In the beginning these reactions are counter-intuitive. A person naturally wants to adopt a defensive posture and put up an arm to block a punch or directly confront the attacker. The trainee needs to trust that the proven techniques of aikido will work more effectively, even though it takes a while to build confidence in them.
- Every pilot in training will tell you about the first time he or she did a solo landing. It’s all about self-trust.
- How about the championship tennis player who, one shot away from defeat and with everything on the line, puts his faith in a higher power and risks everything on one go-for-broke forehand. He surrenders to the moment, turns around his game, and eventually wins the tournament.
- Then there is the Zen archer who, seemly without aiming, shoots the arrow into the center of the bullseye…and then splits the first arrow with a second.
The rigorous training of the Zen archer is described in the seminal book Zen in the Art of Archery,” written in the early 1950s by Eugen Herrigel. What struck me as I read Herrigel’s autobiographic account was the degree to which the student has to surrender himself to the discipline. He has to practice in a way that was totally foreign to my own way of functioning:
- He had to shoot thousands of arrows that totally missed their mark and not be discouraged by his lack of success.
- He had to train his instincts without consciously trying.
- He had to forego any time limits on his quest for success but simply accept that it would take as long as it was going to take.
- He had to put his ego aside and fully surrender to the experience – i.e.: not personally identify with either his successes or his failures.
- He had to be guided and driven solely by his intention.
What is it that inspires some people to put themselves at risk in situations where, to succeed, they have to surrender themselves to a higher force that they cannot consciously control?
Why are some willing to take this chance, and others are afraid to act? And what does it take to be willing to put yourself at risk? What gives you the courage to act?
Part of it is trust. You have to let go and trust.
This is the first requirement of fluency. The second requirement is having conviction and a clear intention.
The next story will help shed light on this issue.
2,600 feet over Calistoga
My feet were sweaty and my stomach dropped as I looked straight down eighty-six floors to the street below. I was 10 years old, and I had gone with my parents to visit the Empire State building in New York. We were at the outside observation area eighty-six floors above the Manhattan streets.
Today, there’s a wire fence that stops you from looking straight over the side. It was put there in the early 50s to prevent suicides after several depressed souls hurled themselves over the side. But back when I visited the Empire State building you could lean over the side, look straight down 86 floors, and feel yourself go weak in the knees. I was fascinated by the experience. I also hated it. I was afraid of falling.
Yet 17 years later, I found myself standing on a metal bar outside the door of a small airplane over Calistoga, California. The wind was buffeting me at 80 miles per hour, forcing me to tighten my grip on a second bar that I was hanging onto for dear life.
I was about to experience my first parachute jump.
“So,” you’re thinking, “if John doesn’t like heights and has a fear of falling, what is he doing hanging outside a plane at 2,600 feet?
Let me explain. Back in New York in the late 1950s I was reading an issue of Esquire one day when I found a short article on a sport called skydiving. It seemed that a few hardy souls were free falling from planes over a little town called Orange, New Jersey. Imagine that. People were jumping out of planes on purpose. As uneasy as I was around heights, I began thinking that this was something I simply had to do.
I’ve always thought that behind my unease around heights was a secret urge to jump. Just impulsively throw myself over the edge. Why? I’m not really sure. I’ve heard that a fear of falling is analogous to a fear of failing. Perhaps that’s it. All I knew was that I didn’t trust heights, and that one day I would have to meet this fear by jumping out of an airplane.
A year after I arrived in California I met a young fellow, Jerry, at my army reserve meeting who was making regular jumps at an airport in Calistoga, about an hour north of San Francisco. He sensed my interest and invited me to drive up with him that weekend to observe. I did, and all it did was to whet my interest even more. The following week I enrolled in the Parachute Club of America and set a date for my ground training which I completed the week after.
The day of my first jump I wrote out a short will and placed it in the sock drawer of my dresser. I then picked up Doris whom I was just starting to date, crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, and headed north toward Calistoga.
Calistoga is a quiet little town in the wine country about 60 miles northeast of San Francisco. It’s noted for its mineral waters as well as for its hot springs where you can bake in a mud bath, then ease your way into a relaxing massage. There’s also a large, naturally heated pool where families splash and frolic in the summer months. In addition, they have a small airport where, today, glider pilots can get a tow up to 5,000 feet, then cut loose and ride the thermals for as long as their luck holds. But back in 1962 there were no gliders, there were only jumpers. Lots of them.
When I arrived at the airport, Jerry was already there.
“C’mon,” he said. “You’re late, and you still gotta pack your chute.”
Say what? “I thought I get a chute that’s already packed,” I replied. “I don’t know how to pack a friggin’ chute.”
“It’s easy. I’ll show you,” said Jerry. “We all pack our own.”
I had visions of pulling the rip cord, and having nothing but a tangle of lines and silk trailing above me like a Roman candle.
We walked into the hangar. Jerry went over to a corner and picked up a pile that resembled a large bundle of laundry. “Here’s the chute,” he said. “Let me show you how to do this.”
He stretched out the chute lengthwise, then began bunching and folding the canopy. Each time he folded a handful of canopy, he wrapped a rubber band around it to keep it in place.
“That’s how you do it. Here, you finish.”
I kneeled down and attempted to copy what Jerry did. Except where he bunched and tied a handful of chute every 15 seconds, I was taking a full minute. I was trying to get every bunch the same length.
“Oh for god’s sake,” said Jerry impatiently. “It’s not brain surgery. You can just stuff it in the pack, and it would probably work fine.”
I was not convinced.
I hurried as fast as I dared. When it was done, Jerry fitted me into the harness and clipped me together. We stood around for a few minutes until it was time to go and then walked over to the plane. It was a Piper Club with the door removed on the passenger side. Right outside the door were two metal bars welded to the body. One was a foot hold for when you stepped out of the door, the other was a hand hold.
We piled into the plane, and I was positioned as the second person out the door. The plane took off and slowly climbed in lazy circles. I have a brief mental snapshot of the altimeter as the plane reached 1,500 feet, and thinking “Oh my god, I’m really going to do this.”
Today, if you want to free fall, you can make a tandem jump from 12,000 feet or more, strapped to the harness of an instructor. But back in the early 60s there were no tandem jumps, and newcomers were not allowed to freefall until they first completed five static line jumps. These are controlled jumps where the rip cord is attached to the plane so the chute opens automatically as the jumper falls away. All of us were making static line jumps.
When we got to the jump altitude of 2,600 feet and were directly above the landing zone, the jumpmaster threw out a wind drift indicator. This is a weight with a small chute behind it that approximates the drift and rate of descent of a jumper with a fully inflated parachute. How far the indicator falls beyond the drop zone tells the jump master where the jumper needs to release on the other side of the target to give him the best chance of drifting onto the drop area.
In a few moments, the first jumper eased himself out the door and into the 80 mph wind. He was hanging there just an arm’s length from me…and suddenly he was gone!
Then I got the sign that it was my turn, and I pulled myself out of the door. I was surprised by how strong the wind was as I held tightly onto the metal bar, all the while keeping my eye on the jump master who was fixated on the ground below. Suddenly he said, “Go!” and I released and pushed away.
I’d like to tell you about those first two seconds before the chute opened, but in truth, my anxiety level was so high that I have absolutely no recollection of it. I just know that when the chute opened, the plane was going merrily on its way, leaving me stranded in the sky.
This was cool. I pulled on the toggles and turned first in one direction, then the other. Totally neat! Then I surveyed the scene. The light was clear and crisp, and downtown Calistoga lay below me with vineyards and houses stretching as far as the eye could see. It was all so novel and exciting that it didn’t occur me to think about the hazards: the water towers, the phone lines, the public swimming pool, the vineyard with its hundreds of wooden stakes pointing menacingly in my direction. The field also had a fence bisecting it, and it was smaller than regulation size, something I didn’t learn until later. None of that mattered. I felt totally on top of the world (which I was!)
As I drifted down, I concentrated on keeping myself facing into the wind. For a moment there, it looked like I might land on a large white horse grazing in the field. But at the last minute I drifted past the startled horse, hit the ground, and did a parachute landing fall – the standard forward roll that I had practiced in jump school. As Doris and Jerry ran toward me, I felt like I had just walked on the moon.
For the next week I basked in the glow of my derring-do. I was one heroic dude in my eyes. But perhaps I was not that daring after all. Other novice jumpers were in a hurry to get their five required static line jumps completed, and some made two jumps a day. This allowed them to complete their static line jumps by the third weekend, and a few even did their first free fall. By contrast, I managed to stretch my five static line jumps over a six week period.
Then we had a short spate of bad weather. I drove up to Calistoga several times, but the winds were too strong for novice jumpers, and I ended up sitting around the airport watching the more experienced guys make their free falls. That’s when I started to lose my nerve. Maybe I had too much time to think about it. Maybe I had satisfied my curiosity and the novelty was wearing off. Or maybe sitting around an airport chatting up the other jumpers was just not a scene I identified with.
Whatever the reasons, free falling started to lose its glow, my intention waned, and as it did, my mind began focusing on the dangers. As free falling slowly stopped holding interest for me, I was beset by images of landing in a vineyard or going off course and bouncing off a water tower, or even making news in the local papers by frying myself on a power line or injuring people when I landed in the swimming pool. Suppose the first chute didn’t open. Would I have the presence of mind to open the reserve?
The more I thought of the dangers, the more I realized I didn’t want to take the risk. If I got hurt for doing something I didn’t care that much about, I never could have forgiven myself. And so one day, feeling very incomplete, I gave up my dream of freefalling.
What I learned
Over time, I got past the disappointment, but it was only many years later that I understood the meaning of this experience with regard to stuttering. It had to do with the confidence I felt whenever I did something I truly wanted to do, and the confidence I didn’t feel when I lacked those desires. Without conviction, I worried about the dangers. With a strong intention, I only focused on my purpose.
In high school, because my own feelings were seldom clear to me, I was always myself holding back when presenting in class or going up to a stranger or an authority figure. Because I was never grounded in what I wanted, I was so caught up with what I thought the other person wanted to hear that I became afraid to speak my mind. I was afraid I couldn’t get it right for them. This, in turn, undercut my self-esteem.
Being in touch with what you like and want gives you the courage to act, and especially, to risk. In Calistoga, when I lost my passion to jump, I lost my nerve.
The same thing had happened with my speech.
Uncovering the secret
How do you change this in ability to trust? First, you have to figure out what’s going on. Personal change calls for self-observation, because without it, you’re flying in the dark.
One of the earliest observations I made about the relationship of courage, desire, and my willingness to put myself at risk took place around my thirteenth birthday. My folks belonged to a Reform Jewish temple. I had decided earlier that year that I wanted to be bar mitzvahed. To be frank, I wasn’t very religious, but others in my class were celebrating their bar mitzvah and I guess I wanted to be part of the crowd.
The services at our temple were fairly secular, compared to the nearby Conservative Jewish temple, and rather than having to study Hebrew and read from the Torah, as my friends did who belonged to the other synagogue, all I had to do on my bar mitzvah was to recite a single paragraph of transliterated Hebrew.
Oh yes, there was one other requirement. It was traditional that the bar mitzvah boy participate in the Friday night service the previous evening where, at the end of the service, he stepped up to the pulpit and read the announcements. So it came to pass that I found myself giving the announcements from a sheet that had been handed to me moments before.
“The men’s…………..club…….will be………meeting………at the
Tuesday night at……………ssssss……………..
It went on like that, one painful minute after another, until I had gotten through all the announcements. The shame and mortification I felt as I walked red-faced from the pulpit are still seared in my memory, half a century later.
But the next day, my experience was surprisingly different. Though I was worried about how I’d do with my short speech in Hebrew, it went off without a hitch. I had no trouble at all.
I made note of something that day which was born out in later observations. I noticed that if I had something short to memorize, like a paragraph, and if I could go over it many, many times, if I could make it a part of me so that I felt it and “believed” it and wanted to deliver it, then the impulse to block was less likely to arise. At the time, that puzzled me. Later, I began to understand why this was so.
When I rehearsed something over and over until it was familiar, I made it a part of me, and I felt fully grounded. I knew and believed in what I had to say. I could feel my attachment to the words. There was no ambiguity, no ambivalence.
The question I posed to myself 20 years later was – “Why didn’t I feel that same groundedness and confidence when I spoke spontaneously?
Eventually, I got it. Speaking spontaneously involved doubt and uncertainty, and I found it difficult to speak with total conviction because I never knew what I believed and whether or not it was right. With rehearsed material, my feeling of conviction came through repetition. I could be spontaneous in my presentation, because I had already approved, sanitized, and vetted all the words. I became attached to those words. I claimed them as my own. I didn’t have to worry about being right. It was a sure thing. That’s one of the reasons why people don’t seem to stutter when they sing. Everything – the words, the purpose, the emotional expression – is all worked out beforehand.
I find this issue prevalent in the stuttering world. Those who stutter talk about the fear of being rejected. We grow up so much in need of personal validation that not getting it becomes a survival issue. To place that on the line is to risk rejection and psychic death.
Trusting myself to speak spontaneously and let go was akin to jumping out of the plane and not being certain that the chute would open. Without the conviction that I was doing my thing and doing it correctly, I just couldn’t risk it.
Top performers give up conscious control
This gets us to the central premise of this essay – the factor that weaves itself through everything we’ve been speaking about.
This is the issue of trust.
To do something fluently, you must give up conscious control and simply trust. You let go and trust.
The student of Zen archery has to shoot arrow after arrow at the target, trusting that if he follows the master’s instructions and practices the right technique and form, that eventually the arrows will start hitting their mark. He must do it without thinking and without making any effort whatsoever to consciously control what he’s doing. He must shoot thousands upon thousands of arrows at the target until the inner manager, the mysterious “it” takes over and directs his efforts.
Everybody who achieves a high level of fluency such as the
- high wire tight rope walker
- Olympic gymnast
- trapeze artist
- downhill skier
- concert pianist
- prima ballerina
- race car driver
- aikido master
- motivational speaker
- student of Reading Dynamics
must adopt an attitude of trust. They do everything they can to master their skill, then at some point they give up conscious control and simply trust. They must trust, because the complexity of what they’re trying to do, and the level at which they want to perform, falls outside their ability to control it consciously.
In fact, if the tight rope walker starts thinking about his feet, he may lose his balance.
The concert pianist who obsessively controls his fingers may end up stumbling over the notes.
The aikido master who thinks about what to do as his opponent strikes may lose his focus, and the match.
The professional actor who worries about remembering his lines will probably deliver a wooden performance. His focus will shift from “How do I want to” to “Can I do it?”
To perform all these tasks successfully, the practitioner gives over control to a higher power. He no longer controls what he’s doing. His intention controls what he’s doing. To perform all these skills fluently, he must trust that spontaneously being himself by losing himself will get the job done.
Learning about the remarkable capabilities of the mind
It was October of 1968. I was in the barber chair at the Ambassador Health Club on Sutter Street in San Francisco, thumbing through the latest issue of Sports Illustrated, when I came upon an article that caught my attention. The article was titled “Shooting by Instinct,” and it described one Lucky McDaniel, a young 33-year-old instructor from Upson County, Georgia, who could teach somebody to become a crack shot in a little more than an hour. Martin Kane, the author, started out by describing how someone typically approached the art of shooting.
Most skills allow you to attain a certain level of proficiency through conscious control. Target shooting is a good example. You take careful aim. You breathe according to plan. You watch the front sight drift back and forth across the target. You find it impossible to control the wavering sight, but you hope you can discover a rhythm that will permit you to let off the bullet at the correct instant. You try, therefore, to time the wavering of the sight, the beating of your heart, the extraordinary turbulence of your softest breathing. When you think you have all these things in rhythm, you do not pull the trigger. You squeeze it ever so gently, making sure you are holding your breath. You try to time the squeeze so that the bullet will let off between beats of your mounting pulse.
That sounded like the way I used to prepare myself to speak. But Lucky McDaniel had a different approach. He called it “instinct shooting” and it delivered virtually unbelievable results. In the article Kane recounted that…
…he taught me, in little more than an hour, to shoot with such marvelous accuracy that soon I was hitting crawling beetles and tossed pennies with a BB [pellet] gun, with scarcely ever a miss. The first time I ever wore a pistol I was able to draw it and hit a pine cone in the road, at a distance of some 20 feet, six times out of six, shooting from the hip.
For an over-controlled person like myself, this was akin to heresy. How could someone learn to do this? The article went on.
…a student of the Lucky McDaniel method (“The Lucky McDaniel System of Muscular Coordination and Synchronization Between Eyes and Hands”) does not trifle with the meticulous. A true McDaniel follower will go so far as to have the sights removed from his weapons because they are a hindrance to him. He will point rifle or pistol as naturally as he could point a finger, pretty much as good shotgunners do: Looking at what he wants to hit and quite disregarding the cant of his weapon or the state of his breathing, he pulls the trigger. He does not squeeze the trigger. He might even slap it, as shotgunners sometimes do. That is all. He hits the target, which may be a flying dime or an Alka-Seltzer tablet tossed into the air by Lucky.
By this time I was turning the pages in total disbelief. For someone who had found it hard to just let go and speak, the idea of shooting impulsively, with such results, was beyond my realm of experience. A bit later in the article, Kane described McDaniel’s teaching method.
Lucky’s method of instruction is a marvel of simplicity. There is, in fact, very little instruction because Lucky does not want to clutter the pupil’s mind with inhibitions.
The pupil is handed a BB gun and told to shoot it at nothing a couple of times. He is asked if he has seen the pellet leave the barrel. When he has satisfied Lucky that he really has seen it, the pupil is permitted to shoot at objects tossed into the air by Lucky, who stands at his right side and a half-step to the rear. Practically the only advice he gets is to cheek the gun [bring the gun to the cheek] slightly and to look at the object without sighting along the barrel.
“Cheek it and shoot it,” Lucky tells the pupil as he tosses up the first target, a rather large iron washer, a little bigger than a silver dollar.
The pupil generally misses.
“Where did the BB go?” Lucky asks.
The pupil says he saw the shot pass under the target.
“That’s right,” Lucky says, and tosses up the washer again. “Cheek it and shoot it.” The pupil misses again, is asked where the BB went and again he says it went under. Lucky agrees that it did. But on the fourth or fifth miss a pupil may say that he saw the BB pass over the target.
No,” Lucky says firmly. “It never goes over. You’ll never miss by shooting over it. Now try to shoot over it and you’ll hit it.”
The pupil tries to shoot over the washer. He hits it. In that instant he becomes a wing shot. Smaller and smaller washers are tossed into the air and the misses become very infrequent. Eventually the pupil is hitting penny-sized washers and is able to plink them on the top or bottom, as called for by Lucky.
This occurs in an incredibly few minutes, usually under a half hour. During that time the shooter has been kept very busy. Lucky gives him no time to think about what he is doing, no time to theorize, no time to tense up. Targets are tossed in fast succession while Lucky keeps up a patter of suggestion pretty much implying that this is just about the brightest pupil he ever has taught. The pupil is inclined to think so, too.
After establishing expertness with the BB gun, the shooter moves onto the .22 rifle. The routine is much the same except that targets may be anything from small clay pigeons to charcoal briquettes, either of which powders in a very satisfying way when hit by a bullet. There is almost never any difficulty in making the shift to the .22. The shooter now has ingrained ability to resist the temptation to aim. He just looks at the target, pulls the trigger when, somehow, he senses that he is pointing properly. This is a very definite feeling but hard to describe. It is a feeling of empathy with the target. Establishment of this “sense” is the big fundamental of Lucky’s teaching.”
What occurred to me is that this is how children learn to speak. If there’s no fear of stumbling or making mistakes, or if they don’t inadvertently slip into bad speech habits, they follow a mindless process of trying, failing, and trying again and again until some inner process takes over control. And lo and behold, they begin to produce words. Kane continues:
One reason for seeing the BB leave the gun, Lucky says, is that he wants the pupil to “learn to focus on a single object without looking at everything else around.”
“I tell him to hold the gun easy against the cheek, not force the cheek down to the gun in the regular way,” he explains. “As soon as he begins to shoot I know what he is doing wrong. There are a thousand things he can do wrong. But I don’t excite him. You’ve got to give him confidence or he’ll tighten up. I tell him he’s going to hit the target and most of the time I call ‘em right. When he’s shooting high I don’t just point to where he should be shooting. I throw the objects and point while I’m throwing it. I keep this up steadily so he’ll swing into it. Then I keep shifting the target, like from one match to another on the ground, so we won’t get wrapped up in one target.
“This is instinctive shooting and it’s got to come easy.”
Compare this method of shooting to the first method quoted in this section where the shooter painfully and deliberately tries to control every factor. To me the former smacks of a precision fluency shaping technique where the person is trying to consciously control every aspect of his or her speech. The difference between the two methods is that the second way of functioning is fluent. It simply flows. The first is not fluent, even though there may be an absence of speech blocks. Fluency isn’t about an absence of blocks. It’s about having flow.
To create flow, the one thing the spontaneous shooter and the spontaneous speaker have to have is trust.
You need to trust in something you can’t feel or touch or consciously control, precisely what we as people who stutter and block have trouble doing.
Whereas you can learn to shoot a rifle by exercising conscious control and get passable results, getting results with speech that are simply passable are usually not considered satisfying. Speaking fluently and expressively is a highly complex process that requires you to operate on an intuitive level. There are too many processes that need to be coordinated simultaneously to carry this out consciously. To have the words flow easily, they cannot be controlled by your conscious mind. They can only be controlled by your intention. Your subconscious, or what the Zen master would call your “it,” runs the show.
When you try to deliberately control your speech, you end up interfering with a spontaneous act and the fluency breaks down. You may be able to speak without stuttering, but many people I’ve met through the years, people who have tried to control their speech, end up forsaking the fluency technique they had recently learned. They all offer the same reason for giving it up.
“Sure, I can talk that way,” they say, “but when I do, I just don’t feel like I’m me.”
Well, that’s no surprise. Self-expression is a spontaneous act. It involves subtle changes in pacing, volume, tonality, and the like. You cannot consciously control this and feel free to fully express yourself.
If you don’t trust yourself to be spontaneous…if you cannot surrender to the moment…if you have a conflict in your intentions…if you cannot practice the skill and then forget about the practice and just perform the skill…the interference is likely to trigger your self-consciousness. And you’ll begin to pull back.
To be truly fluent, speaking must be performed intuitively, just like reading dynamically must be carried out intuitively. And gymnastics. And high wire walking. And Aikido. And playing a musical instrument. And all the other skills that require performance at the highest of levels just to do them properly.
That to me is what fluency is all about.
How does one gain real fluency?
In 1985, to prepare for a talk at the National Stuttering Association’s first national convention, I sat down one day to see if I could come up with a paradigm for stuttering that encompassed everything I had discovered about the problem and about how I was able to disappear it.
After years of personal growth programs, I understood stuttering, not simply as a speech problem, but as a system involving all of myself – an interactive system that was comprised of at least six essential components: behaviors, emotions, perceptions, beliefs, intentions and physiological responses.
This system could be visualized as a six-sided figure—in effect, a Stuttering Hexagon—in which each point of the Hexagon affected and was affected by all the other points. It was the dynamic moment-by-moment interaction of these six components that maintained the system’s homeostatic balance and that made it so difficult to change.
This model explained why you couldn’t just go to a therapist, work on your speech, and have those changes last. To make the changes permanent, you had to change the system that supported the way you spoke.
More to the point, in order to change your speech, you had to change you.
I found the Hexagon a useful concept because it resolved the question of whether a speech block was emotional or physical or genetic or environmental. As you can see by this paradigm, stuttering/blocking is not an either/or issue, but rather, a system that involves the constant interaction of all these factors. Blocking is emotional and physical and perceptual and genetic and environmental. Each point can exert either a negative or positive force on the other points.
Thus, in a system where most of the points are not supporting your ability to trust and assert yourself, there is little likelihood that gains in fluency or ease of self-expression will be lasting. On the other hand, if you have made gains all around the Hexagon, then this will support greater fluency, because you have not just changed your speech, you’ve changed the system that was leading you to hold back.
It is only by changing the system that you can create true, uninhibited, spontaneous, mindless fluency.
Unfortunately, many therapy programs adopt a strategy in which the focus is almost entirely on creating deliberate, physical fluency. This may lead to controlled fluency, but it actually creates a mindset that works against spontaneous fluency. It stops you from ever experiencing the feeling of fluency, which is mindless, spontaneous, and expressive.
So what did I do to become spontaneously fluent?
I couldn’t change my physiological make-up. That was a given. It was encoded in my genes. How I reacted to stress and how quickly I switched into a fight or flight reaction was hard wired.
What was not hard-wired was how I framed my experience.
If I didn’t frame a situation in crisis terms, I would not initiate crisis-managing strategies (blocks).
I changed my beliefs, not just about my speech, but about myself and about other people. That in turn would affect how I perceived my experiences moment by moment.
I resolved conflicts in my intentions – conflicts that fueled my desire to speak and hold back at the same time.
I learned to become more comfortable with my emotions.
I better understood what I did physically when I blocked and learned to relax the muscles that caused the block.
Over time, I made a lot of changes. I practiced speaking in front of others. I learned to become assertive. I became comfortable expressing what I felt. I changed how I framed my experiences. Eventually, I dissolved my stuttering system and stopped thinking about stuttering altogether.
Very gradually, I ended up building a system in which spontaneous fluency and self-expression were possible.
Though you may not realize it, you’ve been functioning in an intuitive mode all your life.
When you first learned to walk, you focused on placing one leg before the other. Then, one day, you did it instinctively.
When learning to drive a car you initially focused on the pedals, the steering wheel and your position on the road. You were conscious of pedestrians on the sidewalk. After a while, the driving process became automatic.
Similarly, when you first attempted to ride a bicycle, you experienced difficulty with your balance. You held back and applied the brake at every opportunity. Suddenly, one day it all came together. You gained the confidence to let go and pedal – enjoying a fluent ride.
Yet with speech, something ran amiss.
This essay looks at the parts of the fluency system – something that should operate in the same fashion – to see what has broken down
In both the Reading Dynamics and Lucky McDaniel stories, we saw that a complex skill is mastered through –
• having a clear intention
• mindless repetition without concern for consequences
• practicing trust.
In the skydiving and bar mitzvah stories, we saw that conviction and commitment have everything to do with a person’s willingness to let go, give up control, and just be.
With the Hexagon, we saw that troubleshooting a complex skill calls for addressing it as a whole system.
In part two of this journey into the Feeling of Fluency, I’m going to share with you some of the experiences from my life that were critical in transforming an underlying deficit in my life:
My inability to trust.
John Harrison can be reached at jcharr1234 @ aol.com.