In this blog post and video, we'll talk about the role consonants play in stuttering (stammering), how they become the "hard" sounds, and I'll give you some practical exercises how to tackle those hard sounds. I'll show you how to deal with them, and how to make sure they actually become easy.
Are you ready? Let's dive deeper into that!
First, I want you to notice the position of your lips, teeth, tongue, jaws, and face muscles when you pronounce the consonant sounds. Like s, t, k, m, n, p, g, d, l, b, f, h, r.
How much airflow do you feel when you pronounce those sounds? I want you to play with those sounds and explore how it feels. It might feel like a certain stoppage, a certain obstacle.
Let's play with the word "cat." Say the three sounds that form this word separately. The consonants form a certain frame of the word, a certain box, and a certain container for the vowel sound or sounds.
The consonants bear most of the information but take (should take) very little space.
Exercise 1.1. Get straight to the vowel sound
Put your mouth in the "k" position and then say "at." You're not saying "cat" but "at" from the "k" position.
What we do with my students is we say "cat" and "at" this way several times and we guess what the other person means to say. You can also do it alone recording yourself and then listening to your recording trying to notice the difference. You might be amazed at how little difference is there. It sounds like something in between "cat" and "at."
This exercise gives you an indication of how little space consonants actually take. How little space they should take. How little space we want to give them.
Exercise 1.2. From tension to relaxation. Balloon.
Get stuck on "K," repeat it a couple times in this super tense position, and then release this tension saying "at." Notice how it feels on "K" and what happens to the airflow and your body when you get to the vowel sound.
It's like a dam that holds the water back, raises its level and then as you open it you feel the power of the water flow. I call this exercise the "balloon exercise" because it feels like you pump up a balloon and let you let the air out. Let your body drop and relax.
This exercise shows you that consonants are not meant for staying on them. This exercise also proves you that you cannot relax on consonants. Staying on consonants only brings tension. It can be less tension in repetitions, it can more tension in involuntary prolongation, or it can be the highest level of tension in the speech block where the body literally refuses to play this game.
Only vowel sounds can give you the feeling of relaxation.
Now let's play with the phrase "guitar strings." Both "g" in "guitar" and "str" in "strings" might bring some difficulty.
Exercise 2. Connection
Start with the balloon exercise, feel the tension first and then relax to the first vowel sound, and then feel the connected airflow and sounding by connecting the last vowel sound in "guitar" with the vowel sound in "strings." In this case "r" from "guitar" goes to "strings" and becomes "guita-rstings."
It's a lot like singing. Yet, I want you to take notice that singing is not merely about prolongation. Mere prolongation is flat, robotic and monotonous. Singing is simply beautiful. We want to feel the inflections in our speaking. That makes it sound awesome and natural.
Let's play with the same phrase "guitar strings" using the hand technique. I used the hand stuttering technique back in the day in my own speech therapy as a person who stutters. This is the foundation for creating what I call the "training speech," and that's what we do with my students these days. You're pressing with your fingers on the thigh starting with the thumb as I show in the video, and as you do it you feel the alignment with the vowel sounds. This is the basic fundamental exercise to get started.
Exercise 3. Alignment
You clearly pronounce the consonants, but you can notice how they totally get removed from this equation. All you feel is the alignment with the vowel sounds. You go from one vowel sound to the other.
Let's take a longer phrase now which is "Hi! I'm looking for guitar strings for Fender Jaguar."
Exercise 4.1. Stresses
Say the phrase in one airflow engaging your body and landing to the stressed syllables (let's try six stresses). Feeling how you land to the vowel sound each time. Feel how powerful, expressive, and relaxing it is.
Exercise 4.2. Splitting
I want you to notice that "I'm looking" and "for Fender" - both beginnings are very tricky because the first sound is not stressed there and we tend to bypass it in our effort to get to the stressed syllable. That's the situation that I describe as a train arriving at the station and where not all doors open. People rush to the open door creating a bit of a jam. In our case, such situations give ground for more insecurities. For people who stutter, that's an element of the speaking structure where we want to be very intentional. So, feel the first sound, feel the alignment right from the first syllable, get present, and practice acceptance if you would because this way you accept right from the first sound that you're a little different and that's OK!
Exercise 4.3. Hand technique
On the one hand, please don't try to speed up. Great speaking is not about being in a hurry. Don't be afraid to put more substance to your speaking, to make it more powerful and expressive. On the other hand, the training speech is not about slowing down. It's about feeling the alignment.
Notice how we don't stutter on the last consonant. It's not "catttttt," it's "cccccc-at." Why? I want you to think about this question as we're getting in our exercises from one word and phrases to speaking and speaking structure.
We're trying to get through to the vowel sound and the moment it's not happening the way we want panic kicks in and it becomes speech impediment with tension. So, getting through the consonant to the vowel sound is huge. Depending on how you do it speech impediments either become "real stuttering" with anxiety, anticipation, and avoidance (physical and emotional tension), or, if you're able to associate getting through consonants to vowel sounds with relaxation, they become glitches that regular people also have from time to time and they don't even notice them.
The question I get most frequently is, "Andrey, I totally get everything you say, but why? Why I don't stutter alone or I speak way better and easier with my family members or close friends than when I get to new environments, introductions, presentations, interviews, etc. Totally different emotional state, totally different level of stuttering!"
I always say, yeah, that's how stuttering works, it's a rather typical symptom of stuttering (stammering). Our brain "knows" about the insecurity in our speaking structure (even when we don't fully accept and acknowledge it) and it simply refuses to play the game it doesn't like. It already knows the outcome with this insecure structure. It's not going to feel great. That's why anxiety, anticipation and a surge of stuttering.
So, getting to the first vowel sound and relaxing on it is crucial. Feeling connected airflow and alignment in the phrase is crucial. The hand technique is the most elegant and effective tool how to bring that alignment and make it happen. This way you restore the natural structure of your speaking. You feel that consonants in your visual map, in your imagination, and all the anticipation simply disappear. They stop being "hard" or dangerous. You don't go from one difficulty on a consonant to another difficulty on another consonant. All you feel is going from a vowel sound to the vowel sound, from the stressed syllable to another stressed syllable.
The most effective exercise for eliminating the "hard" consonant sounds is feeling the secure structure in your speaking.
The insecure structure leads us to the "hard" consonants. In the structure where I go from tension to tension even vowel sounds can become "hard" because they still bear tension. With the default stuttering structure anxiety is inevitable. And just the opposite, as you go with the right structure anxiety and tension gradually dissolve and disappear. That's the most powerful exercise how to deal with the "hard" consonants.
Restoring the natural structure of your speaking is a very step-by-step process. It doesn't happen overnight. Why? Because it's all about creating speaking experiences. Right now, stuttering is an automated tension, fear of speaking, anxiety. At least, to some extent. So, you want to upload new muscle and emotional memory to your body and to your brain. And I gave you the first steps to get started.
Yet, in most cases, I would say like in 95% cases, we don't go any further. We play with a word, we play with phrases and that's it. We don't actually get to interaction. We don't actually get to speaking on our terms.
Because we don't see the next step. The gap between practice at home with yourself and a real life interaction is a thousand miles. In terms of intensity, pace, energy, emotions. It's a totally different environment, totally different emotional state, totally different speaking conditions. You want to start thinking about how to close this gap. So, I want to give you a couple more practical exercises how you can do that.
Exercise 5.1. Recording
Record yourself in real-life interactions (grocery story, pharmacy, coffee shop, drive-through, phone calls, etc.) By recording yourself you're bringing classroom with you to the real life. You're not just trying to say it fluently, but you start exploring stuttering, speaking and how you feel at the moment of speaking interaction. You'll get tons of food for your practice. See what happens to the pace and to the structure of your speaking. Start observing your speaking as a scientist running tests. And of course, come back to the initial exercises that I gave you, and play with those real-life phrases.
Exercise 5.2. Safe environment
You need to find a place where you can post your practice. It can be a Facebook group, a WhatsApp chat, just any setting that you find safe and comfortable to share with your practices. I run a private group on Facebook called "Free From Stutter." Only members of the group see the posts. It's a great environment for your practice where everyone can relate. Members support and encourage each other. I'm inviting you there. I'm encouraging you to join. You're more than welcome!
By posting your recording or going live in the group you turn your practice into interaction. You're practicing interaction in a safe environment. That's the fundamental exercise that you need. And you want to be doing that consistently.
Exercise 5.3. Blank piece of paper
With this exercise we're making a huge step from playing with phrases to actual speaking using the training speech. You're not reading, you don't have a script to say. You're learning to be present to the situation. You're learning to give yourself time to think. And you start automating your training speech. Speaking is a very automated process so you don't want to be thinking about how to use the training speech. It should happen automatically. And we want to learn that feeling of automated relaxation, power, expression and confidence.
You imagine you're getting on stage and you say just one phrase to introduce the topic you're going to talk about. Like "Hey everyone! I want to talk about books / [any topic]." Then you give yourself some time to think, and then you say the first thing that comes to your mind. It can be one phrase, it can be several phrases. I would suggest staring with just one-two phrases feeling how you get to the first vowel sound, feeling the alignment and the hand technique. The idea is that you don't think in advance. If you had some ideas in advance you simply put them aside and let yourself be present to your thinking NOW and to producing an idea NOW (even seemingly stupid idea in the form of a phrase or two). Give yourself permission to come up with anything! You either record yourself and post your recording in the Free From Stutter Facebook group or you go live in the group.
Exercise 5.4. Public speaking
Go live in the Free From Stutter Facebook group and talk on any topic. Start small - just a few phrases. Don't chase quantity or great ideas. You want to explore the fundamentals of the training speech - how you land to the first sound, how you feel your fingers and alignment, how you feel the stresses, how you split your speaking into pieces, how your speaking is relaxing but still powerful and expressive. Observe your feelings, it's not about fluency, it's about you feel at that moment.
Your initial reaction to public speaking might be, "No, no, no! No way! Not for me!" Well, that is stuttering producing this reaction, not YOU. That fear, that tension that you feel when you think about getting on stage - that's exactly what you want to change.
Performance in front of other people - that's the most important exercise for you.
On the one hand, we're looking for interaction and this is an interaction, and a very emotional one! You're in the spotlight, all attention is yours (something we usually avoid). On the other hand, this is an ideal situation when noone is pushing you. Noone is putting any pressure on you besides YOU yourself. You can take your time, you can think, you can connect. The mic is yours. The audience is yours. You set the terms how you speak. You decide.
You don't need to win anyone's attention (compared to asking directions in the street for example). When you're talking to someone else it brings additional pressure because they have their pace and style, and they subconsciously impose that pace and style on you. So, performance or public speaking environment is a pure and ideal situation. It's you against YOU. There's no one else in this battle.
It's no coincidence that there are so many people who "overcame" stuttering to some extent among performers. Emily Blunt, James Earl Jones, Bruce Willis, Ed Sheeran, Rowan Atkinson are just some of them.
You don't need to prepare and practice at home for years before you get on stage. In the Free From Stutter Program we get to this public speaking experience with my students in week 2. It's a tiny short introduction, just a couple phrases, but you get on stage (in our case we go live in the Free From Stutter Facebook group) and the mic is yours. And we do that every week for the first intensive 8 weeks, every week we go live in the Free From Stutter Facebook group with a little more complex speaking experience. So, you want to get from playing with words and phrases to actual speaking on any topic.
Why do I say that public speaking environment (performance) is the most important exercise for people who stutter? Because first you feel as I said that when you're on stage you set the terms, and then you start realising and actually feeling that in any interaction, no matter if there's time pressure or someone is imposing their pace of style of speaking on you, in any situation (drive through, conversation with your friend, phone call, etc.) there's a moment when you pick the mic and it's your turn. That's the moment where you set the terms, that's the moment where only you decide how you speak at that point.
It can be a role-play like this (and you feel that the mic is yours)
It can be a real-life phone call like this (and you still feel that the mic is yours)
"What if I stutter?" you might ask. Well, you are going to stutter. You are going to fall and feel "Oh I can't handle it!" before you feel great about it and feel "Oh, I can handle it!" Freedom from stuttering is not about not stuttering as you might think and see in your imagination. Freedom from stuttering is about not producing any fear, any tension, any anxiety when or if stuttering happens.
Becoming more active (either in the form of doing the speaking exercises that I showed you, or in the form of showing up and recording yourself) is the ultimate measure of your success. Yet, becoming more active raises a bigger question about your strategy, about what is it that you want: to speak fluently "like everyone else," to stop stuttering (it's so bad! I hate it!), are you looking for stuttering cure, stuttering treatment where someone gives you the magic pill, maybe a magic stuttering technique and a magic breathing exercise, or do you want to enjoy speaking interaction and speak on your terms?
Becoming more active is also your ultimate goal with stuttering. You want to feel that it's not holding you back in life.
There's no way to become active and positive about speaking interaction, to truly enjoy speaking interaction as long as stuttering feels bad and shameful, as long as we're trying to stop stuttering, trying to reduce stuttering, trying to escape it. Speaking still feels dangerous. Our body still generates panic and tension when speaking is not happening the way we want. You want to start visualizing how you can be truly present and enjoy this moment of speaking interaction. "Oh, it's not happening the way I want? No worries! First, it's OK! Second, I know how to make it happen."
This new emotional state of confidence involves disclosure, being open about it. Stuttering is not something that you've done "wrong," it's not something to be ashamed of. Your desire to speak with the flow and feel how the speaking could be relaxing, powerful and expressive it's also something not to be shamed of. Be proud of it. Be proud of yourself. Be proud for yourself. Only this way you can start your personal transformation, the transformation of your relationship with stuttering.
Speaking is a skill. Interaction is a skill. How you feel about it is a skill. You can develop all of that.
Exercise 6. Showing up - imperfect action
As a practical exercise, join the Free From Stutter Facebook group, post a short introduction, be active - leave a comment to someone else's post, show up. Keep a habit-building file or diary or journal where you acknowledge such situations where you were afraid to take action, to show up, to speak, to interact, but you did it! Congratulate yourself on taking imperfect action! The more imperfect your action is the more the achievement! Support and encourage yourself! Be proud of yourself! You don't die. You learn and grow this way.
When stuttering happens it's not the end of the world, but something to observe and to learn from. If you know how to say it you repeat the phrase and say it the way you want. This way you make a switch from the panic the brain instinctually generates "Oh, I can't!" to the confidence that "I can." Which makes a switch from tension and escaping to excitement and joy.
You don't wake up one day and you don't stutter. But you can wake up one day and you feel that you're not afraid of stuttering. Why? 1) You're not ashamed; 2) you know how to feel the confidence in your speaking. It all starts with feeling how you get through the consonants to the vowel sound effortlessly, how it can be relaxing, how you can feel the alignment using your hand technique. So, start with the exercises that I gave you and move forward step by step!
Thank you so much for paying attention! Let me know what consonants are the hardest for you? How do you deal with them? What is the one thing that you liked and that you want to implement from this blog post and video?
If you have any other thoughts or observations, anything that comes to your mind - let me know in the comments!
And I'll see you soon!
If you are a person who stutters,
and you're not quite satisfied with how you feel at the moment of speaking interaction
I invite you to my free training where I share my view on getting free from stuttering.
And for more interaction,
join the Free From Stutter Facebook group.
Please, don't stay isolated! It's crucial to feel you’re part of the community!