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Craig Yates: stuttering : my journey to effective communication

Updated: Jun 12, 2019

As someone who has stammered for over 30 years I now write this as someone who is confident in verbal communication. My earliest recollections of stammering are not vivid memories of stammering or recalling times when I have struggled to speak but rather being taken to speech therapy. I vaguely recall struggling to say my times tables in early primary school as pupils would take it in turns to get up and speak but it is vague. If I stammered before this I cannot recall it but it was at this period my parents took me to speech therapy which I do have clear memory of.

I doubt I am alone in saying speech therapy had little effect. Throughout my early teenage years right through until my late thirties I have memories of very bad stammering, being a nervous wreck in certain situations;- introductions to strangers & speaking to numerous people were generally nailed on to see me very nervous and stammering, whilst stating my own name was a major problem no matter the circumstance.

I did have periods of talking with little stammering, particularly around close friends / loved ones with whom I was comfortable. Indeed, in later years I had one relationship where I managed to hide my stammering from my girlfriend for around 3-4 years but avoidance only ever delayed the inevitable. At my worst I would find it impossible to say a singular word and get so hung up on it my face would contort as I tried to get the word out.

On other occasions I have been a bumbling wreck in front of my peers and colleagues when having to do presentations as part of college projects and similar situations at work that required speaking continuously for some time to numerous people. I have had occasions where I am speaking fluently and suddenly get stuck on a word from out of nowhere when I was not even nervous and this aspect I do not understand yet.

Over time I developed low self esteem / confidence and sometimes depression, though perhaps the most negative impact it had on me was situational avoidance. Rather than accept or face my condition I would try and hide from it, or hide from situations that compounded it. Upon reflection, I realise I would not apply for jobs I was capable of, and would not always speak up when I had a good idea or could add to a discussion and my own view of myself was holding me back from achieving things I could have and should have. I had become fearful of embarrassing myself in front of others and repetitive stammering over time eroded my confidence.

One particular example I could give is declining a job offer as a tutor at a higher education college as my fear dictated my actions and I would not have been able to face a class daily in case I had a bad stammer one day which could potentially affect every other class & also their attainment & college experience.

As time went on I think I gave up on trying to over-come stammering for some years and just accepted it was a part of my life and behaved accordingly. It were between my mid to late thirties when I declined a job offer as a tutor, however did end up conversing regularly to students assisting tutors in electrical workshops & even on occasion took a classroom to teach theory.

Despite not overcoming stammering I found advising in a one on one situation my FOCUS was primarily on imparting the correct information rather than the likelihood of me not being able to speak and this would help develop relationships with students to the point I became comfortable & confident with them to the point of taking classes alone & my stammering was rarely a problem in this situation, though I could have never taken a class without first having developed relationships in a one on one basis.

I was far from confident in general but was becoming confident in certain situations. Perhaps the most enduring & regular aspect of stammering has been speaking over the phone. Up until quite recently I would do my best to avoid phoning for a taxi or pizza or any other thing and when I had to do these things I would make sure to walk to a room where I was alone as the biggest fear was my loved ones seeing just how bad I can sometimes stammer.

Many years ago on the phone I struggled saying the number 7 as my address was 337 Chester Rd. From that day forward for many years I could never say the number 7 over the phone and in general and even after moving would get hung up trying to say my address. I have many other examples like this. I believe stammering does improve one’s internal thesaurus as I recall many conversations where my mind was going much faster than the pace of conversation & would flag up a word I wanted to avoid & quickly generate another suitable word instead but it is the words we cannot use a thesaurus for such as names or addresses which for me provided the greatest obstacles in addition to introductions & speaking to numerous people / strangers.

It may surprise some, but I also hope may give you hope & realisation of what can be achieved, that I am now a signaller for Network Rail. Those within the industry know just how critical verbal communications are. It is perhaps the #1 non-technical skill required as phone calls are part and parcel of an ordinary shift at work. Sometimes I may be involved in over 50 phones calls daily, every one of them recorded, and often analysed to ensure safety critical communication protocols are being correctly used & I am doing my job right.

Before I took this job I was far from confident though my experience at college as a support technician and my many engagements with students had taught me I was capable but even this was insufficient for me to over-come stammering. Occasionally, I may stammer during a situation if I’m unsure exactly what regulations I need to implement but it is not from nervousness and it is not profound or repetitive and I have always been able to fully & effectively communicate what I need to now.

20 years ago, 10 years ago, 5 years ago…to do what I am doing today would have seemed like an impossible dream. My assurance of never being able to succeed in such a role was complete. I needed no reminder that I am a bumbling mess at times and can never hope to aspire to such type of work. My situational avoidance was still a huge part of my life.

So whats changed?

A couple of years ago I had moved on from working at a HE college but it had not worked out well. I took the job based on many promises, none of which materialised, so found myself once again looking for work. In all the years of looking for work I have always limited myself because of stammering but also because primarily the onus of my endeavours was me and my life. A couple of years ago my onus has changed to others who are very beloved to me. I told myself I will do this for them and will not limit myself anymore and of several job applications I was successfully recruited as a signaller.

At signalling school one has to stand up in front of strangers and go through many introductions & phone calls during situational simulations – pretty much the very worst of my fears when it comes to speaking. I was just as nervous as always in those situations but every time I felt nervous I adopted a technique which has worked remarkably well, which is to place those who I care about and for whom I am doing this, into the palm of my hand and close it tightly and FOCUS wholly on them and I found I was able to speak perfectly fine despite the nervousness. This is not to say I did not stammer at all but when I did it was very minimal and negligible.

There is an additional aspect I think important to point out and that is having a very fast mind. I was always above average academically & even offered a private scholarship as a child & I believe having a fast mind is an enemy if you suffer a stammer. As a young man my thought process would rarely be on what I was to say but rather the fact I was unlikely to say it without stammering and my mind does not race as it once did which seems to have helped but even so, once the nerves kick in adrenalin can still quicken my mind, but the technique I tried has worked really well no matter how nervous I may be. It is not to say I am cured or will never stammer again but in everyday life and at work in all the situations I once dreaded I now face with confidence…not confidence that I will not stammer but confident that if I am nervous or suddenly struggle I have a technique which so far has worked and with time this develops into confidence in general.

The method I use I think is successful for me because it tricks my mind into forgetting that I may stammer. Whereas once the FOCUS was I AM GOING TO STUTTER the focus is something entirely different and extremely focused when I do it, to such degree my mind is only focused on those I care for and what it is I am about to say and thus leaving no room for my mind to convince itself to stammer when I speak. I believe it is having an alternate FOCUS that is the key to helping me over come my condition.

It is liberating in that I transfer my new found confidence to be who I want to be and say what I want to say no matter the situation. After decades of having my condition dictate my behaviour I can now dictate it so much so I find myself putting myself into situations I used to avoid. Another change that is gradual but very important to me is my own view of stammering. I always used to be ashamed and regard myself in a very negative light. If I ever have another bout of bad stammering I will hopefully not be ashamed of it and nor will I allow it to affect my confidence. With my new technique I am confident of any situation and so far have not had any bad stammer in well over a year.

In the past stammering destroyed self esteem and even if I continue to suffer it my self esteem and confidence must remain high for the sake of others so viewing it as a bad thing or a debilitating life limiting condition is not an option for me in my life anymore. No matter what the future is totally different from my past in a very good way.

I saw an article about Ayo Adesanya and his struggle but also his work he is doing trying to help others so contacted him in case anything of my experience may help him and he asked me to write an article and do an interview which I agreed to but upon request of anonymity. I reflected on why I asked to be anonymous and it is because deep down I still am ashamed and embarrassed by my stammer, even if it barely, if ever, afflicts my life now. After decades of being ashamed and embarrassed its roots are deep! Having reflected some more I cannot do this anonymously as it is a situational avoidance by myself which as part of my over coming cannot be tolerated.

So to finish, if anyone wishes to discuss this further my email address is [email protected] (Craig Yates) and I will give phone contact details upon request. I am very lucky and fortunate to now be in the position I am in and if any of my experience can be of assistance to others I sincerely hope anyone struggling can develop their own techniques – remember!!! The key to it is FOCUSING your mind sufficiently enough on something else, (no matter how nervous) to trick your own mind so it cannot focus on your own probability of stammering.

If your mind is not telling you that you will stutter, the majority of times you will not. In all my years of stammering 99% of times were because my mind was telling me I was going to. If your situation is similar to mine then develop a technique that takes your FOCUS from stammering onto something else. It can work!! I find if I am nervous now during my technique I become relaxed from a tense state. The affect is not only mental but also physical. I wish anyone well who struggles and special thanks to Ayo Adesanya for the work he does.

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