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Telling your managing director about stammering

Mark Limbert | 01.06.2004

Would you tell your managing director about your stammer? Mark Limbert was put on the spot and hoped it would not harm his career.

Mark Limbert

If you are like me then you know that there is not a single word that you cannot say properly. So the actual physical act of speaking is not a problem. You have no physical disability that impairs your speech.The issues you face are the events leading up to speaking and continually reviewing what you're going to say. Your mind is full of fears and worries that rush around creating panic and anxiety which in my case quite often leads to silence, being too afraid to speak out for fear of stammering or being afraid of saying things in a round-about way as you cleverly avoid difficult words.

You have to take risks in life if you want to get on. This is exactly true and is very relevant to people who have internalised stammering difficulties. If you lock yourself away for sure you will never get any better, however at the other extreme, if you throw yourself in at the deep end you may do more harm than good. So it's a case of learning to take small measured risks, a lesson I have learnt and benefited from.

Some refer to this as 'working outside your comfort zone' into what is called your 'stretch zone', but not so far that you enter your 'panic zone'. Overcoming just one difficulty, doing well in just one situation proves that you can do it, it gives you increased confidence the next time, or the next day, or in some cases may turn out to create a 'life changing experience' as it was for me on one occasion.

I refer to a situation at my previous company where we embarked on a management training program. This was with the directors and senior management team. At this time I was the engineering and manufacturing director responsible for a turnover of £16m with 200+ employees. We had just had a new managing director (MD) appointed. He was very strong, quite an extrovert, fluent, dynamic and all things I was not. I was petrified of attending this course for I knew that I would have to stand up and talk, participate in open discussions, be open about my personality, strengths and weaknesses. I was fearful that my internalised stammering would be noticed and would affect the new MD's perception of me.

Prior to this course we'd been asked to complete a psychometric analysis test and we would get the results at the course. The test taken was the TMS (Team Management System) by Margerison & McCann. My results were very interesting as it highlighted that I was incredibly introverted, scoring close to the maximum on the scale. This was a complete surprise to everyone. As part of the review process we had to discuss our personal results with a chosen member of the management team. I chose the financial director. He was also new and had impressed me with his calm, balanced, yet assertive manner. We disappeared into another room to discuss our respective results and he straightaway picked up on my introverted score and questioned this. I immediately said "Yes, I know... I expected it... it's because of my stammer". He was shocked. I went on to explain about the iceberg effect, word avoidance and all of what goes on inside. He had no idea.

The events that then followed put me under a lot of pressure. He fetched the management consultant and said I should explain about stammering and the difficulties I face to the rest of the management team. I was unsure if I should do this, if I should take the risk. Will I be exposing a weakness that will be used against me by the more political members of the senior team? Will I look a fool? What will the new MD think? I chose to take the risk.

After the break, the consultant said that there would be a slight change to the agenda. He introduced me and said that I had something to share with the senior team. I spoke about my stammer and all that goes on inside. You could have heard a pin drop. I spoke for about 20 minutes and then answered questions. Everybody had a question; everybody was surprised and shocked, none more so than the new MD. They all asked how could they help and what they could do.

This happened on the first day and the course lasted for three days. At the end of the course the very last thing that we did was to go around the table to sum up what we'd learnt over the course. The MD spoke last and to my surprise he spoke not of the training material, but solely about the courage I showed in 'coming out' and educating everybody in the room about the issues surrounding stammering.

Back at work after this training course, the MD or another member of the senior team would ask in every meeting, "Mark....what do you think?" He would give me that all important cue I needed to join the discussion. I'd quite often be asked first. This meant that my views, views he valued, were always voiced.

The risk I took in communicating my stammer to the senior management team, my peers and subordinates was the best thing I could have done. The outcomes from taking this decision were all positive. I felt a weight had been removed from me, people around me understood more, but importantly knew what support I needed and how to get the best out of me.

From the Summer 2004 edition of Speaking Out