Listening to Resilience – My Journey of Discovery – Helen Carpenter

About the Author:

Helen Carpenter

Before working at the British Stammering Association (2015-18) on employment, I’d never given stuttering much thought. What I’ve since discovered has been a revelation. People tend not to talk about stuttering, but we can all play a part in changing that. 

I am now very involved in 50 Million Voices, which is working with leaders from six continents to transform the world of work for people who stutter.

With a current hiatus due to the pandemic (but the aspiration to bounce back!) I also co-run an initiative bringing people together to explore architecture, environment and social history in London’s fringes.

I have a degree in modern languages and I’m also a qualified librarian. I’ve a strong track-record in the not-for-profit sector, often leading programmes or new initiatives, in roles concerned with people, places and identity. I see myself as a catalyst and connection-maker, influencing positive change. I’m a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and was awarded an MBE in 2008, after co-ordinating a national programme connecting public libraries and refugees. 

I’m not a person who stutters, nor am I a Speech and Language Therapist, and to my knowledge, I don’t have any family member who stutters.

But, somewhat unusually, I have listened to hundreds of stuttering voices, each one unique.

I have been and still am on a journey of learning and discovery about stuttering. This has prompted me to offer and share a few of my thoughts about resilience in this context from a somewhat different perspective that of the listener.

My own learning journey, which has had its own share of setbacks along the way, started when I worked at the British Stammering Association (now Stamma – stamma.org/) for three years. It continues with my ongoing involvement with 50 Million Voices (50millionvoices.org), which is working with leaders from six continents  to transform the world of work for people who stutter.  

I’m sure now, looking back five years and more, if I thought about stuttering at all, that I probably shared quite a few of the misconceptions people have about it. 

Also, I had absolutely no idea how many more people stutter than I was ever aware of, because, in my mind, stuttering was something immediately and consistently obvious to any listener. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in this. 

So, what does not understanding what stuttering really is have to do with resilience? 

If you can’t hear or see someone obviously struggling with their speech and even if you can then you can’t possibly know what is going on underneath.

What happens if that person then tells you that they stutter, but to you, it doesn’t sound like what you think a stutter sounds like? Indeed, you may not have even noticed.

A common, and I think understandable, reaction is to behave in a way that suggests it is somehow “less” than what the person who stutters is experiencing inside. 

How did I come to realize rather more was going on than met my eye? Probably only after I’d heard lots of people who stutter talking about how they had previously tried (or continue to try) to hide it, or to avoid situations where it might be more obvious. 

This is what helped me understand somewhat better the internal reality of stuttering and to what extent attitudes in society at large are rigged to confer value on fluency in speech.

As I see it, there is a huge gap between the inner and outer worlds of both the person who stutters and the listener who doesn’t. 

If you can’t hear, see, understand or appreciate what something is, then it affects your reaction. After all, we can only react to what we have experienced. 

With stuttering, as a listener you cannot see or appreciate the quality of resilience either, if you do not already know what stuttering actually is. 

Understanding and appreciating the resilience that can come with stuttering is really only possible if people disclose something of their experience, including what is going on inside. The most valuable conversations of any kind always involve some degree of disclosure.

There is, in my opinion, a need and an opportunity for more people like me to engage in valuable conversations with people who stutter, however “obviously” they stutter or not.

For myself, I can say with certainty that such conversations have been nothing short of revelatory. They have taught me so much and I have made new friends with many people who stutter as a result.

I think I had considered how hard giving talks or presentations might be if you stutter.

However, I did not realize how challenging introducing oneself, or speaking in any situation where a specific word or form of words is needed, such as ordering food and drinks, can be. It’s something I’d always taken for granted without giving it any thought.

But what really affected me, was that I’d had no idea that many people who stutter monitor internally what they are about to say on a constant basis, avoiding sounds and situations or switching words that may be easier to say. 

As a linguist, I know from experience how tiring it can be to participate fully in  conversation in another language where you may not have all the necessary words at your disposal for instant use. But generally, in that situation, I’ve found it’s more likely than not I would be praised for “having a go”. 

In contrast, when someone who stutters is internally constantly monitoring their speech, no one else realises the effort involved. Not only that, but others may also make false or negative judgements, consciously or not, about what might come across, for example, like an awkward turn of phrase.

People who don’t stutter often respond in ways that underestimate the impact of stuttering on the person who experiences it. So often I think this is through a lack of understanding, or even of recognition that the person they are listening to has a stutter. And sometimes, those reactions are hurtful, though not usually intentionally.

In short, this is how I realized how much grit, courage and yes,resilience, it takes to deal with the numerous situations that arise in daily life and at work if you stutter.

I’ve found that having got “used to” hearing a wide range of different stuttering voices in conversation, where, so far as I know, people are talking as they are and are not “hiding” that they are a person who stutters, it is then much easier to be a listener and to feel comfortable to ask questions.

But it’s not only “whether” people disclose that they stutter, it’s also “how” that affects how people react. 

And that “how” is also what enabled me to discover,  appreciate and really respect the resilience of many people who stutter. It is all about the way the speaker and the listener truly engage with each other.

The challenge is that most people haven’t had the privileged access to conversations that I have had, and as far as I’m concerned, that is something we can all work on together people who stutter in conversation with people who don’t. It’s a driving factor for me in the exciting work that I am doing with 50 Million Voices and the world of work.  



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Comments

Listening to Resilience – My Journey of Discovery – Helen Carpenter — 17 Comments

  1. Hello Helen,

    Thank you so much for writing this excellent paper. It is very helpful to me to read your perspective of the experience of the person who stutters. It encourages me to continue in my own efforts to disclose my stuttering instead of hiding it, and to look for the opportunities in honest conversation instead of fearing the threats of conversation in which I am trying to hide part of myself for fear of judgement.

    Thank you!
    Hanan

  2. Hello and greetings Hanan,

    That is a joy to hear. Thank YOU for your positive response!

    I know my own reactions have changed, compared with a few years ago, and that has everything to do with honest conversations.

    I think it’s not always easy to understand things that you can’t necessarily see or hear and it’s also only too easy to make false judgements, so we definitely need more honest conversations, not less.

    I completely acknowledge how challenging this may be but it’s precisely why I now see resilience and courage, where perhaps before I wouldn’t have done.

    Let’s keep looking for those opportunities for honest conversations!

    Helen

  3. Hi Helen,

    This is truly a wonderful contribution to the ISAD conference. Your perspective as a listener is hugely valuable. There is always talk about people who stutter need to stutter openly so we can “normalize” stuttering for others. But, as you suggest, listening to stuttering with openness and being fully present is what really normalizes stuttering.

    You have a such brilliant way with words, no doubt because of your linguist background. It was wonderful reading how comfortable you are as a listener. And I have had the added benefit of knowing that “in person” from our many video chats.

    This line in your narrative really resonated with me: “when someone who stutters is internally constantly monitoring their speech, no one else realizes the effort involved.” I recall often feeling like I’ve “fallen off a cliff” when I’ve stuttered and no one even noticed. That feeling of falling may have only been for 6-8 seconds but of course in a stuttered moment, it feels like a lifetime. It is always quite shocking to me that all that goes on in my head and the listener has no idea.

    But you do. You “get it.” You are the epitome of “Ally.” I wish we could clone you. And by the way, your photo of you waving also beautifully illustrates how welcoming you truly are.

    Pam

  4. Hi Pam,

    You’re definitely a wordsmith yourself! I’m so thrilled to know this is how you feel about my contribution…a bit overwhelmed even. I know it is a subject you have thought about a great deal.

    I do think a lot probably happens in that moment of stuttering that is so very different inside the person who experiences it and for the listener. And because the voice (or silence where a listener expects voice to be), doesn’t only convey language, information, mood or message, it’s also social glue, it is a really profound tool. And one that is so often misinterpreted. Most people take it for granted, but people who stutter don’t.

    Navigating difference, and being open to difference are for me part of what it means to be human….and maybe being able to have honest conversations in more than one “language” is really helpful with this. I like the idea of thinking of stuttering as another way of approaching language rather than as something seen as a shortcoming.

    I wouldn’t want to be cloned, Pam, but I think there may be more allies who would “get it” who are also linguists or work in fields related to cultural understanding and difference. Together let’s welcome them in!

    Thank you again for your very generous comments. Proud to have met and learnt from you.

    Helen

  5. Helen thank you for this. You are so right that most people haven’t had the chance to hear the stories to really understand what this all looks like.

    Where can I find out more information about 50 Million Voices? I run our Disabilities Employee Resource Group at SMBC and would love to understand what you are doing with this to see if there is a way we can get our organization involved and our employees.

  6. Kunal,

    Thank YOU! I have just read your excellent paper Start Speaking Today in last year’s online conference https://tinyurl.com/yyfz8vt2 and you’ll also find a paper there Growing through 50 Million Voices, which will give you a bit more background https://tinyurl.com/yygvmr25.

    We’re currently working on a much fuller website to be launched soon, and you can also follow/view us on Twitter @50MillionVoices. I will seek you out on LinkedIn too :-).

    I’m proud to say we’ve heard about and been inspired by your activities at SMBC from Pam Mertz, our 50 Million Voices leader in the US.

    We have set up an online practice interviews event 21-22 October 2020. I should emphasize this is a trial run and we’re keeping it small scale (we’re all volunteers) so we can learn/grow/extend what we do in a way that is manageable! The idea is that this is about various sorts of interviews in work settings….not only job interviews – it could be for promotion panels, or for appraisals for example.

    We are definitely almost at capacity already for interviewers having only just announced this, but please do register your interest as of course we’d love to learn from you too :-). Interviewers are a mix of people who stutter and people who do not, in both cases with experience of being an interviewer. To be an interviewee is only open to people who stutter.

    More information for INTERVIEWERS https://tinyurl.com/yys3bffv
    More information for INTERVIEWEES https://tinyurl.com/y586zlew

    You’ll see from this also how Pam Mertz, whom you surely know, is involved 🙂

    Thank you,again, Kunal, for your interest,

    Helen

  7. Hello Helen,

    Thank you for your testimony full of emotions. It is nice to finally hear your story.
    Your paper is also a gret piece of work to share with people who do not stutter and make them aware of what it is to be part of the stuttering world!*

    Best,
    Mounah

    • Hello Mounah,

      Thank you for this. I’m sure if I had met you in Paris in person you would have heard my story in conversation. But I’m glad I’ve been able to share it here. 🙂

      I have already shared it with a few people who have no connection to the stuttering world…and that has enabled me to have conversations I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I shall continue to do that.

      More than happy for you or others to share it too and feedback is always welcome. At heart I’m just curious about people. I hope we will get the chance to have a conversation in person at some point.

      Best, Helen

  8. Thanks for your insightful paper, Helen. I’ve always wanted to see a paper from people who don’t stutter. Parents and family, friends and teachers, employers and co-workers, and simply listeners, as they play an important role. The more people around us know and understand, the better they can support us, catch us, challenge us and help us to believe in ourselves. It always saddens me when non-PWS want to come to a stuttering event, but don’t feel they belong there. You all do!! Thanks to people like you, I can be me.

    My goal is to join 500millionvoices, but because of health reasons my wants and my needs are not always in sync, but I met Iain and it’s still on my bucket list. With 30 years on the stuttering scene, I have things to add and still things to learn. I’ll be back. 😉

    Stay safe and keep supporting

    Anita

  9. Thank you Anita for your kind words. I love and feel very touched by “Thanks to people like you, I can be me.”

    I completely agree with your comments about people at large who don’t stutter. I’ve got to say that I cannot picture how I would ever have found myself in conversations or settings where I’m more or less the only one who doesn’t stutter (or isn’t otherwise connected to the stuttering community, for example as a speech therapist or through a family member etc), had it not been for my recent work history. But what a privilege it is and it flags up why talking about stuttering so the rest of us have a window into understanding and even realizing what it actually is, is so important.

    I can’t tell you how much I have learnt as a result and what wonderful people I have met. I would love to connect with you in relation to 50 Million Voices, but your health is no 1, so when and how is up to you. In the spirit of your most welcoming message you are most welcome to contact me directly helenjcarpenter@gmail.com.

    Thank you again, stay safe too, and keep doing what you’re doing 🙂

    Helen

  10. Hello again Helen,
    I was so pleased to see your name in the list of papers and think that this piece is so valuable.

    ‘Understanding and appreciating the resilience that can come with stuttering is really only possible if people disclose something of their experience, including what is going on inside. The most valuable conversations of any kind always involve some degree of disclosure.’

    This is very very true and stuck out for me as this is the thing so many people struggle with due to the fear of the reactions of the non stammering person. However with more and more non stammering people voicing these understandings it brings it to a much wider audience and therefore more people gain that wider knowledge, compassion and makes those negative and upsetting reactions less frequent.

    Thanks for a very positive piece and I look forward to following your wrk in 50 Million Voices again.

    Mandy

  11. Well hello there Mandy! (see my photo with a wave)

    Thank you for reading my piece and your positive comments about it. I understand why people may react in unhelpful ways, even if they don’t necessarily realise that’s what they’re doing, and also I understand why people who stutter fear adverse reactions to the way they are speaking. Those reactions happen but they may or may not be interpreted as they were meant! The assumptions both speakers and listeners make can so often be inaccurate. So we all have to be better speakers and better listeners. It would unequivocally make for a better world.

    Anyway, thank you again for taking the time to comment and I hope my contribution through the work of 50 Million Voices can and will continue to further the cause of valuable conversations between people who stutter and people who don’t in the world of work.

    Helen

  12. Thank you Helen for your insightful observations and reflections in your highly readable piece.

    Your thoughtful way and natural interest in all people who speak differently is making tangible difference for people who stutter.

    It’s an absolute pleasure working with you on 50 Million Voices, hearing your perspective as the ‘listener’ and collaborating together with talented stuttering leaders and activists from around the world.

  13. Thank you so much for your generous comments Iain.

    The pleasure is mutual!

    Perhaps mutuality is a good word here for the nature of the best conversations that involve giving, sharing and reciprocity on the side of both speakers and listeners. This is surely where the space to appreciate, enjoy and value difference can be a creative force for good, as I see it.

    Helen

  14. Hi Helen!

    Thank you for posting this wonderful take on stuttering. We don’t often see a piece written from the listener’s perspective, and it is very refreshing to see the connections you made in this piece. I completely agree with one thing in particular- sure, we think about how it might be difficult for someone who stutters to engage in public speaking. Public speaking is extremely daunting for a variety of reasons. What we don’t often think about is something that those of us who don’t stutter consider to be such a small normality in every day life- introducing ourselves. It is interesting to take a step back and think about every day encounters, small and big, and how they affect someone who stutters, especially since every interaction with every person is so different.

    Again, thank you for such a well-written piece! It was truly a pleasure to read this.

  15. Hi Liz,

    Thank you, I was very happy to read your comment, especially as I felt a bit ambivalent about writing this to start with. That’s not because I think a listener’s perspective on stuttering lacks value. On the contrary!
    As I’m not an “expert” in any way in relation to stuttering, I decided the best way was simply to reflect on my own personal experiences.

    I’m glad it seems to have chimed with your own thoughts. Before meeting people who stutter, I had truly not really considered the issue of introducing ourselves and that having to say something “to order” in a specific moment, and particularly an introduction, can be hard.

    It had also never dawned on me just how many people, whether they stutter or not, hate the kind of work or other meetings where people are asked to introduce themselves by name and say a bit about themselves in a short window of time at the beginning. Not only the introduction itself but waiting your turn and what people are feeling and experiencing as they wait.

    Now I understand why, but I really hadn’t thought much about it, if at all. If brought beforehand to the attention of the person facilitating the meeting, there are ways of making it more inclusive for everyone, but I really don’t think many of us are fully aware how this isn’t inclusive to start with, and why, and what a difference it can make if what seem like relatively small changes are made.

    Of course, it isn’t just in work settings. It’s just as you say – it’s all those everyday life encounters. In the end, we all need to step back and question things we may take for granted and not make assumptions.

    Thank you again Liz, for your comment. Much appreciated 🙂

    Helen