11th August 2021
Aman Khan explains how putting himself in speaking situations helped change his mindset to stammering.
As a person who grew up with and still has a stammer, something that I would continuously tell myself was "I'll do that when I don't stammer anymore".
Throughout my life I was terrified of so many interactions. My mind would run berserk every time I had to speak to anyone. I would put off many speaking situations or let others do them for me, or I wouldn't do them at all.
One particular event really sticks in my mind. It was when I was at junior school and I wanted to invite a friend over. I had his phone number scribbled on a piece of paper in one hand and our cordless phone in the other. I kept looking back and forth between the two doing mental cartwheels, really thinking about how to approach this task that many kids my age did within seconds.
Any time I stammered I felt this instant shame and tugging pain built upon the ideal forced upon me to be a 'perfect' speaker.
In the end, after what felt like hours, I asked my mum to make the call. I went to her room, exhausted and mentally drained from a battle I didn't know why I had to fight when no one else around me did (or at least I hadn't come across them yet). She saw the worried look on my face and asked what was wrong. I told her I was too scared to phone my friend in case I might stammer. Although she tried to convince me to do it myself, I was too afraid and so I didn't.
Events like this took place throughout my life, each one sanding off my self-worth and making me feel more and more inferior. You see, whilst I got the immediate comfort of not being in the speaking situation, in the long run it was taking away my confidence and most importantly, my voice.
The mentality of having a stammer affected me far more than the physicality of it. I needed perfection in speech otherwise I simply was not satisfied. This is what really drove me up the wall — the need to never stammer every single time I spoke was steering my mental health down a path I did not like, causing me to stammer even more.
The need to never stammer every single time I spoke was steering my mental health down a path I did not like, causing me to stammer even more.
Any time I stammered I felt this instant shame and tugging pain built upon the ideal forced upon me to be a 'perfect' speaker. I saw all these people around me ordering food, introducing themselves, speaking on the phone with fluency and I couldn’t understand why I couldn't do it too. And even when I was fluent, the mental exhaustion I felt in the build up to speaking made every interaction so uncomfortable that I still wasn't satisfied.
Shifting my mindset
I knew I couldn't live my life like this; something needed to change. However, at the time I wasn't brave enough to make a change myself. I needed a catalyst. This came in the form of a certain phone call where I struggled to speak so much that I ended it and sat on my bed on the verge of tears. I had tried and failed numerous times to say a few sentences, but my throat locked up and my jaw was stiff. The tension in my entire body went through the roof and I felt helpless. For those of you who don't stammer, it's like the feeling in a dream where you are trying to scream or run but you physically can't.
Over the next few months, I thought about this event excessively and decided to shift the way I thought about speaking. I forced myself to do the very thing that I was so afraid of — put myself into speaking situations — and I tried to train my brain to focus not on the outcome of speaking, but rather on the quality of the interaction.
I went into situations focusing on making them comfortable and enjoyable for all involved instead of being fluent all the time.
I went into situations focusing on making them comfortable and enjoyable for all involved instead of being fluent all the time. This very shift of mindset inadvertently caused my fluency levels to rise, even though that was never the intention.
Interactions like this were never easy and caused tension levels to spike in the lead up and throughout. I would often block, run out of breath and so on. But here's the thing: no matter how the interaction went, afterwards I would feel far better and more fulfilled than if I never took part in it at all. I know this because after the speaking situations I avoided because of fear, I felt a vastly empty feeling inside of me, like I had a desperate, long-lasting hunger that I was trying to eradicate with ice cubes — the ice cubes being the instant but temporary relief of not being in that situation — cold, tasteless and famishing. In the long run, the hunger was always there and my need to feel fully confident for once in my life whilst speaking was stronger than ever.
Pushing comfort zones
I started off by going into situations that I was previously too afraid of, such as speaking in groups, making phone calls I had been putting off, or asking where something was in Tesco rather than aimlessly wandering around looking for it.
I then started entering interactions where I had to go out of my way to do them. These included making conversation with strangers, making phone calls that I didn't need to, and answering questions like "How are you?" or "How's your day going?" with greater depth than just "Good, thanks". Although I admit I still have to work on that last one — it's almost like our human default is to give it a one-word answer.
This is why I think that no matter where you are with your speech, pushing your comfort zone is vital in this journey. Focusing far more on things such as vocal variety, gesticulations, expressiveness, sincerity, authenticity and purpose during interactions, allows me to have far more enjoyable and fulfilling speaking experiences.
As you can see from my picture, I play guitar and used to play in a band. One similarity I noticed between playing guitar and speaking is that when I thought too hard about what I was playing, I would mess up. Just like speaking, when I anticipate and overthink it, I stammer more. Which is why I recommend focusing on other aspects of speaking.
Stammer as much as you want, just please don't stop speaking.