Millions of Courageous Conversations – Iain Wilkie

About the Author: Iain Wilkie is an executive coach who stutters and the founder of PathMaker Consulting.  He is a former senior partner and UK leadership team member at global professional services firm EY.

Iain is a recognised leader in promoting disability employment. He founded 50 Million Voices, the EY Stammering Network, and co-founded the UK’s Employers Stammering Network. He is also a Trustee of the UK’s Business Disability Forum and an adviser to the UK government on improving disability employment.

“Iain, I’m hoping to be promoted to senior manager in June.

I normally stutter on my name which then knocks all my confidence, especially when meeting someone for the first time.  Also, my fear of stuttering often stops me from contributing to larger groups. 

These are going to be increasingly important for me if I’m to be promoted and to be a successful senior manager.

I’ve never discussed my stutter with anyone at work before but it would be great to talk.  Can I book some time in with you soon?”

This unexpected message was a brave and vulnerable way of inviting me into a conversation about stuttering. It led to an authentic, at times emotional and certainly courageous conversation between two strangers who quickly realised that we shared so much in common from our lived experience as people who stammer at work.

For my new colleague, it was the start of a year in which she transformed her relationship with her stammer and achieved huge personal growth.  For myself, it was a great privilege to be able to play my small part in helping her take the first step forward.

These days as the founder of 50 Million Voices[1], I’m increasingly hearing about courageous conversations similar to the one above. A rising conversational tide about stuttering is spreading into the world of work and its giving us encouragement that we will one day achieve 50 Million Voices vision:  “A world in which everyone who stutters can have a good job and a rewarding career”.

However, what does it really mean to have a courageous conversation in the workplace? 

After all, isn’t courage really about physical bravery such as a military engagement or sporting success?  In many ways it is.  Yet courage is also about less visible acts.

Poet and author David Whyte explores this interior dynamic as one where:

“To be courageous is not necessarily to go anywhere or do anything except make conscious those things we already feel deeply and then to live through the unending vulnerabilities of those consequences.”[2]

In other words, a conversation in which we offer up our own vulnerability to others is courageous.  When we talk for the first time about the pain, shame and stigma of having a stutter we are indeed revealing our raw vulnerability. The closer to the heart it is, the more powerful the conversation can be.

As Professor Brené Brown, an acknowledged global leader in the field of vulnerability and courage, explains:

“Courage is a heart word.  The root of the word is ‘cor’ – the Latin word for heart.

In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ ”[3]

In many ways the visible and invisible elements of courage mirror what happens to us when we stutter. In other words, what people see and what they can’t see. It is not the exterior physical manifestations of our dysfluent speech, facial contortions or defensive body language that can hurt us most, but the interior turmoil pounding away in our heads, stomachs and hearts.

Perhaps it’s no wonder then that employees with a stutter which is seldom heard, whose speech typically sounds fluent on the outside, often find it so difficult to reveal our hidden dysfluency and feelings of vulnerability and shame on the inside.

Yet Brené Brown reminds us that there is still true strength to be found here:

“Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage.  Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never a weakness.”[4]

So in practice, how can we successfully apply this vulnerability, truth and courage in conversations at work?

Timing can be everything and in the working world these conversations often happen as we approach points of change, whether it be a new job, a promotion or the opportunity to take on an exciting new role, especially if it requires more public speaking.

When as a senior manager, I was asked to join and lead my firm’s audit training team, it was totally unexpected as I’d always avoided instructing on any training programmes.  After agonising over the decision, I accepted the role. Had I been more courageous, it could have been the catalyst for a conversation about my stutter.  However, the dialogue with my boss amounted merely to his clipped comment that I needed to develop my presenting skills, countered by my grudging acknowledgement that he might just possibly be right!  It was another two years before we had that courageous conversation about my stutter as he mentored me towards becoming a partner in the firm.

There is no ‘preferred way’ to hold a courageous conversation and there’s an array of courses, videos, advice and poetry out there.  They range from “straight-talking, take no prisoners” to the “let the spirit take you wherever it will” – it’s whatever works best for you.

Choosing the right conversational partner is choosing the right conversation for you.  Do you want someone who’s going to be open, to whom you can listen and will perhaps be a little courageous themselves?  Or someone more focused on listening to you and on being a friendly, receptive ear.  Again, there’s no right answer.  My own mentor was occasionally open, sometimes uncomfortably challenging and always supportive.

Helpful support for these conversations is increasingly available on social media and often features employees talking openly about the relationship between their stutter and their work.  Whether we stutter or not, it’s even better to use our own stories, the ones that only we can wholly tell, giving ourselves an open canvas to engage in a truly authentic way with our conversational partners.

My invitation to you.

With 50 million people globally of employable age who stutter, plus our families, friends, therapists and allies, our team could be a 100 million people strong.  That’s worth repeating – 100 million people – all of us with our beautiful voices which are worth listening to.

So my invitation to you is to become one of the 100 million people in our team and to  commit to yourself to have at least one Courageous Conversation about Stuttering in the next 12 months.  That’s potentially 100 Million Courageous Conversations!

I can assure you that, by being a little bit braver and more vulnerable, you’ll be amazed by the difference you can make for yourself and for others.

Did her courage pay off?

Yes, it most certainly did!

She gained her hard earned promotion to senior manager and her career is truly thriving.

Iain Wilkie is an executive coach who stutters.  He founded 50 Million Voices, the EY Stammering Network and co-founded the UK’s Employers Stammering Network.  He is also a Trustee of the UK’s Business Disability Forum and an adviser to the UK government on improving disability employment.  He is a former senior partner and UK leadership team member at global professional services firm EY

All views and opinions expressed in this article are entirely his own.


[1] 50 Million Voices is a global initiative involving 15 countries to help transform the world of work for people who stutter.

[2] David Whyte, “Consolations. The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words”, Many Rivers Press, 2014

[3] Brené Brown, “I Thought it was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame”, 2007, Gotham

[4] Brené Brown, “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love, Parent and Lead”, 2012, Gotham

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Millions of Courageous Conversations – Iain Wilkie — 7 Comments

  1. Excellent contribution, Iain.
    I have long believed now (well, for the 10 years or so I’ve been open) that we who stutter are braver than we give ourselves credit for. I think we are brave every single time we risk being so completely vulnerable and real when we open our mouth to speak, to share our opinion, to challenge an assumption, or ask a question.

    Most of the world speaks freely without thinking – it is intuitive and automatic. But we who stutter ask ourselves, “is it worth the risk?” “What if I need to repeat myself?” “How will I react when someone laughs or makes a dumb comment?”

    I think a great many fluent people envy us. I think many secretly wish they could be so open and authentic as we are when we have courageous conversations. We are authentic by default and our courage invites others to react similarly, with whatever their “thing” is. I can tell when someone has felt safe enough to share something personal or hidden about themselves, because there is true engagement and eye contact and spontaneous dialogue.

    These courageous conversations lead to deeper connections, and a “seeing” and “hearing” of each other that often goes overlooked because the world we live in is in such a hurry.

    Bravo for sharing this. Brene Brown is one of my heroes too. Hopefully other readers will realize the bounty that awaits us when we have the courage to share.

  2. Thank you very much for this Iain, and you too, Pam.

    My reaction, as it was when I read an earlier version that appeared a while back as a blog post, is to reflect on why it had/has so much impact on me.

    I think it’s because the combination of real story and reflection really reveals more for me and helps me understand more about stuttering, as someone who doesn’t stutter, and why it can be a big deal to talk openly about it. It comes down to what you say Pam…that most of us speak freely and take that for granted.

    I’ve thought a lot about conversations and what make some feel welcoming, safe and others not so much, or not at all. The real sharing comes, I think, when people, whether they stutter or not, think about how they have conversations in an “invitational” way. I’d like to think that doing so helps all of us have deeper connection, the opportunity to understand and celebrate difference and share what it means to be human.

  3. Iain,

    Thank you for your reflection on courage. Right now I’m working with a couple of children who stutter and your article caused me to think about how much they benefit from having this pattern of courage early in their lives. In many ways that courage and vulnerability is already there, simply by being willing to talk. You spoke about group presentations and being willing to disclose – are there any other skills that you feel would help youth be ready to enter employment?

    Thank you,

  4. Thank you for sharing! Reading this really helped me understand the internal struggles that go on inside the minds of people who stutter. I really liked the quote “Courage is a heart word. The root of the word is ‘cor’ – the Latin word for hear” because it explains that courage isn’t doing or saying something on the outside, but it happens in your heart. How do you encourage clients to find courage in their hearts and become more vulnerable?


  5. Hi Iain,

    Thanks for your guidance and wisdom. I, too, am a beneficiary of Brene Brown’s teaching, and I think that learning the “power of vulnerability” was perhaps The most significant step for me in my Journey. It combines, of course, with Brown’s encouragement of us to recognize our inherent Worthiness. We who stutter are Worthy, without any relationship to how we speak, and without relevance to the opinions of others about our speech.

    This is relevant to having Courageous Conversations; being vulnerable can require trust in the Other to be empathetic. Trusting a potential conversation partner is not simple, as we imagine their judgments even before having the conversation.

    Perhaps if can we recognize our own inherent worthiness then it will be easier to start that Courageous Conversation.

    Thanks a lot

  6. Good Afternoon Iain,

    I appreciated the relationship you discussed between bravery and vulnerability. When initially presented with the idea, it is difficult for me to imagine being brave and vulnerable co-occurring in the same moment. Doesn’t being brave mean to be strong? Society paints vulnerability as an undesirable attribute or characteristic. However, as you demonstrated, to be vulnerable is to be brave. How do you be vulnerable in a cut-throat, competitive business environment?

    Thank you for your insight and the article.
    Cami Finehout

  7. Iain,
    Thank you for your contribution. I felt that you described the relationship between courage and vulnerability in an understandable way. I appreciate your example of someone who is in the business world, because communication is frequent and I think would be daunting for a person who stutters. It must take a lot of courage to work in a field where you have to have face-to-face conversations regularly. How do you encourage youth to aspire to have these jobs that demand public speaking or just frequent verbal communication if they are discouraged?
    Amanda T

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