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‘Finishing their sentences isn’t helpful’: How to talk to someone who stammers

‘Show you are comfortable - keep natural eye contact, make nodding gestures, use facial expressions’

Stammering or stuttering is a physical condition that sometimes makes it difficult to talk.

“Stammering is a neurological difference. There are myths that it is caused by somebody being nervous, shy or not being sure about what they want to say, but none of that is true,” says Penny Farrell, speech and language therapist and youth development officer with the Irish Stammering Association.

“It’s just that the neurological pathways that process our speech, the timing of those connections, it’s different. Understand that the person who stammers can be confident.”

Emily Blunt, Ed Sheeran, Rowan Atkinson, Samuel L Jackson, Joe Biden, Marilyn Monroe, former MEP Proinsias De Rossa – there are many stammers in the public eye. About 50,000 people in Ireland stammer.


Get comfortable

If you are speaking to someone who stammers, try to be comfortable with the difference, says Farrell. “Some people worry that the person who is stammering is uncomfortable, but actually the discomfort comes if the listener isn’t comfortable. That’s going to make the speaker uncomfortable.”

“Show you are comfortable – keep natural eye contact, make nodding gestures, use facial expressions. Adjust to the change of pace. It’s just a change of pace, that’s all that’s happening.”

Stammer versus struggle

Stammering is just the difference in the pace and flow of the words. The struggle comes from trying not to stammer.

“The more someone is made to feel rushed or uncomfortable, the more they are likely to struggle and then try to hide or push through the stammer, and that can increase tension and sometimes cause more struggle,” says Farrell.

“If the person who is listening is an easy-going listener, then it’s more easy-going for the person who stammers as well.”

Don’t interrupt

Finishing the sentence of the person who is stammering, or saying, “Is this what you are trying to say?” isn’t helpful.

“It’s well-intentioned, but it’s exhausting because often they have to spend more time and energy correcting you,” says Farrell. “The message it gives is, ‘I don’t have time to wait for you’, even if that’s not what the person intended.”

“Wait and show you have time and that what the person is saying is worth waiting for. Listen to what the person is saying, not how they are saying it.”

Hold the advice

“Just take a breath”, or “Just stop and think about what you are going to say and start again” – this advice may be well-intentioned, but it isn’t helpful.

“If advice like this worked, we wouldn’t have people who continue to stammer,” says Farrell.

Be open to connection

The artist who spells his name JJJJJerome Ellis talks about the moment of stammering as “the clearing”, says Farrell. “It’s when you are both in a moment of stammering, both the listener and the speaker are together in that moment in time in the clearing. It’s a nice analogy because that moment can bring extra connection with the person.”

Take the time

With children in particular, caregivers should understand that success doesn’t mean overcoming the stammer. “The goal isn’t not to stammer, the goal is to say what they want to say and for them to be comfortable that what they have to say matters. It’s not whether they are fluent or not,” says Farrell.

“The message should be, ‘I’ll wait. I have time, say what you want to say.’”

Talk about the moment of stammering with your child too, says Farrell. “Don’t worry about drawing attention to it. An open conversation won’t make your child stammer more. You could say, ‘Sometimes your words take a bit longer, but I always have time.’”