September 25, 2011

Ch 4. Some More Play

If you have been bouncing joyfully or singing along the activities covered in the last chapter, it would mean that you have courage and stamina to change some of your oldest habits. It would also mean that you can push yourself a little further! In this chapter we will take up a few more issues, which though central to act of talking, have always been taken for granted by all of us: Breathing, pausing between words, looking in to the eyes of the other person and above all listening carefully. Many people believe that LISTENING attentively constitutes more than ninety percent of good communication!
Have you ever had difficulty recalling the name of the person you met the other day? Stood in market scratching your head, trying to recall what you were told to buy? Do you feel breathless whenever you stammer? If yes, read on carefully and PRACTICE these ideas. Yes, you change, not by what you know, but by what you DO- actually do.
There is medical evidence that different types of breathing achieve different physiological goals- for example belly breathing ventilates the lower lobes of the lung and this promotes more efficient exchange of oxygen. There is also proof that when we anticipate stress, we tighten our chest and belly and our respiration becomes shallow, irregular or even ceases completely for short periods. Since we are no more breathing out, we are unable to speak. Some children, on the other hand discover that breathing out might help them during a block. But when they breath out, sometime, lungs get totally emptied and still the phonation (sound) does not begin. Finally, they may be able to whisper just a few words with great difficulty with the little residual air.
It has also been noticed that there is a reverse cycle too: relaxed deep breathing can calm down a PWS and help her/ him gain better conscious control of his speech. Watching one’s own breath can also induce deeper states of inner consciousness, wherein one might see his or her avoidances, fears, habitual responses to anticipated (not real) stress and other emotional/ psychological issues associated with stammering. Over the months or years, it may be possible to heal oneself through this path. The technique of watching one's breath should be learned from a qualified teacher or practitioner of meditation or in a formal Vipassana course. The technique does not require one to believe in any supernatural deity. It only demands that one has faith in one’s own senses, mind and observation.
In practice, it means becoming aware of your breathing at different times of the day; In a traffic jam, were you using the chest (upper? lower?) or the belly muscles to breathe? As you thought of an important deadline, did you tighten your chest and stopped breathing for a few seconds? As you approached a feared word, what happened to your breath? etc.
To develop this awareness:
  1. lie flat on the ground and practice two different kinds of breathing;
  2. Put one hand on chest and the other on navel (belly). You can even use two books instead of your hands.
  3. Now breathe in and out slowly and normally. You will see both the books (on chest and on navel) moving up and down with breath.
  4. Now take a deep inhalation and try to raise the book on your chest vigorously, without moving the book on navel. You will succeed in doing this after couple of attempts: this is chest breathing and useful for strong muscular efforts, like running fast etc. Normal speech should not need such effort.
  5. Now, try the other method: Take a deep breath and try to raise the book on your abdomen as far up as possible- WITHOUT moving the book on chest.
  6. If you practice belly breathing correctly, the hand (or the book) on the chest will be still or will move very little. After a few days, put a thick book (or couple of bricks) across your stomach and try pushing it up, with every inspiration. Later, you may discover the fine difference between breathing from chest and from belly. Now onwards, whenever you notice that your breath is irregular, shallow or stopped, promptly and consciously go into gentle belly breathing- ie. pushing the belly out and letting it fall back on its own.
  7. Another benefit of focusing on your breath is: it brings your mind to the present moment in a blink! Your mind is no more ruminating on the worries of future or regrets of past. You become calm, collected and rooted in the reality of the present moment. Over a period, you may find it very relaxing- to switch your attention to your breath, every now and then, during work, while driving and even while making a presentation!
  8. We dont mean to say that chest breathing is bad or has no role in speech; You may have to fill your chest with lot of air, before you shout out an instruction to a large group in a big auditorium or open field. But for normal conversation, group presentation, interview etc. belly breathing is the best and sufficient.
Now, why do people tend to hold their breath and struggle when they are in a block? Why dont they just relax and let words come out? Impulses from the brain tell us to hold our breath when we are anticipating strong physical effort- like lifting a heavy box. This is done so that chest and abdomen become an airtight chamber, which can act as a fulcrum of a lever. Speaking can never be such an effort.
It is believed that somehow, brain in some circumstances, mistakenly perceives speaking to be such an effort – let us say, during a decisive interview. The impulses traveling down from the brain, therefore, are transmitted to wrong set of nerves and we suddenly find ourselves struggling and straining to speak as if the particular word was a piece of cork stuck in our throat and which could be expelled ONLY by force. Normally one will strain in this fashion (called Valsalva maneuver), only if one was constipated or was picking up a heavy weight. But our brain, due to past experiences, considers speaking to be such a threatening ordeal, that it orders a Valsalva reflex. So instead of talking, we find ourselves straining and struggling in a block. To appreciate this theory by Perry read this ( To appreciate what Valsalva reflex is, do this exercise: Stand up; bend your knees as if sitting in an imaginary chair; Hook your fingers in front of your chest and now try to pull your hands apart. This should generate great muscular effort. While maintaining the high tension in your fingers and hands- try to say your name. It will be very difficult. This is what happens during a stammering block.
The overall, message for you is: train your mind to think of speaking situations as beautiful opportunities (not life & death situations), maintain gentle belly breathing and nip any tendency to STRAIN in the bud, ie. as soon as it surfaces in your consciousness. As soon as you feel an urge to strain - smile, take a deep breath, consciously relax your belly and use gentle onset and a technique you have used consistently and are comfortable with.
Communication is a complex skill. Intellectual and physical, both components of speech require coordination and effort. So, obviously you perform better when you give yourself sufficient time for this effort through frequent pauses. Many of us labor under this false notion that communication means talking non-stop! We think that a silence in a conversation must be an uncomfortable moment for both parties and will be considered a weakness on the part of the speaker. PWS often feel under pressure to prove themselves by talking continuously! Truth is just the other way around. Silence is an essential and natural part of good communication. People who talk non-stop are considered rude and poor conversation partners. Pause should be practiced consciously as meaningful breaks in the flow where:
  1. a clause ends, signified by a comma, colon etc.
  2. a sentence ends, indicated by a full stop.
  3. a new concept or thought is being introduced, often indicated by a hyphen, dash or a new paragraph etc.
  4. a word expressing emotions (exclamation mark!) or question (?).
  5. Ellipses (…) indicating unsaid thoughts.
  6. Brackets [ ] or Parentheses ( ) indicating additional information.
  7. you wish to give a few moments for the information to sink in.
  8. you expect a response (verbal or non-verbal) from your audience.
Listening attentively to your partner is equally important. Many PWS are so caught up in formulating their response that they hardly listen to their partner, leading to confusion and communication failure. The other person gets the impression that you are just not interested in what he or she has to share. Pausing should be unhurried, relaxed and can be used for taking a deep breath, formulating our thoughts and reviewing audience response, especially during a formal presentation.
Such conscious meaningful pauses help a pws by stopping his speech mechanism completely; otherwise it tends to gather momentum and become uncontrollable after a couple of sentences, leading to moments of stuttering or a block eventually.
To practice pausing,
  1. Begin with reading a newspaper or book, with full attention to punctuation as discussed above.
  2. Stop completely and take a deep breath at every punctuation (comma, colon, semi-colon, full stop, hyphen etc.) - and then proceed further.
  3. After regular practice for 2-4 weeks, practice conversation with a friend in a similar fashion: stop and breathe in gently wherever you think a punctuation mark should be, if you were writing it down. During the unhurried pause, maintain the eye contact, smile if appropriate, be aware of the time pressure but do not react to it.
  4. Still later, practice it with a larger group and under different circumstances. While speaking in a formal setting, resist the time pressure. If you have been given only three minutes to present a long report- set up your priorities, leave out all the un- (or not so) important details and present only the most salient information in a relaxed way, interspersed with meaningful pauses. You may preface your presentation with something like this: Since I have just three minutes, I will share the most relevant information with you. To ensure understanding though, you may give handouts at the end.
The most important thing to remember is: during a pause your speech mechanism should really come to a stop and you should be completely relaxed. Your pause should not be like an idling engine on a red light.
Here is a group exercise to develop power to resist time pressure, while speaking: Sit down with some pea-nuts in the center, with members of your self help group. You have to ask a question from the person sitting next to you (what is the color of your shirt? What is the day today? Are you not Rahul? Etc). That member must answer AFTER eating one pea-nut completely and then carry on asking the question from the next person and so on. Whoever forgets to eat the pea-nut before answering is out. Whoever lasts till the end could be titled 'King or Queen of Pausing'. This can be a fun game both for adults and children. (From 'Fifty Activities for the Children who stutter', by Dr Peter Reitzes.)
Eyes- the doorway to the soul of communication
During conversation, whenever we feel uncomfortable or face a difficulty- like having to speak an untruth, or say something uncomplimentary about a colleague, we tend to look away. This is the most common give away sign. PWS do it frequently but unconsciously. There are other signs too: moving restlessly, scratching your head, touching the side of the nose or covering your mouth with the back of your hand under some pretext etc. While these mannerisms do not help in saying the feared word, they do distract the listener. The listener is left wondering about these secondary behaviors rather than focusing on our verbal message.
But can good body language be faked? Yes. Even if you are not feeling very confident, you can convey a positive image by looking into the eyes of the other person, as you normally do - EVEN when you are stammering. In fact, many people find it very difficult to stammer while maintaining a good eye contact with their audience. Even listeners feel communication to be better when the pws does not look away. So, you dont have to wait for a cure before you start looking into people's eyes while talking.
Here is a simple exercise:
Take a small pad and paper in your pocket and go on the road or a park:
  1. Meet strangers and greet them in a happy fashion (Hello, Ram-ram, Hi etc.). Just greet them.
  2. Take the pad out soon after and note down the color of their eyes, eye-brows and other facial characteristics: wearing glasses? Bifocal? Moustache? Big or small? Clean shaven? Bald? Hair dyed? Teeka on forehead? Any head gear? What colour? Etc.
  3. Greet the next person and again make a note.
  4. Do this for ten strangers everyday for some weeks till you become good at recalling color of the eyes and other details (eg. names) of the people you talk to even for a few minutes.
But always remember, eye contact does not mean staring. It is just telling the other person through your eyes that you are okay with your own stammer and that you are listening to him or her very carefully; you are very interested in what they are telling you. So, you dont stare. You move your gaze around in a normal fashion- but keep coming back to their eyes. How to move your eyes around is explained very well by Steven Aitchinson, a life coach:
When breaking the eye contact don’t look down as this might indicate the ending of your part of the conversation. Instead, look up or to the side as if your are remembering something. Try it just now: don’t move your head, and think about the first time you started school. You will notice your eyes might move up or to the side as you try to remember this. So when your listener sees this they will think you are trying to remember something and keep on listening to you. (from
Eye contact is part of overall body language, which can be best studied and improved by frequent video recordings of self (and others) while talking to people- alone or in a group, or talking to someone on phone etc. Review these recordings with a friend and ask yourself: Am I coming through as a genuine person, comfortable with myself and the subject matter? Do I look and sound convincing? Inviting? Open? Aggressive or Caring? approachable? Also, do little role plays or mimicry and video record and analyze it later. Role plays offer fun opportunity to experiment with your body language and improve it.
Read more about body language and how to use it effectively. (
Active Listening Do you remember how your whole body strained to listen to your exam or interview results on a poor phone line? Or your boss telling you about that much deserved increment? Or the last boarding call announcement for your flight? When we are highly interested in the information, our body and mind adopts an attitude, which is called active listening. This attitude can be learned and consciously applied, whenever you want to convey that you are listening and interested. Since listening is almost 90% of communication, you should be using this approach almost all the time! Here is how you practice it:
    1. Face the speaker, maintain eye contact; lean towards him (if appropriate).
    2. Focus on the whole message and its meaning.
    3. Repeat the words mentally as you hear them (it will help in recalling it later).
    4. Take your mind OFF every other distraction (cell-phone, surroundings, what you want to do next etc.)
    5. Dont interrupt or make counter-arguments, even in thoughts. Just listen, as if your life depended on it.
    6. If you think you are getting bored- keep those thoughts under check and consciously GET INTERESTED in what is being said.
    7. Give a nod, or say, “Yes” “Okay” etc. to let the speaker know that you are listening and understanding.
    8. Use other ways to acknowledge: ask intelligent questions; recap or rephrase or summarize what you just heard at appropriate intervals.
    9. Seek clarifications if needed.
Active listening requires a deep level of awareness, ability to pick up one soft word against a noisy background. Also the ability to switch yourself into active listening mode at will. This comes with constant practice and observation. Recall the last time when you were trying to make sense to a bored clerk or an indifferent colleague. They can teach you all the things, which YOU should NOT be doing.
Here is an interactive exercise for a group: Divide in pairs and let everyone tell each other certain basic facts about themselves: name, occupation, zodiac sign, one hobby, education etc. After ten minutes, in a plenary session, let everyone introduce their partners one by one. Let the partner correct wherever needed and keep a simple score for comparison. In the next round, they can share more complex details like birth place, graduation subjects and marks and work experience. Recalling these details later, will require active listening skills.


Er. Umesh 8529982551 said...

Sir,you worked hard to write these long chapters. These are so beautiful step by step procedure that a baby can also follow it. Playing with speech is more easy and entertainment than working with fixed schedule. Thanks for benefited us.

sachin said...

@ Umesh. Thanks a lot. Yes, it was fun trying to put all that I have learned over the years from my own stammering and from others.. And if people enjoy reading it- what more could I ask for!