Sometimes, it’s good to listen. Sometimes, better not to!

tennisIt's good to be a good listener, so that you know what the other person is thinking and feeling. On the other hand, sometimes we can encounter a form of self-talk that is not worth listening to at all. That sums up the key points in the article that follows.

In my role as a volunteer I serve as a member of an advisory board for the CSA, and I often take part in online discussions. As an advisor, I do not have a vote on the CSA board of directors, but sometimes I offer comments. And I listen. This article is inspired by a comment that Andrew Harding, the former national coordinator of the Canadian Stuttering Association, recently shared. He mentioned that it might be of interest to have an article "with a broader focus, such as listening skills."

"I mention this," he wrote, "because despite the cliches about people who stutter being good listeners, there can be so much anxiety, self-monitoring and negative self-talk that no real listening can happen. It can be the most effective communication skill though."


 All of my life I have made a point of listening closely to what people have to say. During the days that I stuttered severely, I had even more time to listen, and ponder, than I do now. As I have described elsewhere, when I was younger, there were times when I could not get out any words at all. Under such conditions, there weren't many conversations.

Thirty years ago I attended a three-week speech clinic in Edmonton at the Institute for Stuttering Treatment and Research (ISTAR), and after learning five specified fluency skills, and practising them daily for many years, I have attained good control over my stuttering. Much of the time I now speak quite fluently and I can comfortably speak about dealing with negative self-talk.

Self-talk needs to be addressed following a speech therapy program. When I attended ISTAR  I learned to deal with the self-talk that was getting in the way of my fluency skills. (I've written of this elsewhere, and will not get into details here). Self-talk needs to be addressed after a person has achieved a level of fluency following a speech therapy program.

Special education teacher

Before ISTAR, I attended a three-week speech therapy clinic in Toronto in 1976. I did not achieve lasting gains, but I spoke quite a bit more fluently. During the 1982-83 school year, I completed a course at the University of Toronto Faculty of Education, which enabled me to embark upon a career as a public school teacher. I taught special education classes, with very small numbers of students. Under such conditions, whether I stuttered or not didn't matter. I couldn't get a word out at staff meetings, but that didn't matter, either.


At that time I helped to write a curriculum document for the school board that explained to teachers how to encourage language acquisition in severely disabled students, who had not yet learned to speak. In working on the document, I learned some basic facts about a branch of linguistics known as pragmatics.

a conversation is like a game of tennis The main idea in pragmatics is that a conversation is like a game of tennis. One partner in the conversation hits the ball across the net, and the other partner in the conversation hits it back. So long as the ball goes back and forth, the conversation continues. That is, people take turns in a typical conversation. One person speaks for a while, then the other person speaks, and so on.

I recently checked out some internet resources that deal with pragmatics, and have learned there is much more to this concept than the metaphor of a the tennis game. However, the basic concept comes in handy when I think about pragmatics as it relates to people who stutter.

The art of conversation

I marvel at the fact that every once in a while I run across a person (whether they are a stutterer or fluenter) who is not clued into the concept that a conversation is like hitting a tennis ball back and forth across the net. If a person engages in a monologue (they just talk without listening) then the understanding of pragmatics is not there.

I emphasize that during a conversation it's a great idea to take turns. Why just keep on talking and talking? It's really helpful let the other person have a say. Furthermore, it's a good idea to actually listen to what the other person says, rather than just focusing on what we find important for us to get across ourselves when our turn to speak comes around.

"You're supposed to fall flat on your face"

After I attended the Edmonton clinic in 1987, I began to make speeches to large audiences. I practised extensively, and attended closely to my fluency skills.

Even though every speech that I gave was flawless and well-received, a voice inside me kept on repeating "You're not supposed to be able to do this. You're supposed to be falling on your face." My usual techniques for converting negative self-talk into positive self-talk did not occur to me then. I was speaking fluently, but I did not feel at ease.

I was speaking fluently, but I did not feel at ease I realized that what I needed to do was compare notes with other people who stutter, who might have had similar experiences in their lives. That's what led me to form a local self-help group in Toronto for people who stutter.

The benefits of a self help group

After a year of meetings, I got some advice that enabled me to address the negative self-talk that I encountered each time I made a speech. (I have explained that elsewhere and will not go into details here).

After forming the local group, I became involved in the founding of the Canadian Stuttering Association, the Estonian Stuttering Association, and the International Fluency Association. Had I not encountered the negative self-talk that I have described, it's unlikely that I would have become involved in the stuttering self-help movement.

In this case, I was tired of listening – I refused to listen – to a form of self-talk that I didn't want to hear, and found a way to address it. I compared notes with other people who stuttered and understood what I was dealing with.

 I refused to listen to a form of self-talk that I didn't want to hear After I attended the ISTAR clinic, I quit teaching special education at the school board where I had begun my career, and began teaching regular classes at another school board. It wasn't an easy transition, but in the end I managed – and much enjoyed the experience of what was, for me, a new form of teaching.

Every person deserves to be heard

As a person involved with self-help meetings in Toronto for a decade starting in the late 1980s, I always ensured that speaking time was shared more or less equally between all participants at the meetings, and speakers were listened to with close care and attention. A meeting where one or two people do all the talking, while everybody else listens, is not my idea of a good time. As founder of the Stuttering Association of Toronto, I had no trouble in ensuring that speaking time was shared equally. We also arranged for people to take turns leading the meetings, so that power and authority within the group was shared. When organizing other meetings, such as local and regional events and conferences, I've always had the same goal.

Myself and the other organizers were especially successful in ensuring equal speaking time for all participants during the early CSA conferences starting in 1991 in Banff. That is to say, CSA is founded upon a very basic principle: Each of us has something to say, and what each of us says warrants a close and attentive listen.

Jaan Pill is a co-founder of the Canadian Stuttering Association. His website is www.preservedstories.com

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