My perfection = My uniqueness
Carl Waddington, member of our colleague inclusion network Access, shares his experience of having a stammer and how colleagues can and do support him at the Bank.
Hi, I'm Carl, I work within the Change directorate as the Risk, Governance and Controls Lead, and I’ve worked at The Co‑operative Bank for just over two and a half years. I wanted to share a snap shot of my 'imperfection’ - or, as I am learning to think of it, my 'uniqueness’ - as I'm within the 1% of the world’s population that has a stammer.
So what is a stammer?
As I understand it, a stammer is a tense struggle to get words out. From my experience it involves repeating or prolonging sounds or words, or getting stuck without any sound for example, saying “ba-ba-ba bank”, “bbbbbbbbbank”, or “I work at a………….Bank”. I compare it to feeling like you are waiting for Netflix to buffer on a dodgy internet connection. The tenseness and complete uncontrollability of my speech makes it different from the non-fluency we all experience in everyday conversation, which might include hesitations and repetitions. Stammering varies in severity from person to person, and from situation to situation. Everyone with a stammer is unique and there isn’t a cure.
Here’s an example for you ...
The creeping death - we all know the situation, sitting in a meeting surrounded by new faces, waiting to introduce yourself for the first time and take part in an awkward ice breaker. Most people are a little nervous in new surroundings or situations out of their comfort zone. Disfluency is normal and most people don’t even notice; they carry on, and their words flow naturally. I feel it’s important to state here that I’m not nervous about speaking in front of people; anyone who knows me know I am a confident and chatty individual. I know what I want to say and form the sentences like anybody else. The nerves come from a different place. Imagine for a moment not knowing if the words you want to say will actually come out. My usual thoughts are ‘will my stammer show me up?’, ‘will it take over without any warning and have me at its mercy?’ and ‘what I will be able to say (not what do I want to say)?'.
Going back to the example above, in this instance, I know my name and job title and what I would like my response to be for the ice breaker. Most stammers have key words and phrases that act as triggers for the stammer. Unfortunately for me it's my name, date of birth and job title. Key points of information I can’t differ from. It makes meeting new people, especially in a work environment, very difficult. In these situations, I can’t use a ‘filler’ and invent a new name and job title to try and mask the stammer every time I introduce myself in a meeting or meet a new colleague, although that does sound rather fabulously mysterious.
What happens is my throat dries up like a scorched riverbed, my heart starts to surge as if it were the beating wings of a hummingbird, sometimes I can start to feel dizzy and my eye sight hazes over. My thoughts narrow and are solely focused on the sentence I am about to say. My mind has selected words that I will block out and quickly starts to search my own personal synonyms library for a replacement. In the intensity of my mind fanatically trying to defuse the stammer, an unplanned block appears. My throat suddenly locks tight like that clasp on Scrooge’s wallet. My eye contact drops as I internally fight to get my words out. I feel the usual deflation, embarrassment and shame. Then in a second of desperation my throat slackens and the word I have fought to say creeps out. During a ‘block’ like this, a two second silence to the audience feels like an eternity in my mind. My panic and frustration make the situation worse. It can become a domino effect and the stammer rewards itself with another block.
As you can imagine, that all sounds rather exhausting and I assure you it is. If I have had a day of meetings I often go home and crash out on the sofa for a couple of hours to give my mind a rest. Sometimes I message my partner and tell him that when I get in I need a few hours on my own which prompts him not to ask me questions and give me the time I need to recuperate.
When I initially applied for a job at our Bank I was upfront with HR and informed them I had a stammer. During the telephone and competency interview I was told I could have as much time as I needed. The interviewers were patient and interested to hear my examples and passion for the role in hand. I would always advocate that if you have a disability, be up front with recruiters, it automatically takes away any anxiety you may have. The law is on your side.
Throughout my time at The Co‑operative Bank I have been in multiple situations that have pushed me out of my speech comfort zone. I am not one to shy away from an opportunity, however I know my own limits and what I truly feel comfortable doing. Only once have I been pushed too far and felt my manager at the time didn’t truly grasp what a stammer is and put it down to nerves, and said practice will cure it. I was projected into a presenting situation, I didn’t know the topic and had to suggest we stopped the meeting mid-way through as I was struggling to speak and my stammer was completely out of my control.
I am very open with how I feel about my stammer and do push myself. Where possible I cater the situation to suit myself, as you can imagine a formal presentation in front of a group of people isn’t my initial choice. I am happy to present in my comfort zone, a presentational discussion with attendee interaction is my ideal safe space. My line manager and key stakeholders have been extremely supportive and understanding. I feel as if they see me for the value I add and my personality which shines through the stammer. They often tell me it’s nothing to worry about and the stammer never detracts from the quality of the content. To be honest I know that’s true, annoyingly it’s 100% worse in my own head than it is in reality.
At the beginning of the year I found the confidence to reach out to a senior manager at our Bank. The mentoring relationship we have developed has helped me cut through some of the struggles, whilst being open and honest with the day to day difficulties I face. Working with a likeminded colleague who can also relate to having a stammer has been a blessing and a true example of our value, Stronger Together.
A pause for thought
I often wonder what it must be like to speak without having to think first, no fears of blocking or stuttering, the graciousness of fluency. I have come to terms that my delivery might not be seamless, however does that really matter? After all, speech is just one element of communication and I have the other components down to a fine art.
The nervous streak will always be there, will I let it stop me from speaking when it’s my turn? No. Will I block/stammer, stumble on words? Yes, definitely. When I stumble on my name, will it bring an odd look to the faces of some of the individuals I’m with? You bet it will.
I have learnt that my stammer continues to sculpt me in to me. It makes me unique and teaches me the art of listening; to understand; and not just to respond (something I think a lot of people are guilty of). To be honest I wouldn’t trade all the years of embarrassment, frustration and struggle if it meant I had to surrender one element of who I ended up being and who I am yet to become. #Beyourself
When in conversation with a person who stammers:
- Be patient, listen actively and maintain natural eye contact. Wait for the person to finish. Don’t try to finish their sentences unless asked to do so
- Resist the temptation to offer advice to people who stammer – e.g. “take a deep breath”, “calm down”
- Don’t equate hesitant speech with uncertainty, confusion or lack of intelligence
- Pausing/using phrases like “you know”, “sort of” or “like” may be strategies to avoid stammering
- People who stammer often have more difficulty at the beginning of sentences
- Be natural, make them feel at ease
- Remember that stammering varies from person to person, we are all unique