The Stuttering Professional

The second workshop that I attended was on The Stuttering Professional. It was put on by Wes Williams, who I had met at last year’s conference. As someone who works in a professional office, I was very interested in what Wes had to say. My own experience has actually been pretty good. The people in my office don’t care that I stutter (at least nobody has called me out on it saying it’s affecting my work). Nor do they mock me or try to finish my words (well, not too much anyway).

Wes handed out some exercises for us:

Share a difficult time you’ve had in the workplace. One where you’ve overcome your reluctance to speak and one where you didn’t, but wish you would have.

For me, I have a lot of both (now). For a long time it was more the latter than former. When that was the case, I’d follow up with a one-on-one talk with meeting participants to express my concerns or an e-mail to the group listing out concerns that I “thought of after the meeting.” In reality I was scribbling down copious ideas in my notebook during the meeting.

Wes also had us consider interviews and two out of three questions:

Tell me about your responsibilities in your current role
What are two situations where you’ve overcome adversity at work
Describe the most frustrating part of your job

Lastly, he laid out strategies that could be considered at work, the first set specifically for interviews.

Under disclaimers, we should point out the elephant in the room early on. Yes, we stutter, no, there’s nothing I can do about it. We can then thank them in advance for their patience. And lastly, set some guidelines. Politely tell them that if we have a block to let us finish.

Under the Delivery, Wes suggested we use the following strategies during a discussion or presentation. Don’t break eye contact — they can still see you. Avoid avoidance and say what you want to say, not just what you think you can get out. Lastly, power through. If you don’t take your time, your time will take you.

This last point was very interesting. Basically it means that we will be consumed by how long we perceive something to be taking. The more we think about how long it’s taking, the more anxious we may feel. And that will cycle and cause us to stutter more.

The first few strategies are basically ways of advertising. I’ll admit I’m not as good at them as I could be. It’s also because I’ve been in the same office with the same people for several months.

The next set is something I can work on every day. I notice that I definitely break eye contact when I’m speaking to people, and especially when I’m stuttering. I also sometimes rush through things when I could stop, breath, think, and then speak.

I really liked this workshop because Wes offered very practical advice for anybody in an office who’s facing countless interactions every day.

Your attention, please

One of the things about working in an office is that people are always coming and going, walking and talking. They have conversations just standing in the hall, as they walk up and down the stairs, and across desks and people.

Very often someone will be leaving our office area, and someone sitting will make a comment to them. It’s loud enough so that most others can hear it, but the person walking out (who it’s directed to) often does not. So they have to stop and ask, “what’s that?”

Since I stutter, this is pretty hard. I mean, if it’s me making the comment while sitting at my desk, it means that the words were spontaneous enough, were sufficiently given a breath of air, and sadly, are probably not going to come out like that again.

As soon as the person says, “what’s that?” then the focus is back on me. In an open room. And this person was walking out — so they’re in a hurry — and here I am holding things up.

I think what my strategy is going to be is to get their attention first. Or make sure I have it (eye contact or stand up, or … throw something at them) and then start talking. Or just avoid this type of interaction. Notice I didn’t say avoid talking. Just a certain type of conversation.

Stacking and Stuttering

When I lived in Omaha, there was a used bookstore downtown that I used to go to all the time. I bought a book there — Next Man Up

It’s about a season with the Baltimore Ravens. Even if you’re not a Ravens fan (I’m definitely not) the book is a great glimpse into life in the NFL. One thing that really stood out to me was this (from a review):

Head Coach Brian Billick is one of the more interesting subjects. Blunt and hotheaded, he is also given to using pop psychology in his daily operations. He’s as comfortable using terms such as “stacking”—meaning letting one stressor pile on top of another until the whole stack just blows…

When I talked about ambushes last week, there’s really two parts of it. The first is that we should all try to slow things down and respond on our own terms. Yes, the whole room needs to hear your name. Yes, there’s a new person at lunch. Yes, there’s a new neighbor standing on your lawn. But the more we get ambushed, the better we get at it. We have to stop and think. We have to stop and breathe. Will we still stutter? Yeah, probably. But that’s where the second part — this stacking concept — comes in.

(Before I continue, let me just say that no, I’m not perfect at this. I’m trying hard just like everybody else who stutters. It’s not easy, and I don’t always remember to relax. Or breathe. But I have to keep trying.)

The way it works is this: Even if I go to a meeting and get ambushed, I can’t let that dictate my mood for the rest of the meeting. I have to push it aside as quickly as possible. Shutting down and being miserable isn’t going to make anything better. I need to forget it happened and move on. I need to tell myself that yes, I can talk to these people. I’m comfortable with all of them (except that one new guy) and if I’m asked a question, I can take my time to answer it. If I let my stutter continue to bother me, then every question I’m asked or comment I need to make will become a much bigger deal than it should be.

On the other hand, in the larger picture, maybe the rest of the meeting doesn’t go as well. Maybe I do stutter on some questions and comments. But then again, that shouldn’t affect my outlook at lunch. Or what I do when I get home.

Maybe before when I was ambushed I was not only bothered by the stutter, but by the fact that my covert stuttering “cover” was blown. Well, move on. The words have left your mouth (no matter how long it took) and so they know. But how you conduct yourself after that is still up to you.

Do I let my stutter get to me at times? Absolutely. Does it ruin a whole morning or day for me? Not as much. Maybe a morning or an afternoon, but the day can usually be saved. But keep in mind it took me a long time to get to this point.

I’m more aware now of what’s going on with my speech, and how it can be fluent and halting and totally unpredictable.

And the next morning, it all gets reset anyway, right?

Building things up

Getting back to one of the links from Sunday:

Wahl writes:

“Fluency in speech is something most have the luxury of taking for granted. While living with a stutter, you worry about what to order in a restaurant, how to give a presentation, or even how to say “hello” to a friend. Like an architect designing a building, a stutterer carefully crafts each word and sentence. Sometimes the result is a masterpiece, structurally sound with ornate rooms and gleaming windows. Other times it crashes to the ground.”

As someone who stutters, I definitely think a lot about what I want to say before I say it. I obsess over it. I fear it. I think, ok, do I have to introduce myself? Is that really necessary? I’m going to have to say a w-word, right? Something like who, when, where, why, what. How am I going to do that? For example, asking “where is the bathroom?” So simple, yet I’d rather walk all over the place trying to find it on my own. I go through a mock conversation in my head a few times. Ok, I’ll say this, they’ll say that, then I’ll say … no, wait, I need to say something else, I’ll stutter on that word.

Since I live and work in Saudi, most of my work interactions are with non-native English speakers. I want — really want — to keep the sentences and ideas that I say simple and to the point. But then I start avoiding words. I start going off track. I start substituting words while I’m going off track. I can see the listener getting confused. I can see how my point is getting totally muddied up. At these times, when I know I’m in too deep and the misunderstanding will cause more trouble, I go back to the original sentence and stutter it out.

Occasionally I can get away with avoiding a few words and still getting my message across. But that doesn’t work on everybody. One of my colleagues is British, and if I substitute a word or use a phrase that isn’t quite right, he’ll totally call me out on it. He doesn’t call me out on a substitution knowing that I stutter. No, we don’t talk about that — but on the specific meaning of what I said. Then I have to backtrack and explain what I mean — often having to stutter through what I wanted to say anyway.

Powerpoints and Children

I wanted to expand some more on the links that I posted yesterday. We’ll start with this one from Stuttering Student:

(When I say I want to discuss a link further, it may be only somewhat related. If the author mentioned a few points, I may only pick one. Or I may ignore the main point and just expand on something smaller they said.)

He says:

Sometimes my fluency tricks will help, mostly they don’t, however, because one of the biggest fluency tricks I use is word substitution, and you can’t really get away with that when reading from printed text.

I know what I end up doing sometimes when I have to read printed text is gloss over it, maybe mumble a bit, and then try to find some more points that are important. This happens a lot at work during meetings when there’s a Powerpoint. I don’t like reading the slides, and I hate it when people do the same. So when I do my own presentations, I put only a few words and then “fill in the blanks” orally during the meeting. I’ll say something like, “so, then, you see, there, in point 1, you can see it … (pause) … and the second point is also important.” Let them do the reading! Sometimes during conference calls I’ve got to present a safety topic. This has to be e-mailed out before. Whenever I have to do these, I always skim over them during the call (again, they can do the reading! I’ve e-mailed it to you!). But during those readings I almost always stutter. But at least I’m only spending about 30 seconds stammering over 2-3 points than 5 minutes struggling through 20 items. I really try hard to prepare for these — confidence usually helps on the phone for me. Fortunately on the calls they can’t see me, so I can write things down on the paper I’m reading from — like “breathe!” — and other easier-to-say talking points.

In the next sentence Stuttering Student writes:

Other times I will just force myself to read because I think it’s helpful and healthy to face ones fears.

I’m a pretty voracious reader, but until we had kids, none of it was out loud. I never practiced reading in front of a mirror or anything like that.

These days I read out loud almost daily. Sure it’s only The Cat in the Hat and other easy children’s books, but it feels great. I can really control my voice, getting louder and softer, faster or slower. I can breathe. My children love it, and it builds a little confidence for me to use later in the day or the week. It even surprises me how fluent I can be considering not only how much I am thinking about fluency while I read, but the words themselves — d-words, k-words, w-words — those kinds of hard consonants always get me while talking.

Also: You’ll notice on this blog that I was talking about my life until high school and then stopped. Fear not. I shall continue in a few days with the college adventures. There’s probably a week’s worth of posts just talking about the transition to college.

You talk to them

Just writing these posts made me think of several tidbits that have a lot of room for exploration. For example, expound more on leaving messages (and how in my current job we don’t even have answering machines) as well as calling people on cell phones. There’s also cold calling people when I’m on my cell phone (since my desk phone only dials local). But, patience, dear reader. We’ll get to all this eventually.

One of the more stressful things that occasionally pops up is having to cold-call someone while there’s a visitor in my office. So not only do I have someone in the office who’s expecting an easy dial-up and let’s-sort-this-out-right-now, but also another party on the phone who is wondering what’s going on.

The natural tactic, of course, is to avoid this as much as possible. Can I maybe e-mail them? Can I get back to you on this later? Maybe we can go see them? Don’t worry, I’ll call them later. Maybe they’re at lunch right now? I think I saw them just go into a meeting. He won’t know, let me think of who to call. Later, later, later.

But that doesn’t always work. What I’m usually hoping happens is that there’s an awkward pause as the phone connects. Then I look at my visitor like, well, you wanted to talk to them, right? So maybe they jump in and start the introduction and ask the question. But sometimes I have to do it myself, and then the stuttering introduction gets underway.

It’s a three-part bit of misery — first, having to say my name, second, having to introduce my visitor, third, having to actually explain why I called. The third is usually lousy because of numbers 1 and 2 — I don’t have time to formulate any kind of coherent question or narrative. So I just babble on, avoiding words and dragging things out. The best approach is to defer the questions to the visitor and interject as needed.

The only good that comes out of it is that after I’ve cold-called someone, subsequent calls aren’t as hard. I wonder if this is because they remember my stutter — they might not recognize a voice, but they’re probably not talking to a lot of people who stutter on a daily basis.

Hey, what’s up

Calling someone I know is the easiest thing ever because I never have to say my name. If I’ve called enough, they actually recognize my voice. This does wonders for the rest of the conversation. I can actually focus on what I want to say instead of how I’m going to say it. Since I’ve been in my current job long enough, I don’t even have to introduce myself on the conference calls anymore either. They know who I am!

In other intimidating phone situations (yesterday’s post) I’m always thinking about the stutter. For calling people who I know, it’s the last thing on my mind.

Our phone system here at work has your name on the caller ID. So if I call any of my own guys, they know it’s me. I usually start the call with saying their name in an overly happy tone which helps ease my voice and relaxes me.

Before moving overseas, I had to pick up the office phone and say the company name followed by my name … or not, sometimes. Many times I could roll out my name without too much issue as long as it blended in with the company’s name. If not, then the caller had to figure out if it’s me. They’d ask — and I’d say yes. No intro necessary! (and from the previous post — this is why having to leave a message on the answering machine was horrible — but if done right, wasn’t too bad because then they’d have to call back).

This is not to say that I don’t still stutter on the phone with friends. Oh, I do. But since I’m way more relaxed and can take my time, I remember to breathe. I remember to think things through and move forward confidently. It’s even easy to call someone I know on the phone when a stranger is in my office.

A slight twist to the situation is calling someone who is more senior than me in the company — but I know them. I’m a little bit intimidated, and may have to introduce myself since we don’t talk often. Those are very often stressful situations. If I have to call them on my cell phone, I’ll actually get up from my desk and stand. I’ll take a few deep breaths before dialing, and try to pay attention to my breathing. Hopefully they have me on their phone and don’t have to ask who it is. But sometimes not.

Conference Calls

When I first got an office a few years ago, I was pretty stoked. Now, finally, I could be annoyed at my speech alone while on the phone instead of wondering what the person in the next cubicle thought. Since the job had more responsibilities, I inevitably had to participate in more conference calls.

This is when I found out something that was really and truly messed up about my speech.

Here’s what I’d do.

I’d dial into the call and have to say my name. Obviously this was painful. But I’d try to dial in a minute early so that I’d be the first person on. That way I was only stuttering in front of the host. Once I got past that, I’d put the phone on mute and wait for others to join. I found that when the phone was on mute, I could say my name easily without stuttering. I then turned off the mute. I could feel the tension and the stutter, and knew I wouldn’t be able to say my name. Mute back on. Easily say my name. Mute off, potential stutter for sure. This was crazy.

The easiest calls were ones where I was just a participant. Then I’d just have to sit and listen and occasionally contribute something that I had prepared and was confident to speak on. The worst are the ones where I’m the host. Then as people join, I have to go through a roll call … and end up stuttering on a few names. What made that even worse was if someone was in the room with me … ugh. Maybe they could just do the roll call? No? Fine.

Another pain with conference calls are going to a meeting room with a bunch of participants and having someone join over the phone. Then they ask to go around the room for introductions. Not only do I have to say my name without stuttering (never happens) but loudly enough so the person on the phone hears it. Then while I’m stuttering out my name, the person on the phone is confused about the delay and possible dropped signal. So of course they ask to repeat. And of course that never turns out well. Because then there’s this awkward silence as I try to regroup and then go through the motions again.

Inevitably I’ll also be on calls where people don’t recognize my voice. So even if I introduce myself at the beginning, they’ll forget. Then when I start talking, they’ll ask who I am. An ambush introduction. These are the worst since everybody sees this as such as easy question — so give me a quick answer. Simply, who are you?

Cold calling strangers

Ah, the phone. How I hate you so. Since I can fill a week of posts just on the phone, I will. And again, these are just the basics — there’s plenty of nuance to this that I’ll get to as the months roll by.

I’d say about 99% of the time I stutter on saying my name, so I know it’s coming. There’s little I can do about it, so instead I slowly freak out.

Today I’ll start with the simplest pain — me, alone in my office, and I need to call someone who I’ve never called before.

Thankfully I’ve gotten to the point where I have an office where I can close the door. So that usually happens first. I suppose I could lock it just so nobody barges in. Then I start thinking — can I just e-mail this person instead? Do I have to call them right now, at this very moment? Can I get one of my guys to call them? If they’ve got a calendar that’s available, I might consider trying to call them when I know they’ll be in a meeting. That way they’ll have to call me, and I don’t really have to introduce myself. Or maybe I’ll call them during lunch. And actually, do I have to say my name at all? Can’t I just ask for something and then maybe at the end we can figure out how to say my name? I mean, really, how long can I put this off for?

Unfortunately, if I’m cold-calling someone, it’s probably urgent. So I suck it up and … the line is ringing. I’m silently hoping they don’t pick up so I don’t have to say anything. I’m definitely not leaving a message. (there’s one thing about leaving a long message and getting cut off, there’s a whole other level of frustration when I’m stuttering out six words and get cut off).

So the phone is ringing, and they pick up. Now, what I should have done (that I always, always, always) forget to do — is maybe write some sort of script and just barrel through it. But no. So since I’m panicking a bit, I introduce myself by way of my company. And maybe I don’t even say my name — just what I want. That way they are at least hooked. If I open with a stutter and my name, they might start talking and asking who this is, and can you repeat yourself and what do you want, and I can’t understand and … and … of course all of those interruptions really throw things off because now instead of just stuttering out my name, I’m in a bigger hurry. So I try to shut down that attempt and answer some questions, but the breathing is by now all messed up, and seriously, are they still asking and interrupting, can’t they just shut up for a second?

Anyway.

I get through it. Somehow. Sweating at my desk, stuck with tunnel vision, not remembering any sort of technique. Ok. Then it’s on to whatever is next — why was I calling again? At this time, I’m pretty defeated. I recognize the trauma, so I finally take a breath. I finally relax my shoulders. I finally think. I called because … they are waiting, but at least it’s my turn, and I start out slowly.

%d bloggers like this: