Managers and colleagues play an important role in creating a supportive and inclusive workplace environment for people who stammer or have other communication differences. How people react when speaking with staff who stammer can either have a positive or negative impact on their colleague’s work, their self-confidence and self-esteem.
It is important to recognise that stammering can be a sensitive and personal issue for people. Some people may be reluctant to openly acknowledge and discuss their stammering with others for different reasons (e.g. embarrassment, shame or fear, or concerns that it may impact performance appraisal or career progression). Others may not feel it is necessary to discuss their stammer at all, so follow their lead and do not make assumptions on their behalf.
Maintain natural eye contact and expression, and acknowledge what is being said. Provide plenty of time and patience during conversations, and focus on what your colleague or patient is saying and not on their stammer or how they are speaking.
Do not jump in and finish sentences on their behalf or fill in words. This is disempowering and likely to cause feelings of embarrassment and shame. Just WAIT until they have finished speaking.
Do not offer advice on how speak, such as slow down, take a breath, as this only increases the expectation to not stammer.
Be aware of your own negative reactions and non-verbal behaviours (such as sighing, looking away or rolling your eyes with impatience) as this will convey a lack of support and understanding. People who stammer are often acutely aware of other peoples’ reactions when they are speaking, so, maintain an encouraging, warm and relaxed manner.
Group introductions can be particularly challenging since many people who stammer find saying their own name challenging when under pressure as it cannot be switched or avoided. Discuss with your colleague what may help them in these situations. For example, they could introduce themselves first. Alternatively, a great ice-breaker for meetings with new colleagues is for people to spend a few minutes speaking with the person next to them, then introducing them to the group. This avoids the need for people to say their own name and is a great way to establish friendly new working relationships with others. If appropriate and in private, ask your colleague if they would prefer you to introduce them on their behalf but do not make this decision without asking them.
During group meetings, be mindful if your colleague is quiet. Consider how competitive the speaking environment is and how easy it is to contribute in the group. You may want to ensure your colleague is invited into the conversation so they can contribute any feedback. It may also be helpful to have a private discussion before meetings so you can agree on a non-verbal cue they could use to indicate if they wish to speak up during the meeting. Alternatively, allow an opportunity for them to provide written feedback before (or after) the meetings so their feedback can then be tabled and presented by the Chair for the discussion. During virtual meetings, allow people to contribute in writing via the web-chat if that function is available.
Using the telephone, particularly in a public location, can be challenging for some people who stammer, so take a flexible approach to communication in the workplace. For example, provide them with the option to make telephone calls in a private area or use emails as an alternative if preferred.
Consider asking your colleague in private if they would find it helpful to discuss and explore less challenging speaking opportunities at work or new opportunities where they can practise speaking in different settings and work on building up their self-confidence and self-esteem.
Do not make decisions on behalf of your colleague who stammers in terms of what they can and cannot do. Engage in a supportive dialogue with them and get their advice on what is needed to support them in the workplace.
Do not use performance appraisals (or other work assessments) as an opportunity to set objectives around improving verbal communication skills as this is likely to set unrealistic expectations for people who stammer, to be counterproductive and very likely to reinforce negative feelings about stammering, particularly if such objectives are not met to a satisfactory level. Remember, stammering is recognised as disabling under the Equality Act 2010.
Offer special leave (such as study leave) and funding to attend stammering specific workplace courses and workshops. Examples include ‘‘Public speaking for people who stammer’ offered by the stammering therapy team at City Lit www.citylit.ac.uk.
in collaboration with the Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion have developed useful and practical guidelines on how to support staff who stammer, download here.