“Iain, I’m going to be submitting a business case for promotion to manager in June.
I normally stammer on my name which then knocks all my confidence, especially when meeting someone for the first time. Also, my fear of stammering 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 manager.
I’ve never discussed my stammer with anyone at work before but it would be great to talk. Can I book some time in with you soon?”
This email received in January 2015 was a simple but not easy way of inviting me into a conversation about stammering. It led to an authentic, at times emotional and certainly courageous conversation between two people who’d never met before.
For the email’s author, it was the start of a year in which they transformed their working relationship with their stammer and achieved huge personal growth. For myself, it was a privilege to have been invited to play a small part.
These days as Co-Chair of the Employers Stammering Network1 (“ESN”) I’m increasingly hearing about courageous conversations similar to the one I’ve shared above. Perhaps best described as a rising conversational tide across public and private sector organisations, it gives us encouragement that we’re on course to achieve our vision to “Change UK employment culture so everyone who stammers can achieve their full career potential.”
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 sporting success or military engagement? 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 stammer we are indeed revealing our vulnerability. The closer to the heart it is the more powerful and productive the conversation can be for everyone.
As Professor Brené Brown, an acknowledged 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 stammer. 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 interiorised stammers, whose speech typically sounds fluent on the outside, find it so difficult to reveal their hidden dysfluency and feelings of vulnerability 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 our 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 stammer. However, the dialogue with my boss amounted merely to his clipped comment that I needed to develop my facilitation and presentation 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 stammer as he mentored me towards becoming a partner in our firm.
There is no ‘preferred way’ to hold a courageous conversation and there’s an array of courses, multi-step programmes, articles and poetry out there. They range from “straight-talking, take no prisoners” to the “let the spirit take you wherever it will” approaches – it’s whatever works best for you.
Choosing the right conversational partner is choosing the right conversation. 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.
As helpful content and support for these conversations, the ESN website www.stammering.org/esn will soon include a series of case studies featuring employees talking openly about the relationship between their stammer and their work. Whether we stammer or not, much better though to use our own stories, the ones that only we can wholly tell, giving ourselves an open canvas to engage in a truly courageous way.
My invitation to you.
With a UK labour force of over 30 million people5, it’s a long haul journey to achieve the cultural change the ESN is aiming for. However, with over 300,000 UK adults who stammer, our families, friends, therapists and allies in both predictable and surprising places, our home team could very well be a million people strong.
That’s potentially a Million Courageous Conversations!
So my new year invitation to you is to become one of the million people forming our home team and to have at least one Courageous Conversation about stammering this year – a conversation through which, by being a little bit vulnerable, you’ll be amazed by what a difference you can make.
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.
- The Employers Stammering Network is operated by the British Stammering Association. For further information please email either Helen Carpenter at firstname.lastname@example.org or Norbert Lieckfeldt at email@example.com.
- David Whyte, “Consolations. The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words”, Many Rivers Press, 2014
- Brené Brown, “I Thought it was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame”, 2007, Gotham
- Brené Brown, “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love, Parent and Lead”, 2012, Gotham
- Office National Statistics, www.ons.gov.uk