Growing up, I struggled with my identity as a stutterer. Whether it was asking for help on an assignment or talking with friends, I often found others finishing my sentences. Because of this, I felt that my thoughts and ideas didn’t matter. But through conversations with different people, I reflected on this part of myself and gradually began to own and understand it. One exchange that influenced my perspective was with Gail Noble Sanderson, a former professor and friend who also stutters.
Gail once mentioned that although being a stutterer has its challenges, it’s not the definitive part of my identity. At the start of a conversation, stutterers have to be honest about their speech because they often need time to articulate their thoughts. These moments of slowing down not only allows me to process my thoughts; it could also help those in conversation with me come to a better understanding of the value of silence, patience, and active listening in communication.
The practice of not interrupting and not hurrying a stutterer could be valuable for anyone engaged in meaningful communication. If everyone acted as if they were listening to a stutterer trying to articulate their ideas, they could become better listeners, more compassionate, and thus better communicators.
Active listening is a skill I use to engage authentically with others. By implementing this practice into conversations, people are more inclined to share intimate details about themselves. The stillness and undivided attention that unhurried, mindful listening provides gives them a better chance to hear, understand and reflect.
Many of us advocate for diversity and search for growth through perspective. But when we are presented with the opportunity to engage with backgrounds and ideas different than ours, we often step away from the discomfort and avoid the conversation completely. Although communication can be difficult, it’s a vital process, one that forces us to break free of our comfort zone and challenge ourselves and our ideas.
There’s a space for silence and an opportunity for communicators to share their own values and experiences. When clashing ideas or values arise, or if someone acts unexpectedly, it’s the ability to say, “I don’t agree with what you’re saying or doing. But I acknowledge your humanity and want to understand what’s happening.” It’s putting aside one’s ego and pride and listening to learn rather than to respond. The art of leaning into discomfort.
Ultimately, our contributions to conversations are not what matters. But rather what we learn in the process. This can be done through innovative intentionality, being creative in our interactions with each other and actively listening in conversations. By doing this, we establish a better foundation for authentic connections: learning about different identities and ideologies and trying one’s best to relate to the other’s perspective through empathy. If creativity is applicable to our professional endeavors, why not implement the same practice into our conversations?
Dr. David Stovall, a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, mentioned there is no such thing as ‘Oppression Olympics.’ There’s no clear winner when we compare our struggles. When engaging in conversation, I used to think my stutter was a greater struggle than what others coped with. But when I listened to learn and fully immersed myself into another’s story, I was captivated by these interactions and how they resulted in a “Me too” moment. The realization that the weight you carry is something another may be experiencing is invaluable. Arriving at this realization is only possible when we take the time to build upon relationships. The collision of clashing ideas, values, and experiences are integral for true progress to occur.
Now more than ever, our world depends on our diversity, our nakedness. We need to meet a person where they are personally and speak with them instead of at or for them. Treat each interaction as a season. Similar to how we wear a jacket in the middle of winter or lighter clothing during summer, we need to find new ways to improve how we communicate with each other.
When we have a space for common ground, the room to agree to disagree, and still acknowledge each other’s humanity, it’s only then that innovation and communication can really begin to thrive.