A guide to the best things to do when speaking with someone who stammers.
It can be disconcerting talking with someone who stammers. Particularly if you've never met anyone who stammers before. If the person is struggling or looks uncomfortable, you might feel uncomfortable too.
You're reading this because you want to know what you should do. Basically, people who stammer don't want to be treated any differently. They just want to say what they want to say without being interrupted or spoken over. Without being laughed at or patronised, or given funny looks.
All you need to do is listen and be patient. That's it. Just as you would when speaking with anyone. But the way you react can be important.
Reacting when someone stammers
- It can be tempting to try and help by finishing someone's sentences. Try not to do this. People who stammer often find it intrusive rather than helpful. It can make them feel disempowered and if you get it wrong it can be very frustrating.
- It can be tempting to suggest they 'slow down', 'relax' or 'stop and breathe'. This just shows that you're more focused on how they speak, than on what they're saying. Most people who stammer find such advice intrusive and embarrassing rather than helpful.
- If you feel uncomfortable, try not to look like you are. Stay neutral and keep natural eye contact. Any negative reaction can make the person feel uncomfortable and rushed. Show them their stammer isn't an issue for you and that you're engaged with what they're saying.
- If the person is really struggling and it feels appropriate, it's OK to offer a reassuring "Take as long as you need".
- The person may talk very fast to try and get through a sentence without stammering. If you miss something, it's OK to ask them to repeat it.
Things to keep in mind
Don't read anything into how someone talks. Knowing that someone stammers doesn't mean you know anything else about them. Don't assume someone who stammers is nervous, drunk or that there's something wrong with them. It's just how they talk.
It's normal for stammering to fluctuate. Stammering can vary from day to day, from situation to situation, and from person to person. Some people stammer a lot, others very little. People can stammer more in certain situations or on some days, or even on certain words or sentences. So don't be surprised if someone stammers on one day but not another. That's normal for stammering.
A lot of people try hard to minimise their stammer so that it's not obvious. They might switch or avoid words or situations. So you might not even know they stammer.
People who stammer often find words which can't be swapped hard to say. For example, their name, address, phone number or date of birth. Resist the urge to joke that they've forgotten their name.
If someone says that they stammer but doesn't stammer much, don't assume they're lying. You have no idea on how hard they are working not to stammer and risk being laughed at. Read Rhiann's story. Rhiann was laughed at in a coffee shop because she stammered.
If someone is letting you see and hear their stammering, that's great. It means you're part of creating space and a welcoming environment for that person to talk.
Avoid saying things like "You're really brave". They're just getting on with life. And avoid congratulating them for fluent speech or for 'overcoming' their stammer. This can make them feel bad when they have a moment of stammering.
Read around the subject some more with the following pages: