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Sometimes, it’s good to listen. Sometimes, better not to!

It’s good to be a good listener, so that you know what the other person is thinking and feeling. On the other hand, sometimes a person encounters a form of self-talk that is not worth listening to at all. That sums up the key points in the article that follows.

Canadian Stuttering Association board of directors

In my role as a volunteer, I serve as a member of an advisory board of the Canadian Stuttering Association.

In that capacity, I often take part in online discussions involving the board of directors of the Canadian Stuttering Association.

As an advisor, I do not have a vote on the CSA board of directors, but sometimes I offer comments. And I listen.

Listening skills

The current article is inspired by a comment that Andrew Harding, the national coordinator of the Canadian Stuttering Association, recently shared with the CSA board of directors. His comment was in response to a message from Danielle Moed, editor of the CSA newsletter.

Danielle had sent out a call for articles for the next issue of the newsletter.

Andrew had responded that, in addition to articles that focus specifically on stuttering, it might also be of interest to have articles “with a broader focus, such as listening skills.”

“I mention this,” he said, “because despite the cliches about people who stutter being good listeners, there can be so much anxiety, self-monitoring and negative self-talk that no real listening can happen. It can be the most effective communication skill though.”

Self-talk

The topic that Andrew Harding has referred to is of interest to me. All of my life, I have made a point of listening closely to what people have to say. During the days that I stuttered severely, I had even more time to listen, and ponder, than I do now.

Andrew has noted that when a person who stutters is speaking, “there can be so much anxiety, self-monitoring and negative self-talk that no real listening can happen.”

As I have described elsewhere, when I was younger, there were times when I could not get out any words at all. Under such conditions, there weren’t many conversations.

Fortunately, 30 years ago, in July 1987, I attended a three-week speech clinic in Edmonton, and after learning five specified fluency skills, and practising them daily for many years, I have attained good control over my stuttering. Much of the time I now speak quite fluently.

It’s been a long time since the days when I stuttered severely. For that reason, I’m not a good person to speak about the anxiety, self-monitoring, and negative self-talk that can get in the way of being a good listener, when a person who stutters is having a conversation.

But I can speak about dealing with self-talk, in the days after I encountered effective speech therapy for my stuttering.

When I attended the Institute for Stuttering Treatment and Research (ISTAR) in Edmonton in July 1987, I learned to deal with the negative self-talk that was getting in the way of my fluency skills.

I’ve explained elsewhere, and will not get into details here, regarding how I went about systematically changing my self-talk. Enough to say that negative self-talk needs to be addressed, after a person has achieved some level of fluency following a speech therapy program.

Special education teacher

Before my three-week stay in Edmonton in 1987, in 1976 I had attended a three-week speech therapy clinic in Toronto. I did not achieve lasting gains, but I still often spoke quite a bit more fluently than had been the case, in my younger years.

During the 1982-83 school year, I was a student at the University of Toronto Faculty of Education, which enabled me to embark upon a career as a public school teacher. I taught special education classes, with very small numbers of students. Under such conditions, whether I stuttered or not didn’t matter. I couldn’t get a word out at staff meetings, but that didn’t matter, either.

In those years, at one point I helped to write a curriculum document, for the school board I was working with at the time, explaining to teachers how to go about encouraging language acquisition in severely disabled students, who had not yet learned to speak. In working on the document, I learned some basic facts about a branch of linguistics known as pragmatics.

The main thing that I remember, from reading about pragmatics, is that a conversation is like a game of tennis. One partner in the conversation hits the ball across the net, and the other partner in the conversation hits it back. So long as the ball goes back and forth, the conversation continues. That is, people take turns in a typical conversation. One person speaks for a while, then the other person speaks, and so on.

I recently checked out some internet resources that deal with pragmatics, and have learned there is much more to this concept than the metaphor of a the tennis ball that gets hit back and forth across the net. However, the basic concept comes in handy when I think about pragmatics as it relates to people who stutter.

At times in the past, I’ve marvelled at the fact that, every once in a while, I have run across a person (whether they are a stutterer or fluenter) who is not clued into the concept that a conversation is like hitting a tennis ball back and forth across the net.

The back-and-forth is what keeps a conversation going. If, as sometimes happens, a person engages in a monologue (they just talk and talk, without listening) then the understanding of pragmatics is not there.

So, definitely, it’s good to emphasize that, whether we speak fluently or not, if we’re having a conversation, it’s definitely a great idea to take turns, so that once we start talking, we do not go on for 10 minutes, without letting the other person have a turn. Why just keep on talking and talking? It’s really helpful is we stop, sooner rather than much later, and let the other person have a say.

I’ve also observed, as many people have observed, that it’s a good idea to actually listen to what the other person has to say, rather than just focusing on what we find is really important for us to get across ourselves, when our turn to speak comes around.

“You’re supposed to fall flat on your face”

When you’re delivering a lecture, or making a speech, you also have to listen to your audience. By listening, I refer to the Q & A after a presentation, where it makes sense to listen closely to what a person is saying, so that you will have a good answer.

By listening, I refer as well to listening in the sense of attuning to the body language of the audience. If people are sitting up, looking toward you with interest, you know you’re on the right track. If they’re starting to get restless, and their eyes are glazing over, you know that as a speaker you have to make some adjustments, to ensure that you maintain the interest and attention of your listeners.

Speaking of falling flat, after I had attended the Edmonton clinic in 1987, I began to make speeches to large audiences. I practised extensively, and attended closely to my fluency skills.

Now, as it happened, every speech that I gave was flawless, and well-received, but a voice inside me kept on repeating a mantra that was really getting on my nerves.

Each time I would make a fluent presentation, a voice inside me would say: “You’re not supposed to be able to do this. You’re supposed to be falling flat on your face.” My usual techniques for converting negative self-talk into positive self-talk did not occur to me, at that time. I was speaking fluently, but I did not feel at ease.

At first I didn’t know what to do, but in time I realized that what I needed to do was compare notes with other people who stutter, who might have had similar experiences in their lives.

That’s what led me to form a local self-help group in Toronto for people who stutter.

After a year of meetings, I got some advice that enabled me to address the self-talk, that I encountered each time I made a speech. I have explained that elsewhere and will not go into details here.

Once I had formed the local group, I became involved in the founding of the Canadian Stuttering Association, the Estonian Stuttering Association, and the International Association. Had I not encountered the negative self-talk, that I have described, it’s unlikely that I would have become involved in the stuttering self-help movement.

In this case, I was tired of listening – I refused to listen – to a form of self-talk that I didn’t want to hear, and found a way to address it, by comparing notes with other people who stutter, who would understand what I was dealing with.

After I had attended the ISTAR clinic, I quit teaching special education at the school board where I had begun my career, and began teaching regular classes at another school board. It wasn’t an easy transition, but in the end I managed – and much enjoyed the experience of what was, for me, a new form of teaching.

Every person deserves to be heard

At still another level, again with regard to conversations, I’ve always had an interest, as a person involved with self-help meetings in Toronto for a decade starting in the late 1980s, in ensuring that each person gets a chance to speak, and is listened to with close care and attention.

The meetings, that I refer to, took place at Hart House at the University of Toronto.

For whatever reason, I’ve always had a keen interest, in ensuring that speaking time is shared more or less equally, at such meetings. It’s been my belief that the best format for a self-help meeting is one where each person at the meeting has the same amount of time to speak.

The idea of a self-help meeting – or any other kind of meeting – where one or two people do all the talking, while everybody else listens, is not my idea of a good time.

As founder of the Stuttering Association of Toronto, I had no trouble in ensuring that speaking time was shared equally, at each of our meetings.

We also arranged for people to take turns leading the meetings, so that power and authority within the group was also shared more or less equally.

When organizing other meetings, such as local and regional events and conferences, I’ve always had the same interest.

My interest is in finding ways to ensure that speaking time is shared more or less equally. We were especially successful in ensuring that was the case, during the early CSA conferences starting in 1991 in Banff. That is to say, CSA is founded upon a very basic principle: Each of us has something to say, and what each of us says warrants a close and attentive listen.

 

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