What to do when communicating with someone who stutters

How can you tell a person you've just met is going to stutter? Well, you can't. You're caught off guard when it happens.

Unknowingly, many well-intentioned people will make a comment that someone who has a stuttering problem just doesn't want to hear. That would be, "Relax!" "Take it easy" or something along those lines.

If only it were that simple. Stuttering, also called stammering, isn't a psychological disorder. It is not caused by anxiety or nervousness. It can, however, worsen when the stutterer feels pressured by hurried listeners. As one stutterer puts it, "The problem isn't that I can't talk fluently, but that you can't listen patiently."

So, what should you do when communicating with someone who stutters? Here are some tips offered by Gan Hui Hui and Robyn Foo, Principal Speech Therapists from the Speech Therapy Department at Singapore General Hospital (SGH), a member of the SingHealth group.

Listen up, because one per cent of the population stutters. You're bound to encounter a stutterer, probably a "he", as four times more males than females have this speech impediment.

1. Let the person finish

Wait patiently and politely for them to continue speaking, at their own time.

Avoid finishing off the person's sentences or words. This can be very frustrating for the person who has a stutter.

2. Maintain the connection

Have appropriate facial expressions and maintain eye contact (don't look away). It shows that you respect them and that you're listening to what they're saying.

3. Don't exclude the stutterer from the conversation

People with a stuttering problem may be slow in expressing their ideas, but you can be sure that they will go straight to the point.

4. Don't make assumptions about the stutterer's intelligence and emotional state

Stutterers are not lower in intelligence. They don't lack confidence, nor are they unsure about what to say. Stuttering is a physical disorder that involves the loss of fine control and coordination of the speech muscles.​

5. Don't make fun of the way the person speaks, for example, by mimicking the stutter

Yes, there are people this rude, and no, it won't lighten up the situation. Some will just burst out laughing out of sheer panic and embarrassment. Just recognise that facing a stutterer can make you confront your own fears of speech failure.

Ref: U11