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The value of Speaking Circles for those who stammer

| 01.03.2011

A Speaking Circle® is a safe, small group, usually 5-10 participants, offering a natural and absolutely supportive approach to public speaking: to genuinely be yourself, and receive positive, appreciative and empowering acceptance for doing so. In some Circles, each participant receives an individual videotape, including all feedback, for private viewing.

Speaking Circles were developed by speaking coach Lee Glickstein to help people overcome stage fright and attain a natural, powerful presence in front of groups. This unique format is much more than a public speaking class. People from all walks of life have used Speaking Circles for creative self-expression and professional development. Participants report such benefits as greater confidence, spontaneity, authenticity and the gift of really being heard by others.

This work was subsequently adopted for the advantage of people who stammer. Although Speaking Circles were not developed with the problem of stammering in mind, people who stammer can gain some quite specific benefits from involvement in a Speaking Circle programme. In this article, I would like to explain what these benefits are and how the Speaking Circle process can bring them about.

A major aim is to reduce the negative emotion that accompanies stammering.

Desensitisation

A major aim in Van Riper's therapy is "desensitisation" i.e. to reduce the negative emotion that accompanies stammering. As long as you continue to react to your stammering with shame, embarrassment and anxiety, you cannot truly overcome the problem. On the other hand, if you can significantly reduce the emotion and upset, you have gone a long way towards a sustained recovery.

Desensitisation begins with the behaviour of the therapist. He or she attends to the stammerer in a manner that is warm and accepting. The therapist displays genuine interest and without interruption or any attempt to rush. By removing the time pressure in this way and placing an emphasis on support with no conditions attached, the therapy situation becomes one of safety and security. Perhaps for the first time, the stammering is experienced without listener rejection or social penalty. In time, according to Van Riper, you can acquire a calm and objective attitude to your stammering and become less sensitive to it.

A Speaking Circle can be a powerful vehicle for this mode of desensitisation. The participants have agreed to give the person in front of the circle unconditional support and positive attention. Thus, the Circle can function in the same manner as a skilled therapist. Should an episode of stammering occur, you will not feel pressurised or judged. The Circle can become what Van Riper described as a "nucleus situation... one spot in time and place wherein he can talk without distress even though he stutters." In such an environment, you can learn to detach discomfort, shame and anxiety from your stammering behaviour and so clear the path for overcoming the problem.

There is much more to the process of desensitisation than the provision of positive support, but after years of disturbing listener reaction and emotional upheaval, the deconditioning that occurs through unconditional support should not underestimated. Speaking Circles can serve this function particularly well.

Self-acceptance

Perhaps the most critical aspect of stammering therapy is self-acceptance in the stammerer role. True acceptance allows you to become a more honest and relaxed speaker. The route to self-acceptance, in the beginning, is commonly through open discussion of the problem with other people.

In a well-facilitated Speaking Circle, there is never an explicit requirement to speak on a given topic. However, the accepting and supportive environment of the Circle appears to give people permission for open and honest expression. For those who stammer, this type of self-disclosure can be a very positive experience.

Another means of self-acceptance is by actively exploring one's own stammering behaviour. The psychologist and recovered stammerer, Joseph Sheehan, described the need to "experience the moment of stuttering as fully as possible - to see, hear and feel the stuttering vividly."

In running Speaking Circles for people who stammer, I have observed participants open up and show their stammering in a way they might not in a regular speech therapy session. A clear example of this is the man who spent his time in front of the group confronting his most difficult words and sounds. Far from being an uncomfortable task, the man, who usually went to great lengths to hide his stammering, revelled in this opportunity to overcome his avoidance.

Breaking the performance bind

For those who have never stammered, speaking is a simple, spontaneous act of communication and, although some planning and preparation is often required, the non-stammerer can usually carry off the process with ease. For those of us who stammer, there is so often a degree of deliberation involved and a strong desire to speak without stammering. We come to believe that others will judge us according to our manner of speaking and hold the attitude that fluency is good and stammering bad. In turn, we treat speaking situations as performances. There is little doubt that an over-attention to perfect speech and performing "well" is detrimental to the goal of natural, relaxed communication.

Through practice in a Speaking Circle, this counter-productive performance orientation or "bind" can be overcome. In front of the Circle, the focus shifts away from speech performance towards connection and relation with your listeners - from self-involvement to other-involvement. You can allow yourself to fully see and hear the audience. Your priority is on listening to the group and receiving their support, not on speaking. Silences are encouraged. All that is required is that you are fully present, that you move beyond false roles to being authentically, genuinely yourself. Repeated exposure to this experience can dramatically dissolve your need to perform.

In the accepting and supportive environment of the Speaking Circle, you can feel free for self-expression whether stuttering or not. You don't judge your speech or moments of stammering. You don't judge your feelings about stammering. You simply notice and continue receiving support. You move away from the performance orientation and enjoy relationship with the audience. Lee Glickstein writes, "we can trust that we are appreciated for exactly who we are, not for what we do or say".

Flexing self-perceptions

The psychologist, Carl Rogers, argued that a crucial aspect of our subjective experience is our self-concept, i.e. how we view ourselves. Clearly, persons who think of themselves as having little worth are bound to experience life differently from those who feel that they are worthy.

Research suggests that many stammerers view themselves in a negative light and thus have a devalued self-concept. To illustrate, in graphic projection studies, people who stammer often depict themselves in an unflattering way, e.g. as a clown-like figure. Stammering looms large in the self-concept and can overwhelm the picture we have of ourselves. It is as though we define ourselves according to our stammering problem. Recovered stammerer and workshop leader, John Harrison, puts it this way: "We have a narrow self-image. It does not encompass all of who we are. And we constantly try to squeeze ourselves into this narrow self-image. Not only is this self-image extremely confining, it is also very rigid."

Of course, the reality is that our stammering is only one of many problems that we all share and it does not define who we are. Although, we may understand this rationally on a conscious level, our poor self-concept in all its rigidity tends to persist.
Speaking Circles offer an invaluable opportunity to test and challenge your view of yourself and to make positive changes. The self-concept can expand and grow. It can be widened to include more of who you are and your potentialities. How can this happen? In a Speaking Circle, changes occur in 3 ways.

First, during your time in front of the group, you develop a strong awareness that your presence is having an impact. For instance, you notice the spontaneous laughter that so often occurs when you allow yourself to be genuine. You learn that, in being yourself, you can captivate attention. Whilst in front of the group, you begin to view yourself in a new way. Your perception of self cannot help but be affected in those moments you are the centre of attention.

Second, after your time in front of the group, you receive feedback from the audience. Because the feedback is framed totally in the positive, it is based solely on what you did that was effective, what people liked, what they admired etc. Of course, some of us have a tendency for false modesty and we often disbelieve positive appraisal. However, when we receive positive feedback from eight or nine appreciative individuals, it tends to have a significant impact!

Third, after the Speaking Circle, you may be able to take away a videotape of your time in front of the group for private viewing. This is an invaluable opportunity to test your perception of self against what others actually see and hear. Initially, you might find this uncomfortable and you may tend to pick up on trivial things. However, most participants report that they are struck with how effectively they come across in presenting themselves and their ideas.

You may see things about yourself that you don't like and that you wish to change. This too is helpful and, after all, who best to decide on aspects of personal change but yourself.

The sum effect of this learning is that the self-concept is given a "shake-up". Participants report that they walk out of a Speaking Circle feeling "larger" than when they walked in.

When you have stirred and moved an audience through authenticity, you can't help but see yourself in a new light. For people who stammer, the lesson often learned is that we have a large personality of which the stammering is only a part.

Being in the audience

The benefits I have described thus far relate to being the centre of attention in front of the group. However, there is much to gain from the time you spend in the audience. As an audience member, your role is to listen and give full, silent attention to the person in front of the group. This is an active process and one which most of us rarely practise in daily life.

Learning how to listen makes you more available to others during interactions with them. Listening attentively helps develop the invaluable skill of giving support. It also helps you to slow down. By focusing on the positive qualities of others and becoming less judgmental, you can create better relationships.

Possibilities

In this article, I have described some specific benefits for people who stammer which may result from participation in a Speaking Circle. It is important to stress, however, that these are potential outcomes and not prescriptions or goals. The only guidelines are those outlined in the "standards of support" and these are designed to encouraged potentiality and develop individual possibilities. In other words, the process should not be viewed as a path to a fixed destination, nor is it expected that all participants will benefit in exactly the same way.

With its emphasis on the whole person, a Speaking Circle can be a useful adjunct to almost any speech therapy programme. The format caters for individuals at any stage of recovery. Indeed, the most successful and stimulating Circles are often those in which there is a healthy mix of experience. A note of caution is required, however. A Speaking Circle is not a therapy or treatment in itself, and is not a substitute for working actively on stammering - what Van Riper called the "dirty work" of therapy - but, run alongside established programmes, this work can greatly compliment personal development. A number of speech therapists in the UK and the US have used Speaking Circles with groups of stammerers and have endorsed the format with enthusiasm.

Speaking Circles can also be a valuable activity for stammering self-help groups. Any small group (between 5 and 10 people) who meet regularly and who are committed to the process can create their own peer support Circle.

For those interested in running a Speaking Circle, it is important to understand the conditions which make the process safe and accessible for everyone. Participants must be willing to follow the "standards of support" throughout the session and the role of the facilitator is to create and maintain a safe environment. When groups keep the format simple and stick to the guidelines, a Circle becomes effective and possibilities are opened up.

Speaking Circles are a natural, personal approach to speaking in public and offer the invaluable opportunity to be fully seen and heard. The supportive environment and dynamic process enables people who stammer to actively confront some of the issues at the heart of the problem.

A final word - there are a number of personal accounts by adults who have genuinely recovered from stammering. In reading these stories, it is possible to identify a common theme, a philosophy toward the problem of stammering and towards life in general. This philosophy is usually some variation of "move forward in the face of fear", "overcome tendencies to hold back", "take responsibility", and "overcome tendencies to block out experiences". There is little doubt that Speaking Circles, and the attitudes they instil, fit well with this philosophy.

The author is a psychology graduate and Certified Speaking Circle Facilitator.

For more information on Speaking Circles, visit the website at www.speakingcircles.com.

From the Spring 2001 edition of Speaking Out