To mark International Stammering Awareness Day, which took place on 22 October 2021, Nick Fischer shares his thoughts and experiences on life as a person who stammers. Nick is an Associate at Marks & Clerk Law LLP, and a member of the IP Ability committee.
There were many things I learnt during my time as a trainee solicitor, but one piece of advice has stayed with me. Early in my first week, I had just plucked up the courage to disclose to my new supervisor the fact that I have a stammer, and to explain that in certain situations things may take me a bit longer to get out. The response was great:
“Sometimes things will be very urgent,” my supervisor advised me, “but they will never be that urgent.”
This was music to my ears. For a person who stammers, time pressure can be particularly stressful. When the general public think about stammering, they often imagine the visible struggling behaviours as the key “symptom”. However, those physical characteristics – repetitions, blocks, or signs of physical struggle – are often only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface, and often completely unknown to the listener, there can be a mountain of emotional baggage built up over years – shame, fear, anxiety, denial, anger, to name a few.
I’ve had a stammer for as long as I can remember, though effectively from the age of 4 or 5. In my early years I was blissfully unaware that I was doing anything differently, although I do recall feeling irritation at being interrupted by adults telling me to “calm down”, “take a deep breath” and to “start the sentence again”. It was only in my teenage years when I really started to become a lot more self-conscious. Despite that, I was motivated to pursue a career in law (it turns out the job isn’t how television dramas would have people believe!).
Having a stammer certainly presents a number of challenges at work, especially in more pressured public speaking scenarios like presentations, meetings or even speaking on the phone. Like most things, there can be good days and bad days, often linked to tiredness or stress but sometimes completely at random.
Things were not exactly helped by the pandemic. Many people who stammer, myself included, found the lockdown period particularly challenging for our speech. Indeed, the charity Action for Stammering Children reported a 57% rise in the number of calls to its stammering helpline during the peak months in 2020.
In my experience, one of the reasons for that change was the huge reduction in regular face-to-face interactions, however fleeting, which meant there were fewer chances to practise speaking and build confidence. We went from having a wide range of daily speaking situations – ordering a coffee on the way in to work or small-talk in the lift or office canteen – to very few, either with whoever you were isolating with, or group Zoom calls with colleagues or friends.
It could be said, though, that the switch to virtual working and communicating with colleagues online presented new opportunities – for perhaps the first time in stammering history, fluent speakers were forced to sit tight and wait for us to finish speaking! No more interruptions or awkward, half-finished sentences. Instead, a collection of patiently waiting faces keen to follow video conferencing etiquette.
I do like that thinking, but, in practice, and especially for someone already sensitised to negative thoughts about stammering, gazing across a sea of red “muted” symbols and knowing that everyone is waiting for me to speak only added to the pressure. Every group call would feel like a performance, with the speaker centre stage and the audience hanging on every word. “Look at all these people waiting for you to speak,” my rather unhelpful inner voice would often say. “You had better not get stuck.”
There are also positive aspects to having a stammer. For example, it has helped me to recognise that effective communication is not all about fluency: writing and softer skills are just as important. It has also taught me the value of patience, empathy, and the importance of being a good listener.
I have been very lucky to have received great support from my colleagues, from extra time during my training contract interviews, to ongoing support for external courses I attend from time to time. Despite that, it is a sad fact that many people who stammer still experience discrimination and disadvantage in the workplace. Greater visibility and understanding of stammering in the professional services is something I would love to see, and was one of my motivations for setting up STAMMA Legal, a network for people who stammer working in the legal profession.
This year’s official theme for International Stammering Awareness Day was “speak the change you wish to see”. The British Stammering Association (also known as STAMMA) has also just launched a great campaign and online petition to encourage more stammering voices to be heard on TV and radio.
On the topic of change, people often ask what they can do to help. Interestingly enough, the usual advice can actually benefit any conversation. It includes maintaining natural eye contact, and trying not to finish sentences or dispense advice (however well-meaning) – in other words, just being a good listener! In my view, the most important but perhaps most difficult quality is, to quote the great Gary Barlow, just “have a little patience”.
We are so used to the information we need being available immediately, and that is especially the case in the legal sector where demanding clients and court deadlines can ramp up the pressure. But if you have ever spoken to someone with a stammer before, you will know that things can often take a little longer than planned. Is that such a bad thing? Taking the time to just be in the moment, really listen to what someone is saying (not what they are trying to say or what you think they might be saying) can be an enlightening experience. If deadlines, irate clients or other time pressures make listening patiently a difficult ask, just remember – while these things may be urgent, they are never that urgent.