Martyn: “Do you ever read poetry?”
Me : “No. Of course not.”
Martyn: “You might try it sometime. David Whyte1, something like that.”
It had been just a short conversation but, as usual, his intuition was spot on.
I’d been discussing with Martyn Brown, my Executive Coach at Ashridge2, my progress towards becoming more of myself at work, including being more open about my stammer.
But poetry, that was a weird one. I was curious.
Fast forward 5 years and here I am gratefully responding to an invitation from intandem to write about how poetry has helped me to forge a much healthier relationship with my stammer. In last month’s blog post I wrote how the Employers Stammering Network3 is aiming to make it “Totally OK to stammer at work”, whereas this article is shaped more towards my own personal journey.
Over recent years, I’ve used my experience of many years in business to confront a series of questions that I wish I’d known the answers to at the start of my career.
And nowadays, I wonder what advice I’d offer to my younger self if he asked me these questions – and, to help his imagination, what lines of poetry might I even share with him? Here’s how our Q&A session might sound:
Q 1 How much will my stammer restrict my career?
A 1: It may surprise you, because you feel so ashamed when sometimes you can’t even say your own name, but the answer rests almost entirely within your own control. Your stammer can dominate your career or it can be almost completely irrelevant. Truly!
For me the big realisation was that it was within my gift to choose how I saw myself with a stammer – either as someone who’s shame and self-oppression for having a stammer would continue all my life – or as someone who could accept over time that it’s “totally OK for me to stammer – even at work”.
That’s so easy to write, yet it took me years to get here. And one of the steps helping along the way was learning that by living more choice-fully in relation to my stammer, I could influence for better or worse the outcomes for my own career. This point about consciously making difficult choices lies at the heart of the closing lines of Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’:
THE ROAD NOT TAKEN (Extract)4
“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
Q 2 : How will I ever become more comfortable with speaking in public?
A 2: For people who stammer, speaking in public is often a step too far – and we avoid it at all costs.
Throughout my career, my relationship with speaking up has been erratic to say the least! My progress has come from taking calculated risks, some successful and others not – but doing it in my own way for better or worse. Stubborn, you might call it. I prefer to call it courageous!
It’s not been easy at all – but it’s definitely been worth it.
This sometimes unbearably difficult path of making changes in mid-life is a core theme of some of David Whyte’s work, and it’s almost as if ‘Start Close In’ was written with the courageous step of speaking up in public for the first time in mind .
START CLOSE IN (Extract)5
“Start Close in
Don’t take the second step
or the third
start with the first
you don’t want to take.
the pale ground
beneath your feet
way of starting
Q3: How can I cope when I’m having a bad day with my stammer?
A 3: Some days are just difficult stammering days. You’re tired, nervous or slightly out of sorts – that’s life.
And yes, there’s still pressure not to stammer at work and, even though I’ve learnt to rise above it, it can still feel bruising when it’s been a tough stammering day.
Learning self-acceptance, resilience and perspective has been crucial to coping with those days. Like Derek Walcott’s raw realisation in “Love after Love”, it’s meant looking in the mirror and accepting myself. Accepting that my stammer has always been part of me – and not to try to make it a stranger.
LOVE AFTER LOVE (Extract)6
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was yourself.”
Q4: Where can I find advice, support and kindred spirits?
A4: Nowadays there is so much support and friendship out here for people who stammer.
Firstly, I’d point towards the British Stammering Association7 (“BSA”) the national charity for people in the UK who stammer.
And secondly to our Employers Stammering Network, an arm of the BSA, where our goal is simply to make it “Totally OK to Stammer at Work”. Don’t worry, we never discuss poetry, that’s just me!
Both the BSA and ESN offer a spirit of welcome – from people who stammer – that’s warm and genuine. Just visit the BSA Closed Facebook group to get a feel for it.
Which brings me to my final poem, from David Whyte’s recent collection ‘Pilgrim’, which develops the theme of arriving amongst strangers who themselves have walked a similar, searching journey.
seemed to know you even before you gave up
being a shadow on the road and came into the light,
even before you sat down with them,
broke bread and drank wine,
wiped the wind-tears from your eyes:
pilgrim they called you again. Pilgrim.”
Before ending, I have an invitation for you.
Please start a conversation with someone about how it’s “Totally OK to Stammer at Work”. You might choose a friend, a colleague, perhaps your boss.
Every conversation is an important step forward in improving workplace culture towards stammering – and if you’re stuck for how to start, you will surely find inspiration in the opening lines of ‘Start Close In’ above…….
I’m keen to hear how you get on!
Iain Wilkie is a Senior Partner at EY and the Co-Chairman of the Employers Stammering Network (“ESN”). All views and opinions expressed in this article are entirely his own.
1. David Whyte – Poet, author, lecturer. www.davidwhyte.com
2. Martyn Brown – Business Director, Organisational and Executive Development, Ashridge Business School, and Ashridge Programme Leader for EY.
3. Employers Stammering Network is operated by the British Stammering Association (see 6 below). For further information contact please email either firstname.lastname@example.org or Norbert Lieckfeldt at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
4. “The poetry of Robert Frost”, ed Edward Connery Lathem (Jonathan Cape 1967), Random House Ltd, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SW1V 2SA. “Staying Alive”, edited by Neil Astley, 2002, Bloodaxe Books Ltd, Highgreen, Torset, Northumberland, NE48 1RP.
5. David Whyte, “River Flow”, New & Selected poems 1984-2007. Many Rivers Press, P O Box 868, Langley, WA 98260, USA. www.davidwhyte.com © David Whyte.
6. Roger Housden 2003 “Ten poems to change your life”, Hodder & Stoughton, 338 Euston Road, London NW1 3BH, UK. Farrar, Straws and Giroux LLC, Collected Poems of Derek Walcott, 1996. © Derek Walcott.
7. British Stammering Association, 15 Old Ford Road, London E2 9PJ. For information contact www.stammering.org or 020 -8983 1003 or email@example.com.
8. “Pilgrim – poems by David Whyte, 2012”. Many Rivers Press, P O Box 868, Langley, WA 98260, USA. www.davidwhyte.com. © David Whyte 2012.