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The McGuire Programme: a personal view

Steve Sheasby | 01.09.2010

The McGuire Programme is known for its 'costal breathing' but that is only part of the story. Steve Sheasby charts his own journey through the Programme.

I joined the McGuire Programme in May 2007. A year later I became a Certified Primary Coach on it, and a year after that I qualified as a Certified Course Instructor Intern. In this article, I will tell you something of my experiences in the McGuire Programme.Steve Sheasby

I'd read Dave McGuire's book 'Beyond Stammering' about a year before I decided to join the Programme, so I knew something of what would be expected of me on it. One thing scared me - contacts (I'll explain about these later). However, my desire to get to a place I wanted to be with my speech (and my life) outweighed the fear I had. I'd heard some McGuire graduates speak at a BSA London Open Day, and - quite simply - I wanted what they had. They seemed to no longer have to deal with the stammering problem; I was wrong, of course, the McGuire grads I heard that day were and are still actively working on their speech every single day. But that's not too bad, as Joseph Sheehan said "working on your speech can be fun".

The McGuire Programme is composed of three main strands. Firstly, there's the non-avoidance and role acceptance of Joseph Sheehan (Dave McGuire did therapy with Sheehan at UCLA). Secondly there is the sports mentality (Dave used to be a professional tennis coach) - for the non-sporty among us this is similar to the mentality needed to become good at, say, playing a musical instrument. And the third thing is changing the way we breathe when we speak; I'd had some experience of changing the way I breathe when I spoke when doing courses at the City Lit in London.

My first McGuire course was in May 2007, held at a city centre hotel in Coventry. There were 29 new students on the course, more than usual because of the Gareth Gates factor (his interview with Jonathan Ross was still news). 29 may seem a lot until you realise that a new student is sat opposite a coach all the time and is in effect getting one-to-one tuition. Everybody stops at the hotel and for the five days of the course (Wednesday evening to Sunday morning) you totally immerse yourself in McGuire. This is especially true for the new students who agree to no television, no paper, no phoning home, and no alcohol. The McGuire Programme is highly structured, and we believe this is vital. As Charles Van Riper said "stuttering is a tough nut to crack".

After a certain number of 'contacts', the fear comes right down.

On the Friday afternoon of my first course I was taken out by a coach to be shown how to do 100+ contacts. A 'contact' is a speaking interaction with a stranger on the street or in a shop, for example asking directions. On Saturday it was my turn to do them. 100+ contacts is what makes the McGuire Programme special. It's where we test our new speaking ways in the real world. It is where we overcome our fear. After a certain number (on my first course it was around 70) the fear comes right down. That is where real learning happens - going up to people and speaking how you want to speak with little or no fear. As the saying goes "you are changed by what you do".

By this stage in the course, I had been taught the 'costal breathing' technique that the Programme uses. When you start out, you use the technique in a fairly exaggerated, 'mechanical' way, with only a few words per breath. You aim to get a stage where the technique is habituated and happening automatically. If you get into problems with your speech, though, you can always 'drop down' to a more mechanical way of speaking. This ties in with the fact that you are not trying to make out to people you are fluent - I wrote in the Summer 2008 Speaking Out about the importance of letting people know you have a stammer.

At the end of my first course I was allocated my primary coach. It is a requirement that you speak to your primary coach once if not twice a day for the first two weeks, and then very regularly after that (along with the Course Instructor and Regional Director). There is also a phone-list of 100+ coaches to phone up in the first two weeks; I did the phone-list in under a day and a half because I was so fired up after my first course. The phone was always a difficult situation for me and this did much to overkill that fear.

Support group

Soon after my first course I started going to the London McGuire Programme Support Group. This meets in a room above a pub every two weeks (with a session of doing Contacts on alternate weeks). We regularly get 25+ to the support group. The first hour is disciplined drilling of the technique, as you would practising a sport, or a musical instrument. The second hour is a more freeform session with a fun element (still speaking with good technique). Both sessions are run by a different grad each time, giving people a chance to run a group session. I now enjoy co-running the London Support Group.

I mentioned the Contacts session every other week. We pair up and hit the streets for a couple of hours. Some people do 100 contacts, some don't - it's not a requirement. Grads decide what they want to work on. There are a few grads that pair up and do 100 'disclosures'. A disclosure is where you tell a stranger that you are a stammerer and that you are working on your speech. Sometimes your partner will set you challenges: for example, I've been asked to go into Selfridges in Oxford Street and ask at a make-up counter what colour foundation would suit my skin (with a disclosure afterwards). Yes Contacts can be fun. Another point is that the pairing up of grads on Contacts enables one grad to observe the other and give feedback on their speech. Strict mutual feedback - being honest - is an important part of the McGuire Programme. We do it because we care about the other person.

Another form of support is the list of coaches you are able to phone up. When, for example, I was guest speaker on a BSA conference call, I phoned some of the coaches beforehand to make sure I was doing the technique correctly and to get feedback from them.

Back for more

I did my Refresher course three months after my first course. After your first course, the strict rules of no alcohol, no phoning home etc. are relaxed. One of the joys of going back on courses is to meet up with friends and socialise in the bar after the day's hard work has finished. On the Friday and Saturday of courses, it is not unusual for the sessions to start at 7.30am and go on to 10 at night (with breaks every hour and a long break for lunch and dinner I should add). We are there after all to work on our speech and to help others work on their speech.

the best way to learn is to teach.

A year after my first course (I do three full courses a year, others do less, some do more) I did staff training to be a Certified Primary Coach on the McGuire Programme. This involved passing an exam, and peer evaluation by other coaches on the programme. The staff training in the UK South area takes place on a full course which gives an opportunity for candidates to run sessions in front of the whole group. There is also a CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) check for candidates on staff training. This progression up the ranks is an important part of the McGuire Programme; the changing role from grad to primary coach is an important one. I was successful in my staff training and soon became a Primary Coach and started having the responsibility of looking after new grads. There is a saying that the best way to learn is to teach.

A year after I became a primary coach, my own primary coach persuaded me (although I didn't need much persuasion) to try for staff training to become a Certified Course Instructor Intern. I passed the exam and peer evaluation. A Course Instructor Intern will eventually run a course in conjunction with a Course Instructor and then in turn will become a Course Instructor; a Course Instructor is in overall charge of a course. Some interns have to wait longer than others; I know I still need to work on some things. One of the comments from the peer evaluation was "Steve Sheasby: nice guy but lacks charisma". Being used to the strict mutual feedback on the programme I wondered how to address this point. A coach advised me to start going to Toastmasters, and I have. If stammering is about holding back, I must be holding back my charisma, regardless of whether I'm fluent. I can see other McGuire coaches light up at that: fluency is not the goal but eloquence is. And that's very true, eloquence is the goal of the McGuire Programme.

I hope I have given some insight into the McGuire Programme, and people are very welcome to come along and see what we do on courses, and in a support group.

From the Spring 2010 issue of Speaking Out, pages 8 and 9.