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I recently got a project at work where I need to regularly talk to a person who is suffering from very bad stuttering. He is very competent and professional at his job, but talking with him is a bit tedious, because he frequently has issues forming a complete sentence.

What are the general do's and dont's when talking to someone who is stuttering? For example, when he has trouble completing a sentence but I think I know what he wants to say, how should I act? Should I wait patiently? Should I complete the sentence for him? Should I interrupt him with my reply? What is the general etiquette for dealing with this very common condition?

My goal is to communicate efficiently with him but without hurting his feelings. But I also don't have a close relation to him, so I think it would be impolite to directly address his condition and ask for his preferences.

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Some stutterers only do so (or stutter worse) when they are nervous, for example around people they don't know as well, or are under pressure.

To directly answer your question, etiquette generally suggests that you do not interrupt people. Someone with a stutter deserves the same respect as anybody else.

Option 1 Get to know the person a bit better, or see if you can communicate verbally in more relaxed, casual environments to see if this makes his stammer any less profound.

Option 2 Communicate via email and see if they prefer this. If they are conscious of their stutter, they might. If you want this to be less deliberate, start off by telling them you'll send something over by email, and then see if they respond to the email in a verbose manner. This might indicate they are more comfortable communicating this way.

If neither of these work, you are going to have to resort to good old-fashioned patience and wait for him to speak. If you've been given this as a project at work I'm sure your boss knows about the stutter, so this is what they expect of you.

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    Everything I've ever read from stutterers has said "please don't interrupt; that only makes things worse". I don't see that as an issue, but I'd also add "please don't make suggestions on how not to stutter" as most people who suffer from this have heard all these suggestions already and tried them. – baldPrussian Jan 17 '18 at 21:56
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I'm a bit of a stutterer/fumbler at times - it can be quite extreme where I just get stuck trying to verbalise a thought, it's as if there is something physically blocking a particular word or phrase on the way to my mouth.

If you are in a conversation and the other person has begun to stutter, the most important thing to do is to be patient - as frustrating as it may be to deal with someone with a verbal stutter, I'm pretty sure it is more frustrating for that person. After all, it feels like our body/brain is simply betraying us in some way.

Stress will generally exacerbate a stutter - interrupting or "suggesting" a word will simply apply more stress on the stutterer - you're presenting them with your frustration, and highlighting something that they're already aware of. In addition, "suggestions" can easily be wrong or misleading, and trying to rectify a mistake simply increases the difficulty even more.

Now, I've developed a couple of coping mechanisms - for example, when I find I've hit a block, it's usually very specific. I'll simply say "words", and that lets the other party know I'm blocked and need a little space in the conversation before continuing - sometimes a slight change in subject before looping back helps.

I'd be hesitant at offering advice to a stutterer, though, unless you have also been through a similar experience - and I would do it in a complete separate conversation later in the day.

So, just be patient.

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    Yeah, one of my best friends at the university was a terrible stutterer. Took loong minutes to get sentences and words out of him, especially if they had t's or p's in them. But he was trustworthy, funny and kind - qualities that trump speed of communication. I once manned up the courage to ask him directly how I should cope with it or if I could help, and his answer was pretty much like yours. He added a bit of self deprecation; avoid asking for something that starts with a "T". Funny thing is that he sang like an opera singer, beutiful voice, no stuttering. That was always awesome. – Stian Yttervik Jan 19 '18 at 9:05
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    I think it's worth adding as a non-stutterer, that communication problems are always two-way. The person listening should also be working to adapt their listening habits, to better accommodate the other person - seeing the person with a stutter as the problem doesn't help improve communication. – Bilkokuya Jan 19 '18 at 10:48
  • I have a question. I understand about how it's counter-productive for the listener to try to supply a specific word. But what if the listener has been listening for a while, and wants to do the usual empathetic active-listener thing? Which often has excellent results with non-stutterers? Should one avoid doing that with a person who stutters? – aparente001 Jan 19 '18 at 14:14
  • @aparente001 the key thing is to listen and not interrupt - so I don't see the harm in active listening per se, but I'm dubious of its effectiveness in general (not just with stutterers) – HorusKol Jan 19 '18 at 23:11
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By asking him questions about him you are actually showing him that you care about him. Which will most likely lead to his liking you more than before. And more importantly the most accurate source of information about how your co-worker would like to be treated is your co-worker.

I would not recommend asking about the stutter in public, at all. That's way to much pressure on the stutterer. It's been my experience that a personal conversation with someone, that expresses compassion and understanding (or at least a desire to understand the other person) generally eases feelings of self consciousness.

You could start a personal conversation "how was your weekend" or "how is your family?" and after a few minutes of small talk ask him

Does it bother you when people finish your sentences?

If he says yes then you no not to finish his sentences if he says no then you know that it's ok to help him out some times.

Make sure to smile through out the conversation and when when the conversation is done to wish him a good day.

I would guess that it is preferable to listen patiently when some one is stuttering. However if the stutter is inhibiting communicative (ie. a 10 second sentence is now taking several minutes) I suspect the person with the stutter will be grateful that you finished the sentence for them. I would be. That said you really need to ask the individual that you are dealing with to make sure you get it right.

  • I do have a little bit of an issue with this. By calling that kind of specific attention to it, you are making it clearer to the stutterer that it is noticeable enough and severe enough that you want to make it a point to want to understand the best way to deal with it. While they might appreciate that, there is often a degree of self-consciousness to exacerbates the problem. I'm saying, more, "see what professionals say, first" more than disagreeing, specifically. I do see the possibility of asking making that person more self-conscious when talking to OP, possibly making it worse. – PoloHoleSet Jan 17 '18 at 15:56
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    You could be right but the fact remains that the only sure way to figure out how the stutterer wants to be treated is to ask him. Everything else is conjecture. – Dan Anderson Jan 17 '18 at 16:00
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    What I'm saying is that if there is a professional consensus that there is a strong possibility that it will make things worse, you don't ask. If asking makes it worse, you can't "unring" that bell. How you treat the person is - exactly the same as everyone else. You sit there, and you listen and don't interrupt until they are done speaking. – PoloHoleSet Jan 17 '18 at 16:23
  • @PoloHoleSet That's interesting do you have a citation? I'd love to read through it. – Dan Anderson Jan 17 '18 at 16:32
  • It's more a first-hand anecdote after the horrible experience of watching a close friend melt-down when presenting her English report in high school. I'll see if I can find something more authoritative than my impressions. – PoloHoleSet Jan 17 '18 at 18:07
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It could be considered condescending or degrading to finish his sentences if it's incorrect, and especially if others do this. If you notice another coworker who does this, maybe mention to him that you noticed they cut him off and ask if it bothers him because you'd like to avoid doing so. He may open up about how to communicate better with him.

Since you're both working on the same project, the context of your conversations revolves around that work. In my work place, I've had clients with voice boxes, or hard of hearing/ stroke affected speech that sounds like stuttering. I know that any client coming in with inquiries is about the programs we offer so using physical and verbal cues helps eliminate or clarify what we're talking about.

Ask a follow-up question to clarify anything you misunderstood. It may help to ask yes or no questions when possible. Someone mentioned emails. After your meetings, you can summarise the meeting (in my work place we do this for record keeping).

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Greetings Interpersonal people. Thought I'd join to add my own perspective to this.

Specifically on the subject of completing the stutterer's sentences: PLEASE DON'T DO THAT.

I've had a bit of a stutter most of my life. It comes and goes, it's no big deal to me these days.

There's no particular reason, cause, trigger as far as I can tell. It's totally random - I can present to a room full of people no problems, and then I'll try to tell a joke to a best friend, and stutter all over the shop...

Back to my point. When people try to complete my sentences:

  • They're trying to help. I totally understand, and have no problem with that.
  • It actually shows they're comfortable with communicating with me. That's OK.
  • Almost without fail, they'll complete my sentence in a way that's not exactly what I was trying so say.

The final point makes it is REALLY frustrating and annoying. Which has the effect of increasing the anxiety of the situation and creating a feedback loop which makes the situation (a.k.a the stuttering) WORSE.

Just be patient. Wait, listen, let us say what we want to say. And it'll improve (a little).

I think trying to speed up the conversation is possibly the worst thing in fact. If I ever talk to another stutterer, my own stutter completely disappears. I've no idea what THAT'S all about, other than it's probably because the pace of the overall conversation is reduced, which gives me the space and time to separate the processing the conversation from the mental effort of working my mouth parts!

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My friend has this and he has made it better for himself. He consciously slows down his speech to phrase things more clearly and we don't ever rush him so he doesn't feel under pressure. He got more confident when he realised he wasn't being hurried and people weren't getting impatient. As long as he takes his time, no one really notices his stutter unless he is very stressed indeed

I would just wait patiently while he gets it out, however long it takes. It sounds like what he knows is valuable and could be worth the wait. Email (above) is a good suggestion but its only a workaround. Hopefully you'll get better at listening to him and he'll get better at speaking more freely when there is no real or imagined pressure.

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Nod a bit while he's talking, then try supplying a word or phrase. Look positive and curious. Raise your eyebrows a bit and look interested. Show that you would like to know if you've guessed correctly (rather than appearing to be making a correction). Ask, "Did I get it right?" Continue with the conversation.

Now comes the important part. Ask:

John, is it okay if I jump in sometimes, like I did just now?

Gradually explore possible accommodations with him. If you like, you can mention some accommodation you've made in your own life or with someone else you know, as a way of experiencing some common ground. Be careful -- this step is just a way of sharing; make sure not to lecture him on how he or the people around him are supposed to behave.

I hope you'll update us to let us know how things are evolving!

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    As someone who is a bit of a stutterer/fumbler - do NOT suggest words or phrases - it is frustrating and ends up making the conversation even harder, especially when you suggest something wrong and we then have to work harder to correct it. – HorusKol Jan 19 '18 at 1:28
  • @HorusKol - I'm so glad you're here. Can you give us some positive guidance? Is there an answer here that's on the right track? If not, I hope you'll write an answer. – aparente001 Jan 19 '18 at 4:19
  • He did, and its worth reading. – bigbadmouse Jan 19 '18 at 9:17
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Second stab at answering this question.

(1) A stutterer named Peter Louw has a list of coping techniques for those interested in conversing with a stutterer:

  • Speak slowly when you are in conversation with a stutterer – if you speak quickly, you put pressure on him to do the same. This could impact negatively on his speech.
  • Don’t speak too loudly. This puts pressure on him to also raise his voice, which will put pressure on his speech system.
  • Don’t look away when he speaks – this may create the perception that you disapprove of his speech. Look at his eyes, not his mouth. Concentrate on WHAT he is saying, not HOW he is saying it.
  • Be patient. If you can show you are not worried about the stutter he will feel more at ease and his speech will tend to improve.
  • Try to avoid direct questions, especially specific questions requiring exact answers such as his name (ie answers which cannot be phrased in another way).
  • Some people long to be helped with a difficult word or sentence, but many – perhaps the majority of people who stutter – prefer to complete the sentence themselves. This issue depends on the individual and the situation. In certain circumstances it may be an act of human kindness to help the stutterer out, for instance where it becomes obvious that a child is completely unable to say a word, where the whole class is laughing and where the child himself is acutely embarrassed because of the block.
  • Give him a turn to speak if he wants to say something in the course of a conversation where many people are present.
  • If he stutters, and you know that he should be using a specific speech technique on which he is working, remind him to use it.

(Editorial comment -- the last bullet point only seems relevant if you are close to the person who stutters.)

(2) For your specific questions:

I don't have a close relation to him, so I think it would be impolite to directly address his condition and ask for his preferences.

I think it's always good to ask preferences. I have a hearing impairment and it is rare but wonderful when others are interested in my preferences.

In fact, I hope you'll share this page with him -- maybe he'll weigh in!

He is very competent and professional at his job, but talking with him is a bit tedious.

Suggestion: try email and typed, live chats.

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