John Hannon writes about breaking free from a life spent trying to hide his stammer and noticing, in his job as a professional coach, how leaders develop bad communication behaviour in their own quest to be perfect.
For many years my experience of speaking was all about not stammering. Success, for me, was when I didn’t stammer. To that end I avoided certain situations, substituted problematic words and lived in fear of being exposed as a person who stammered. I avoided the company of other people who stammered because they reminded me of my deep-seated desire to not be like them.
One day I came across a book called ‘Self-Therapy for the Stutterer’, published by The Stuttering Foundation of America. Having had ‘therapy’ when I was a child, in the form of elocution lessons, the last thing I wanted was any form of formal speech therapy, so the idea of self-therapy appealed.
Trying not to not stammer
One phrase in the book struck me as especially important: “Stuttering is what you do trying not to stutter again.” This phrase resonated strongly, but its implications were terrifying; would I ever be courageous enough to stop trying to not stammer? My goal had always been to speak fluently and I believed that “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.” However, I had to admit this hadn’t helped me to realise my objective of concealing my stammer from the world.
How would I cease viewing fluency as the Holy Grail when my sense of self-worth was all about how 'well' I could speak?
It took me a long time to fully realise the implications of this paradox; could it really be true that the way forward for me was to stop trying to not stammer? How would I do this? How would I change the habit of a lifetime? How would I cease viewing fluency as the Holy Grail when my sense of self-worth was all about how 'well' I could speak?
It wasn’t until one day when, out of desperation, I signed up for an Interiorised Stammering course at the City Lit that I saw a clearer way ahead. The tutors suggested that we talked to our friends, family and colleagues about our stammering; in other words, to ‘come out’ as people who stammered. We were to ask them what it was like for them, tell them how it was for us, and to have a conversation about stammering. This was one of the best things I ever did. For me it was liberating. I was open about the feelings of shame and embarrassment that I had been feeling every time I stammered; how I felt that it was a visible symptom of my inadequacy, almost a moral failing. I told them about the course and how important it was for me to be more open about my difficulties.
From these conversations I realised that my stammering, which was a huge drama for me, was no big deal for others. ‘Coming out’ as a person who stammered was a great reason to stop trying to be fluent — what was the point when I had admitted to everyone that I stammered? There was also the chastening revelation that everyone knew full well that I stammered when I had deluded myself that I was successfully concealing it!
A career in coaching
Looking back at my career, I think stammering did hold me back because I sometimes gave the impression that I lacked confidence or was overly introverted, for which I think I was judged as being less suitable for certain management or leadership roles. On the other hand, however, I had the attitude that I was not going to let my stammer hold me back; I was often the first to speak up in meetings because I didn’t want to give in to avoidance.
Like many people who stammer, I am a good listener and I’m sensitive to other people and what they are feeling. These traits have helped me to become an effective ‘people person’ type of leader, and made me want to go into coaching. I have subsequently worked successfully as an executive coach. I have found that for adults who stammer, a confidential coaching conversation can help work through patterns of avoidance and the feelings underlying those behaviours. A coach can support a person who stammers to change both their thoughts about themselves and how those thoughts manifest in behaviour.
There is no shame in not being perfect!
As a coach I see that many leaders have feelings of inadequacy or insecurity which they try to hide with problematic behaviours such as not listening, talking too much, expecting themselves to have all the answers or not taking feedback. Trying to conceal self-perceived weaknesses like this can make other people’s lives miserable.
It seems that most of us have a deep-seated desire to appear impeccable and highly competent in all that we do. That is clearly absurd; there is no shame in not being perfect! Admitting lack of perfection, even if only to a coach, is an essential first step towards changing behaviour. Just like with covert stammering, ‘try, try, try again’ not to do something, is rarely an effective long-term strategy for personal development.
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