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.

References

[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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Comments

Millions of Courageous Conversations – Iain Wilkie — 26 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.

    • Thanks for your super comments Pam.

      My refection is that as our courage comes from the heart, so too does our vulnerability.

      Our listeners hear our stuttered words and they can feel that we’re communicating with something more than just words. We’re communicating with our hearts. Now that is a great way to speak and to be heard.

      It’s also an invitation to our listeners to be courageous and vulnerable in return. If they accept, then we’ve got ourselves a Courageous Conversation!

  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.

    • Thanks for your thoughtfully crafted comments Helen and your sharing of how invitational conversations can lead to deeper human connection.

  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,
    Jessica

    • Jessica, thanks for your valuable observations on “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.”

      I think the biggest skills to help in the workplace are:
      – Firstly to accept our stutter as just a different way of speaking, like a different accent, and to start talking!
      – Secondly to help people who don’t stutter to accept that as well, starting with family, friends and co-workers especially, if you can, your boss.

      In terms of specific employment related activities, I hope you find this this link to be helpful: https://stamma.org/getting-support/at-work/thriving-work .

      Best wishes,
      Iain

  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?

    Thanks!
    Erika

    • That’s a great question Erika – thank you. I’m business coach and not a therapist but in my experience the decision to find that courage comes when the pain of not changing becomes bigger than the pain to achieve the change.

      For my colleague in the article, this point was when she decided that she was no longer prepared to allow her stutter to hold her back from the promotion (with the the better role, greater opportunities and higher rewards) that she thought she was good enough to achieve. And she was right!

      Talking to me was the first time she had ever shared with anyone at work about her stutter and she had been with our firm for over 5 years. Was it a painful conversation? Well I can tell you that there were tears rolling down my cheeks, so it was certainly a courageous one as her story resonated deeply with my own career experiences many years earlier.

      I think the she felt confident enough to ask for that conversation because she believed that she would be heard and understood by another human who ‘got’ stuttering.

      That’s why we need to help more people who stutter to be visible at work, so others can find us.

      I hope that helps to answer your question.

      Best wishes,

      Iain

  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
    Hanan

    • Great point about our inherent worthiness Hanan.

      As Pam comments above, as people who stutter we have a lot to feel positive about; but we often don’t realise it. The courage to speak up when when don’t have to, the empathy we develop for others and resilience we develop from years of being different, all make us highly worthy people and employees.

      You’re right about finding trusted conversational partners. As people who stutter we can make ourselves more visible at work and that can be a way of earning trust from others who stutter.

  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

    • Thanks Cami. I’m really pleased that you found the article useful. Thanks for your feedback.

      Best wishes,

      Iain

  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?
    Thanks,
    Amanda T

    • Amanda, thanks for your comments and your question.

      Here are a few thoughts and encouragement to young people who stutter who are interested in a career in business:
      – organisations: look for organisations with strong values around diversity and inclusion. Stuttering is unlikely to be explicitly mentioned, but the key question is whether or not the culture is one that is positive or negative about ‘difference’ – i.e gender, race and ethnicity, LGBTQ, social mobility.
      – role models: remember there are plenty of people who stutter who are enjoying successful careers in business including big banks, accountancy firms and tech companies.
      – yourself: learn to accept your stutter as part of who you are. It’s a different and legitimate way of speaking, just like a different accent. . Convey your acceptance confidently to others and yourself!
      – your tribe: join a local support group, or enrol in group therapy. It can be tough going it alone with a stutter, so having people we know – who ‘get it’ – and professional help as well, can be immensely helpful.
      – your allies: talk to friends or family so they can pick you up when you stumble (as we all do) and celebrate with you when you fly!
      – Accept that some days are just really tough days: I have some songs that I go to and I just play them over and over on my guitar. I’m not very good, but they’re like soul food to me.

      This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope it helps.

      Best wishes,

      Iain

      This is by no means a comprehensive list

  8. Iain,

    I loved your opinion that courage is not only the physical things we do but also the less visible acts because as a society we do tend to focus on courage being things we can easily see and being very large. I am in a speech-language pathology program and am always looking for information and knowledge to add to my “clinical toolbelt” especially when thinking about working with PWS. What is something I can do as an SLP to facilitate my client’s first/continued steps towards courage in speaking and conversations?

    Rachael

  9. Rachel,

    Thanks for your feedback and your question.

    Helping your clients develop their confidence in speaking with a stutter will be great gift.

    If they can feel more confident, they will convey that confidence to their listeners and that will help to take anxiety out of the conversation.

    The best conversations can include a lot of stuttering and many poor conversations can be completely fluent. It’s all about human connection. Being interesting, sharing a story or something about yourself and being well prepared will all help to create that good human connection. It’s not about being slick and smooth, Listeners typically find that rather dull.

    Also self-advertising your stutter up front gives us permission to stutter and means that the listeners aren’t surprised when we do. I use that technique a lot in public speaking.

    I hope that helps.

    Best wishes,

    Iain

  10. Iain,

    I appreciate your article and the work you have done through 50 Million Voices. In your article, I especially liked how you stated “A conversation in which we offer up our own vulnerability to others is courageous. The closer to the hear it is, the more powerful the conversation can be.” I for one did not even think about the words vulnerability and courageous being used in the same conversation but your explanation is great and when we let others see our vulnerabilities it can be a courageous event. One may feel that keeping those vulnerabilities hidden and deep inside would be courageous but we are not allowing others to see us in a deeper sense and are not helping others that may have the same vulnerabilities that we have. Displaying those for others to see can build deeper meaningful relationships.

    • Thanks very much blaicolt for your thoughtful response. My experience has been that keeping my vulnerabilities relating to my speech and stutter close in and hidden sometimes served me in the short term by avoiding the risk of embarrassment with my speech. Or perhaps I would change words so I didn’t stutter and then regarding it as a successful meeting or talk purely on the basis of ‘a good talk is when I don’t stutter’ rather than ‘good talk is when I make the great points I wanted to make whether or not I stutter.’ Every time I allowed my stuttering to be the criteria for whether or not it was a good meeting / talk, I subtly re-enforced my own self-stigma to myself. That sort of worked in the short term, but wasn’t a good long term strategy because my stutter carried on controlling me in those meeting / talk situations.

      Best wishes,

      Iain

  11. Hello Iain,

    I enjoyed reading your article and the connection you make between courage and vulnerability. I think we can all develop our presentation skills, in fact it is something that I struggle with. I cannot imagine how you must have felt after your conversation with your boss. Now that you are in a different position at work, how can human resources or upper management encourage people to be comfortable to share their stories about stuttering? At my last job, I did not feel management was not approachable and I did not feel comfortable sharing my ideas or feelings with them.

    Best,

    Karen

    • Hi Karen,

      Thanks for your comments and your great question. Well the truth is that when I boss ‘asked’ me to take the job in the Training department, I was rather rude to him! I felt scared. He knew me very well and realised that it was a massive ‘ask’ and I needed time to make a proper decision.

      Regarding Human Resources (HR), my view is that, as people who stutter or allies of people who stutter, we need to take the first step and help people in HR and senior management – and our close work colleagues – understand stuttering. We can’t blame the 99% who don’t stutter for not understanding it if we the 1% remain silent about it. It’s in our interest to help them understand stuttering so that’s why i’m inviting a few million courageous conversations!

      The Paul Simon line “And no one dared, disturb the sounds of silence” comes to mind.

      It’s in our interest as people who stutter to ‘dare tiodisturb the silence at work around stuttering’. I know it’s difficult, but if we care in our hearts – and we do – we will find the courage there to speak from the heart – and when we do that, people hear our authenticity and they hear our message.

      I hope that helps.

      Best wishes,

      Iain

      So I’d like to think that I was ‘courageous’ to take the promotion and face the vulnerability of doing that. I knew that it felt like a big risk exposing myself to a job which involved a lot of public speaking, but words like ‘cou

  12. Hi Iain,

    I am a college student and I thoroughly enjoyed reading your thoughts on being vulnerable and courageous. I like that you acknowledge how difficult it is for people who stutter not only physically but mentally. Being able to be vulnerable is easier said than done and “Courageous Conversations” are an amazing way to start gaining confidence. I want to pass this information along to my peers in and hopefully they will benefit in the long run after they graduate and enter the workforce.

    • Hi laffin,

      Thanks for comments. You’re so right that it’s easier said than done!

      Having a friend who stutters, or an ally who listens and encourages, or being part of a stuttering support group, are all ways of making it a bit easier.

      In my experience, I’m often positively surprised by the interest and support that non-stuttering people show for stuttering, but I’m also sometimes dismayed and upset that people I thought would be supportive turn out not to be. That’s partly why having some support around us is great – we can celebrate our successes and be cushioned in our disappointments and frustration!

      Great idea to pass this on to your peers too.

      Best wishes,

      Iain

  13. Hi Iain,

    I’m a speech pathology graduate student and have worked with (mostly pediatric) fluency clients. Your article struck a chord with me, especially when you mentioned how it’s not just the physical manifestations of a stutter that hurt, but rather the inner turmoil. I’ve seen first hand the frustration that comes from a child not being able to articulate exactly what or how much they want, and how they stop before they’ve even begun. It also resonated with me personally because I realize how much I take my own fluent speech for granted and allow my own fears of confrontation to hold me back from saying what needs to be said.

    You mentioned that it had taken some time for you to open up a courageous conversation with your boss. Is there anything potential listeners, such as your boss in this case, can do to open up that conversation and help ease those with fear into it?

    Avril

    • Hi Avril,

      My boss tried several times over 3 or 4 years to get me to talk about my stuttering and I just wasn’t ready to. I was ashamed of it. And also I found that if I talked with anyone about my stutter that it made it worse. I was very closed. That said, I think if he’d shared his own vulnerabilities and failures a little more it would have helped me see him more as an ally and less as a boss. That came in time. He was actually pretty shy.

      There is a movement now towards more humble leadership in business, rather than heroic leadership, and that will I believe result in bosses feeling able to share their own stories more openly. That can have a really beneficial impact on moving workplace culture away from ‘perfectionism’ to a more authentic environment.

      Actions that can help accelerate that include upward mentoring and work shadowing. That way you can get to know each other quite quickly, earning trust and confidence for those more courageous conversations.

      Best wishes,

      Iain

  14. This is an amazing article to me. My brother often struggles with being courageous due to his stutter. When he decides to stop speaking, he depends on someone else to finish his thought for him. I would like to ask you, what were some of the hardest things to get past, in order to be courageous?

    Sydney

  15. Hi Sydney, thanks very much for your feedback.

    It sounds as if your brother is being courageous in facing his struggles with his stutter, in both his courage in speaking when he may be tempted to stay silent – and also in his self-care to sometimes stop speaking when he feels it best for him to do that.

    A very hard thing for me to achieve has been to become good at public speaking. I’ve achieved it through a lot of practice over the years, by being confident that I know what I’m taking about and clear on the structure of the talk – and then rehearsing a lot. Then I start my talk / speech by telling the audience that I stutter. That gives me permission to stutter and it tells them to expect some stuttering, so when it happens they’re not surprised and they roll with it.

    However, the hardest learning of all has been to unlearn 40 years of hard-wired belief that my stutter is a weakness. I’ve now learned that it is purely a different way of speaking. In fact, it can be a strength or a ‘gain’.

    When I stutter, I appear vulnerable. My audience feel and see that vulnerability and that creates a human connection with them that a smooth and slick speaker can never create, because they don’t relate to smooth and slick speech because it’s unnatural.

    They don’t relate to my stutter either, but they do relate to my vulnerability because they all have things that make them feel vulnerable too. They ‘get it’. They’re with me in that moment – and that connection – human to human – is what makes for authentic communication and, dare I say it, a good speech!

    Yes, my stuttering means that I’m a better speaker. It’s taken me many years – and more than a few tears – to achieve and believe it, but I honestly do.

    These same principles apply to our day to day conversations too.

    Good luck to you and your courageous brother.

    Best wishes,

    Iain