Tips for supporting a loved one or friend who stammers, as well as yourself.
What is the best thing to do if someone close to you stammers? Should you bring the subject up? Can you and should you help them? How can you make them feel supported?
Here are some things that might help. We've also got some general tips on our In Conversation With Someone Who Stammers page.
For those who stammer, speaking with new people or talking in public can be more challenging. Ordering in restaurants or meeting friends and family can be really daunting. These situations are likely to cause a lot of worry. To support your friend, family member, partner or boy/girlfriend:
- Ask if there's anything you can do to help in social situations. They may appreciate you ordering on their behalf or introducing them to new people. Or maybe answering the landline phone at home. But ask first, don't assume they do want you to.
- Don't jump in and speak for them unless they want you to. It might feel like you're helping, but it may be embarrassing and disempowering for them. Speak to them first.
- If you are in a group of people nattering away, make sure you can see the person who stammers. If you see that they want to speak, interrupt the flow. Invite them to share their thoughts and set an example to others.
- Having to do a presentation for work or a speech can be worrying too. Ask if they would like to practise with you beforehand. If they agree, try not to give feedback based on how much they stammer. Good communication isn't about fluency. It's about engaging with audiences and getting messages across.
TALKING ABOUT STAMMERING
Be prepared to talk and keep talking about stammering. A friendship or partnership works best when you share things.
- Accept that stammering is an important issue for the person. Your patience and understanding will be really important to them.
- The person might be open with you about their stammer and how it makes them feel. Or they might prefer not to talk about it.
- Don't feel offended if they're reluctant to talk about their stammer. They might have spent their life suppressing it to fit in with fluent society. But let them know that you're open to talking about it.
- If they tell you they stammer, take the opportunity they're giving to open up the conversation. For example, you could say, "Thanks for sharing that. Is there anything you'd like me to do when we're chatting together?".
- Ask them to politely tell you if something you do or say isn't helping.
- If someone tells you they stammer, try not to say things like "Everyone stammers sometimes". Even if you are trying to reassure them. True, everyone has moments of disfluency, but that's not the same as having a stammer. However well-intentioned these comments are, they downplay the person's experiences. The person might feel like it's not something they can talk to you about.
It might feel difficult to relate with someone's experiences of stammering. Particularly if they feel less sociable or introverted as a person who stammers. If you want to explore the range of experiences, see our Your Voice section, which features articles written by people who stammer.
Nathan told me that looking away is the last thing someone with a stammer wants you to do — it makes him think you feel uncomfortable and that you have lost interest in the conversation.
HOW MUCH PEOPLE MIGHT STAMMER
Everyone's stammering experience is different. Don't feel like there's an amount or level they should be stammering with you.
It's a common misconception that people stammer because they're nervous or shy. But they might feel those things because they stammer. They may be anxious about how people might respond to the way they speak. If they feel comfortable in your presence, though, they're likely to feel less anxious. Depending on the person, this might make them either:
- stammer less in your company because they feel less tense, or
- they might stammer more as they feel relaxed and don't have to worry about their speech.
A lot of people work hard to make their stammer less obvious some or all of the time. As a result, they might not appear to stammer much. But they might be thinking ahead all the time and switching words to ones that are easier for them to say. Some people go to great lengths so that no one finds out they stammer. This is called 'covert' stammering. See Covert Stammering for more.
If it feels comfortable, tell the person that they don't have to worry about stammering around you. Let them know you are open to talking about it should they ever want to.
If people are working on their speech, through therapy or a course, they might seem to stammer more for a time. This might be because they are more acutely aware of their stammering. Or they might be no longer trying to hide it. Successful therapy may mean that they stammer more but feel happier about it.
Remembering to do all the things above can be hard. Try not to beat yourself up if you don't always get it right. And don't put all the pressure on yourself — support should be a mutual thing.
If the person has a big speaking situation coming up, like a presentation or speech, they make worry about it a lot. Depending on the person, this might make them brood on it for days or weeks in advance. They might appear distant as a result. Talk with a loved one about how you are feeling too and how they can support you. Tell them how you might be struggling and if there's anything they can do to help you.
Accept that you won't always understand what they are going through. Don't feel guilty about this.
It might be difficult to see someone you love struggle with their speech. You might feel embarrassed or anxious. But learning to be comfortable with it will help you both. By doing so you will show others how to respond.