Grant Meredith is an academic within the School of Engineering, Information Technology & Physical Sciences at Federation University Australia, speech coach, digital disruptor and social media influencer. He leads the applied Technologies for Empowering People for Participation in Society (TEPPS) research program where he enjoys making “assertive technologies” to empower people (including people who stutter).
Schematics are commonly used within a range of trade and engineering disciplines to assist with planning, management and construction of products, buildings etc. Schematics act as blueprints to assist with structural and functional understanding. They provide a precise interpretation of what they are trying to model and are often very rigid in terms of design and what could change in the future.
What does this have to do with stuttering, resilience and bouncing back, you may ask yourself? The answer is that, as humans we have built our own personal schematics, or commonly termed as “schemas”, to aid our learning of and understanding of the world that we live, breathe and interact within. The difference between a schematic and a schema is that a schema is always changing and evolving as we live and experience. A traditional schematic on the other hand is rigid, set and will only change due to urgent needs.
In simple terms,, think of a schema as a mental framework that helps you to interpret incoming information and store it later for retrieval when required. Over our lifetimes we build a range of schemas covering what we think about ourselves, how we expect people to look and behave socially, our understanding of all “things” that we have encountered, and how we think events will occur into the future. All these schemas have been built over our lifetime as we interact with the world. We constantly adjust existing schemas and also build new ones over time and via experience.
Think of the example of a child learning about fire over time. First, their schema knows that fire is red and flickering, and then, if they get close to the fire, they learn it is warm and their schema adjusts to suit. Then, over time, if they burn their finger one day their schema adjusts and they know that it also can cause pain if touched. Over a lifetime, their schema about fire will adjust to accommodate all that they learn and experience about fire themselves and within different contexts.
No one person shares exactly the same schema about anyone or anything, but we will share some commonalities within our schemas. For example, there would be a globally common schema that cars generally have 4 wheels. Just think about your perception of a close friend within your friendship circle. Each person within your friendship circle will have a common understanding about that friend. Perhaps that he is generally friendly, wears glasses, his place of employment and some of his mannerisms.
But each of your friends, through their personal encounters with that one particular friend, will have different feelings about him and, in turn, a different schema to yours. Perhaps he has not been very ethical in dealings with some of your friends and yet to others his he has always acted in a saintly fashion.
So let’s circle back to what this actually means for a person who stutters. More often than not when I am coaching or advising another person who stutters they tell me about situations that they are currently finding very challenging and are avoiding or have avoided for a very long time. For example, this could range from ordering fast food through a drive-thru restaurant or attending a friend’s party.
They are often fully convinced that their speech is going to be terrible in these situations, that everyone will react negatively to them and in turn everything will go wrong. Each time I ask them why they believe that these things will happen the answer is always because during these situations in the past they have: #1 stuttered and #2 faced negative reactions due to their stuttering. As a result, they have in-built schemas at play mentally predicting how such situations will play out into the future.
In some cases, these people have not faced such situations for many years based upon one impactful experience in their youth. As an example, I have coached a person who had a bad experience ordering a pizza in a store when they were in their late teens and now into their 40’s they have avoided the same situation ever since. They have always expected to have a terrible time in doing so and yet never tested their theory. These past negatives situations have caused a closed mindset to have been built around given schemas and have lived a restricted life as a result.
To help them to overcome this closed mindset to begin with, together we would discuss the past situation in order to unpack and understand what actually happened and how bad it actually was. What were the negative reactions that they remember? Were their perceptions of the event actually valid? What caused them to never face the event again? What was their life situation then?
To address these issues you need to have an open discussion with yourself and understand that the world is not a perfect place. We then start to discuss what has changed for the individual since that event and where they are now in their lives. They, and the world, have moved on since that pivotal event. So next, we start to discuss facing the event again, with speech tools or not, and how we think it will pan out. All the time framing it in a positive and rational fashion. Then, in our own time, we rehearse the event in a controlled fashion.
Over time, the person will play out the event in their mind in order to walk through it over and over in a positive and assertive fashion. But, always reminding themselves that they probably will stutter to some degree and that perhaps some people will react in what they think is a negative fashion. But again this comes down to a reality check. Not everyone reacts “negatively” out of nastiness. Some people may have never spoken to or have witnessed a person who stutters before, and may not instinctively understand what is happening when you stutter. That is not defending their reactions though, but it is helping you to conceive the situation realistically. To help with these issues, for example, you may choose to disclose your stuttering during the event.
Then the individual, commonly with a support group (a friend friend or family member etc), chooses when, where and how they wish to take their newly formed schema of the event into the real world and they know that it is time to start re-engineering their future. This is the bravest step for the person who wants to change their life and often it has been a very long time since they have approached this feared situation. Apprehension and negative feelings will often run inside their head until the point of being metres away from the situation. They often need assurance and courage to take the next step. I have seen so many people who stutter, with a little encouragement and discussion, take that next step, flourish and break firmly established social shackles.
For some, it is not yet the right time, but for most, it is their time. They order the pizza, they ask the pharmacist for advice or they make the phone call that they have been asking others to do for them for years. They know that they may stutter, they know that it will not be the end of the world for them and they then have an adjusted schema of the situation that will assist their confidence into the future.
Even better, is understanding that the one positively adjusted schema can also reshape positively other schemas within others in within their cognitive library. So with a little support and confidence we all can re-engineer our expectations and futures.
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