Resilience of People Who Stutter – Kunal Mahajan

About the Author:

Kunal Mahajan has been in the investment banking field for 12 years within the Leveraged Finance industry. He joined SMBC in 2017 and lives in New York City.  As a lifelong person who stutters, Kunal struggled with his stutter until he obtained acceptance of his stutter in July 2017. He attended three intensive stuttering clinics — the Northwest Ohio Stuttering Clinic at the University of Toledo, the Successful Stuttering Management Program at Eastern Washington University, and the Northwest Center for Fluency Disorders at Idaho State University. Kunal championed the establishment of SMBC’s enterprise resource group for people with disabilities and allies, UNIQUE, in June 2019. He is a Co-Chair of this employee resource group and helps to lead many activities through UNIQUE along with the support of SMBC management and more than 70 SMBC employees.

Resilience and bouncing back.  Two critical topics that not only describe the journey of one who stutters, but are also timely topics given the challenges we face today.  We are in the midst of a mental health crisis as people have concerns over the safety of their jobs or have experienced layoffs, concerns of their families as well as their own safety and well-being – all while adapting  to a new life of working from home and some living in isolation.  With so much uncertainty on not only how our stutters will evolve over time but also on the outlook on our own lives in the near term and the long term, all that we can do is embrace what being resilient looks like and bounce back ourselves and to use these lessons to help others.

While I appreciate every person who stutters has a different journey, I want to offer my experience and what I have learned from my time working with people across all kinds of disabilities.  I have been a banker for 12 years now primarily in New York City.  Prior to joining my current employer, SMBC, I was the classic stuttering case that we have all heard about.  I just tried to make it through my career by hiding my stutter, never acknowledging it, and praying that people did not notice it because I did not want my manager to hold it against me, see it as a weakness, or see me in a negative light.  No one ever talked about disabilities at my previous employers, the organization was never advocating for the community, and no one was making any active efforts to recruit people with disabilities, so I assumed that people with disabilities was something that organizations did not want.  

While I always believed society painted people who stutter in a negative light, my mindset towards my stutter and how companies felt about people with disabilities changed when I was able to launch UNIQUE at SMBC,  with our mission to create a more emotionally intelligent culture at the firm and raise the awareness of, provide support, and advocate and recruit people with disabilities.

It was through being resilient and bouncing back that led to my journey to where I am today. Bouncing back is something I have been privileged to see so many of my other colleagues with disabilities achieve too.  

I can point toward three main areas that have helped me embrace resilience with my stutter: taking action, adopting an emotionally intelligent mindset, and advocating for our disability community.

Taking action for a person who stutters.  What does that look like?  It means obsessing on trying to improve what our greatest weaknesses are as people who stutter.  While many of us in the stuttering community believe our greatest weakness is our stutter, the reality is our greatest weaknesses are our communication skills. Communication skills are not about one’s fluency – it is about our ability to connect with others.  That includes having good eye contact, body language, vocal variety, tone / cadence, and understanding how to give a speech with strong speech structure.  It is about being authentic when communicating with others and being confident in what you have to say.  

It is no secret to those within the stuttering community that one of the greatest fears is the interview.  Being possibly judged in a high-pressured interview, most often with an interviewer who has likely not known someone who stutters, is a daunting experience, especially as the interviewer cuts off your words and sentences because you can’t get them out. When we are so focused on whether we are stuttering or not, how strong can our communication skills really be?  When I realized that my own skills needed work, I set out on a mission to take action to improve them.  It first began with attending a weekly Toastmasters meeting – an organization that I joined in 2017 at Columbia University Toastmasters club where I try to give speeches as frequently as possible.  I started off very nervous with subpar speeches. By being resilient, showing up every week, I saw improvement until I felt confident with my speeches and enjoyed giving them.  

This helped me become a volunteer Tour Guide at Carnegie Hall, giving one-hour tours followed by going through the eight-week Dale Carnegie Leadership Program.  I learned key concepts on how to become an effective leader, how to be an effective public speaker, and how to stop worrying and start living.  These efforts led me to the improv world where I took classes at UCB Theater to continue improving my communication skills.  Getting comfortable being on stage and not knowing what is going to happen next, but trusting one only has to remember to speak from the heart is one of the best ways to help improve one’s communication skills.  

While each of these programs has enabled me to continue to improve my communication skills, I learned the hard way that a communication journey is an ongoing process – whether you stutter or not.  We don’t lose our stutter and it will be ever present for most of us without being able to control it. We do have the ability to take focused action to improve our communication skills, irrespective of our stuttering severity.

The second aspect I want to address that helped me is adopting an emotionally intelligent mindset.  What does emotional intelligence even mean?  It’s a topic not emphasized enough in the stuttering or the corporate world – it is the ability to understand your emotions and those of others and to act appropriately in different situations.  Many of us who stutter are emotional people, however, we have closed ourselves off for so many years by trying to hide our true stuttering selves from the outside world due to our fears of judgment.  

We are not alone with this feeling – with research showing that 70% of all disabilities are invisible, this sadly has become the common disability experience.  When I realized how little emotional intelligence I had, I spoke with a mental health therapist with a specific focus on cognitive behavioral therapy.  It started off with seeing this therapist twice a week for seven months, followed by attending two intensive stuttering clinics for one month where I worked all day with a speech therapist and mental health therapist.  It was through these efforts that I broke down my past and began to understand myself.  I realized I had gone through most of my life feeling ashamed of my stutter, leading me to harbor feelings of self-hatred and insecurities about who I was and who I had become.  I spent many years seeking external validation from others, trying to present a certain type of person who I believed they would accept.  I never felt like I was being my true self and was exhausted from trying to be someone I was not.  It is not easy to genuinely accept you do not like who you are and come to grips with that.  

Many of us in the stuttering community share this experience.  Acceptance is often the most difficult thing for anyone with a disability to do, but when we do find that we are able to accept ourselves, that is when the most growth is achieved. We start to embrace ourselves.  We are able to set new goals to keep growing and improving while being authentic.  I have continued to see a therapist regularly to help me process my emotions and it has been through this work  I have been able to accept myself and find that great sense of self love that is so difficult to find for those who stutter and others with disabilities.  I have learned that understanding my mind, feelings, emotions, and understanding others is the key component of human connection — critical to developing happiness in our lives.  

SMBC has designed its UNIQUE employee resource group to center around this topic of emotional intelligence and ensuring that its employees are taking care of our mental well-being.  By doing so, I have seen more people with disabilities accept themselves in one year than I have ever seen before and more of my colleagues open up and share their stories and feelings with each other so we can all come together to develop that strong connection.

The final aspect of the resilience of my stutter has come from advocating for the disability community.  In my personal view, the #1 challenge people who stutter and others with disabilities face is the high unemployment rate due to stigmas / stereotypes in some workplaces where there may be limited awareness of disabilities and how to best provide support for people with different kinds of disabilities.  I remember the many interviews and job opportunities that I have been rejected due to someone perceiving my stutter as nerves / thinking I would not be a good fit due to my stutter.  I’ve had to bounce back from those experiences and have become proud of my stuttering because I have realized I can help others with disabilities to accept their disability and show them that organizations can accept them.  It is unfortunate to me that society and corporations do not place enough emphasis on increasing the hiring of people with disabilities as I know how incredible these people are. Those of us within the stuttering community can do our part to help encourage our employers and our networks to increase the hiring of people with disabilities because we know how much value we can bring to them.  The education of stuttering and disabilities is a never-ending journey and there will always be countless people with disabilities in need of support and someone to advocate for them to help them obtain employment.  Through dedication and resilience, we can continue to advocate for these communities to help increase their likelihood of gaining meaningful employment so they can live a rewarding life and profession.  Each one of us can help educate our employers on stuttering and other disabilities to help build a more equal society and enable every person to succeed irrespective of their differences.                       

Stuttering is something we will all continue to manage and learn to accept.  The resilience we have is what can make many of us proud of who we are today.  Through taking action, developing an emotionally intelligent mindset, and advocating for our stuttering and disability communities, many of us have the ability to become more resilient and can use our ability to be resilient to improve ourselves and impact others to make the world a better place.

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Comments

Resilience of People Who Stutter – Kunal Mahajan — 22 Comments

    • Hi Kunal,
      Amazing deeper look towards the communication is been mirroring in your article.Its express inner stages which is majority of people unnoticed when it’s comes to impact of failure of communication which can be overcome with little help.Heartly congratulations to your achievements and best of luck for your future.

      • Thank you for your comments and you are exactly right, it is so profound when you start to really analyze what are the components of “good communication” and then it enables you to start taking the steps to focus on each of those individual items which we can all see improvement in and is frankly something that everyone needs to some development in!

  1. Hi Kunal,
    What a great, insightful paper where you illustrate the challenges we who stutter face, with both personal stigma and public stigma. I like how you share some of these challenges, but more importantly, you offer specific action steps that you took, and that maybe others can aspire towards.

    What resonated most with me was how you tackled emotional intelligence, and gave it the importance that is needed with EQ. I applaud you for sharing that you began seeing a mental health therapist and did so twice a week for 7 months. That alone shows how important you felt this was for your life. It is also important for successful people to hear that it is OK to seek out mental health therapy. I think that still carries a stigma in that people worry that they will be judged or viewed as emotionally less than and they don’t want that about themselves found out. So now there is two potential things to be concealed – that we stutter and that we are seeking mental health support.

    Congratulations on being self confident enough to share the journey you have taken to grow and reach new heights. My question: is their an end to your journey, or will Kunal continue to be a “work in progress?” That’s often how I think of myself, so I am always curious about the steps that highly successful people take to better themselves.

    Thanks again for such a great contribution.

    Pam

    • Thank you for the compliments Pam and the questions. Yes Emotional Intelligence is such a critical aspect in so many respects: happiness, leadership, understanding ourselves, etc. the list goes on. I completely agree with your comments about mental health therapy as it is just an additional resource to help us deal with our thoughts and mind so when people think there is a negative stigma behind it, that comes from lack of knowledge.

      There is never a end to the journey and it will always be a growth process. It is so important to develop both that sense of self love while continuing to have a growth mindset because it is about the journey and growth that we experience that makes our lives enjoyable and so worthwhile. The day I stop feeling that way will be the day that I feel like there is nothing left to live for on this earth.

      • Hi Kunal, thank you for an excellent insightful paper. How you have approached life makes perfect sense. However being a breadwinner, father and husband I’m not sure I would have been able to have the time to do something similar. Mental health has been a major part of my life and still is, not for me but with close family. Ironically if I had not been so wrapped up in such activities in recent months I may well have aimed to have contributed to the conference. Your paper and some others have reminded me at 76 just how resilient I’ve been and I thank you for that.

        • Thanks for the comments John. Yes for me it has been all about asking myself “what my why is” and “what kind of standards do I have for myself”? Once you are able to determine what those things are, finding the time to commit to these activities ends up naturally happening because it becomes a priority.

          For me, realizing that having a growth mindset combined with continuing to develop these feelings of self-love is the ultimate key to develop happiness in my life and the above programs was what really helped me achieve that.

          I agree I think if we all look within ourselves and our lives, there is no shortage of times when we have demonstrated our resilience that we should all be proud about

  2. My friend,

    “…I can point toward three main areas that have helped me embrace resilience with my stutter: taking action, adopting an emotionally intelligent mindset, and advocating for our disability community.”

    Right on bro!

    I’ve noticed that the more I speak, act, and help others, the more I heal; the more I move forward. I share your above beliefs 100%.

    You are a champion; a giant; a role model. Some make local change; you, my friend, will and are making GLOBAL change! Thank you for all you do!

    • Exactly, it is such a crazy phenomenon that the more we help others, the more we actually benefit through our feelings of confidence and meaning / purpose.

      Thank you Tom for the kind words. However, as you know, the work never stops and the white space to impact the stuttering and overall disability community is so huge so I am excited to continue on this journey to see what we can all do by coming together to help others. When you are able to see that others are struggling and just need some support to have a different experience with their stutter, it makes the process of why you want to give be such a simple question to answer as we can see how much we can help change people’s lives by getting engaged in this advocacy journey.

  3. Thank you Kunal…I enjoyed reading this and for me, so many points you make that are spot on and relatable whether you stutter or not.

    I am absolutely with you on working to create more emotionally intelligent cultures in work environments and the positive impact that can have.

    And I just have to quote back to you this, which I think is so key:

    “While many of us in the stuttering community believe our greatest weakness is our stutter, the reality is our greatest weaknesses are our communication skills. Communication skills are not about one’s fluency – it is about our ability to connect with others. That includes having good eye contact, body language, vocal variety, tone / cadence, and understanding how to give a speech with strong speech structure. It is about being authentic when communicating with others and being confident in what you have to say.”

    This applies to everyone…so many people who do not stutter do not communicate in the authentic way you describe above and meaningful connection isn’t made.

    When it’s there it can really shape our own journeys and those of others in a positive way. I too have worked in the past as a tour guide (in Avignon in the south of France), and learnt by doing, though it was quite scary at the time -about 100 people turned up on the first day, when I’d expected more like 10-20! – but that’s a different story!

    Thanks again,

    Helen

    • Thanks Helen you are so right! It is amazing how much working on communication skills benefits everyone and I found that by doing so, it removes playing the “victim” card as improving communication skills is something that we can all work on.

      Focusing on taking action on what we can control is the key to all growth for us as humans!

  4. Hello, Kunal, thank you for sharing your story and your insights about communication. Your line about the reality being the greatest weaknesses of people who stutter are our communication skills and that communication skills are about our ability to connect with others really resonated with me as a National Stuttering Association chapter leader. I completely agree with you, and that these are skills that we can continue to work on throughout our lives. You may not remember me, but I do remember briefly meeting you at the 2019 NSA Conference and you saw from my name badge that I was a chapter leader. I really enjoyed reading your paper here and I hope that I may again see you in person one day.

    • Thanks Lisa and yes this idea of developing human connection with each other through our communication skills is that I believe we underestimate how critical this is on multiple levels of our lives.

      Yes this will be a life long journey but I believe that is ok as its all about the journey, not the destination, that we should be focused on embracing as that is what life is all about!

      • Hello Kunal wow thank you for all you are doing. I could identify with lots of what you shared, and I learned new things as well. Because I could relate to so much of what you said. I hope it is ok to ask you this question which I am often not brave enough to ask. My question is when you talked about society viewing a stutter in a negavitive way, .Do you think if when growing up and I know it is different now days which I always love to see.But in my day negativity sometimes came from family members, and i wonder if this is why as a child and young person and adult that self esteem was very low.Thanks

        • Thank you for reading this Phyllis. Yes I think my parents contributed to some of my low self-esteem and confidence because of their desire “to help me stop stuttering”. A lot of this mindset comes from a lack of education as a lot of the speech therapy I went through growing up was based on utilizing speech strategies vs. the acceptance aspect and I think parents just respond to the guidance they are being given by the speech therapist.

          These tools like the delayed auditory feedback device gives a little child a mixed message because it helps so much in controlling your speech which to me meant to strive for fluency at the time and whenever I was stuttering it felt like a failure which to me made me feel like I was failing everyday.

          That is why I think always leading with the acceptance mindset while focusing on improving general communication skills is the best way to achieve long term happiness and success with ones stutter.

  5. Hello Kunal

    Thank you very much for an insightful and extremely helpful paper.

    Hanan

  6. Hello Kunal,
    My name is Carson and I am studying speech pathology at the University of Akron. I found you story amazing and very moving. It is amazing how when you embraced you stuttering, you did not just stop there, you shared the skills you learned with others to help them accept their own disabilities. I enjoyed the information you shared on emotional intelligence. In my own life I have began to realize much of an importance emotional intelligence holds. In your experience with sharing emotional intelligence with others, do you find that it is easier for people with disabilities to develop that skill than for people without disabilities? Thank you for your time.

    • Carson thank you for reaching out to me and your comments. Yes Emotional Intelligence is such a critical leadership skill but also in helping one achieve happiness in life in general. Absolutely the Disability Community is able to embrace this Emotional Intelligence concept much easier because so much of emotional intelligence is about leading with empathy, being more vulnerable, having an understanding of different perspectives which are all things that people with disabilities are able to do embrace much easier because they have lived a full life time of being seen as “different” and they appreciate others who face that similar challenge as them.

      That appreciation is what drives the desire to continue to build this emotional intelligence skillset which is why I think everyone has so much to learn from the disability community. Having that realization has been such a mindset shift for me to see how much value I can bring to any organization and impact I can have on anyone in general as well.

      I will talk a lot more about this at our event on Thursday if you can make it on Stuttering In Corporate America — registration details are below if you can make it!

      https://zoom.us/meeting/register/tJwkceGhqTwsG9PgmJW28S7Hye42WHgdusgv

  7. I love both of these related quotes:

    “…trusting one only has to remember to speak from the heart is one of the best ways to help improve one’s communication skills.”
    “I never felt like I was being my true self and was exhausted from trying to be someone I was not.”

    The determination to be ourselves is so incredibly important to unlock our happiness, and our potential.

  8. What an amazing journey! And yes, EQ, communication skills, believing in yourself, these are such important skills that are so much more important that disfluencies. May your story give the confidence to other to fulfill their dreams.

    Stay safe and keep talking

    Anita

  9. Indeed it makes life so much easier when you realize you just need to tell the truth and be authentic with others and yourself and it is such a freeing feeling.

    Yes it is the key to ultimate happiness which I think is something we all are searching for at the end of the day