Speech and language therapist reports on Belfast McGuire course

Elizabeth McBarnet, a Speech & Language Therapist in Northern Ireland recently attended one of our courses as an observer - and this is her report.

As an independent Speech and Language Therapist, I wanted to find out more about stammering, and whether I had anything to offer those people who call my clinic for help. When I contacted Joe O’Donnell, he welcomed me to attend the Belfast McGuire course, October 2007. I participated and observed for 32 hours out of the 45 or so, spread over 3 days and one evening.

There are many different models and theories for the treatment of stammering. I used to favour the idea that stammering was all to do with your perception of what people thought of you when stammering, and the emphasis had to be on the psychological side.

What I learned from the McGuire Programme is that there is no way you can combat the debilitating fear of stammering, speaking in public, or to strangers, simply by changing your perceptions. You need tools which help you to believe that you can control the uncontrollable blocks, repetitions and ‘tricks’ used to try and force the words out. These tools include learning how to breathe effectively using the costal diaphragm (the sudden and exaggerated costal breathing taught by the McGuire Programme differs from the slow, controlled diaphragmatic breathing which I teach, and I wonder how easy it is for teenagers at school to demonstrate this new pattern of breathing.

I can, however, see that this is an important tool). Students are taught to speak at the top of the breath instead of trying to speak from empty lungs. They also learn how to use ‘block release’, that is, how to let the tension go and speak when they’re ready. The list of techniques is much longer than this. Once a person is relieved of the fear and tension caused by stammering, they can re-evaluate the reasons for this fear, and ‘redraw’ their perceptions of themselves and others.

The ‘mechanical speech’ which is learned on the programme serves as a building block, upon which to add confidence, assertive speech and self esteem. All this can take years, but there is lifelong support from other members of the programme.

Much time on the course is spent examining the psychological nature of stammering, and how to change the downward spiral of fear and avoidance into an upward one of positive thinking, building on successful experiences.

If stammering is ‘the fear of being perceived as a person who stammers’, then the thing to do is to blow that fear to pieces by stammering deliberately. Once people know you stammer, they will accept you for who you are, and there is nothing to cover up. The course tutors worked on this concept until, on the last day of the course, the students bravely gave this a go, and the resulting drop in their fear levels was dramatic. ‘Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway’ (Susan Jeffers).

Now, Joe O’Donnell is a thoughtful and considerate man, and did not want me to feel left out. So he set me a challenge: to order a meal in a restaurant and to block severely on every single word. I had to keep eye contact with my listener, and feed back to the group about how it felt. I did not have to face this ordeal alone, as two graduates kindly volunteered to accompany me on my torture mission. (I was suspicious of the gleeful look on the tall one’s face). So I blocked on every word of, ‘can I have the chicken cordon bleu please’, except I didn’t get as far as the ‘….bleu please..’ because the waitress filled in the rest for me. Yes, I experienced stress, a pain in my chest, flushed face and sweaty everything. Maintaining eye contact throughout my silences was difficult. My overwhelming worry was for my listener, as I was exposing her to an uncomfortable situation. When I related this to the group, Joe said, ‘magnify that feeling 100 times, 100 times a day, and that’s what it feels like to be a stammerer’.

My companion asked me, ‘is there any speaking situation which you fear?’ My reply was, ‘All of them.. just because I am a fluent speaker does not mean I never feel fear’.

.. just because I am a fluent speaker does not mean I never feel fear

On the last day of the course, the challenge was to stand on a soap box and speak outside Castle Court shopping centre, Belfast, in front of a crowd of strangers. The students conquered their greatest fear and made a speech. I felt I should push my own boundaries, so when I stood up to speak, I forced myself to pause far, far longer than I was comfortable with before speaking. It felt weird, unnatural, but I noticed that I did not lose the respect of my audience at all. Since then, I have made an effort to use more………………………..pauses. I have used the mantra, ‘Resist Time Pressure’ in my personal and professional life.

I heard the stories of many people over the three days. Each mealtime, I would hang back as new students and the graduates went out in pairs for meals or street work. Every time, I was approached by a different person, inviting me to join them. Speaking to these people and joining in the graduate workshops helped me go a little way towards understanding ‘the mindset of the stammerer’.

The big, tough bouncer guy (or door supervisor as he corrected me) told me that he had covered up his stammer all his life, and had just admitted as such to his family. He told me about the lengths he would go to, to avoid reading aloud at school. He used to count the paragraphs and position himself accordingly, so by the time it was his turn, there was nothing left to read. He would far rather be sent out of class for bad behaviour than read out loud. On the last night of the course, he openly stated that he was a covert stammerer, and read a passage, to 60 people, for the first time.

The hard part of recovery from stammering is after the course, when the initial euphoria of discovering how to control your stammer has faded. I was impressed by the intensive follow up support offered by the huge network of experienced coaches and graduates of the course.

Dave McGuire explained to me that he treats his students as well people; athletes training for a challenge.

The hours on the course are long, but Dave McGuire explained to me that he treats his students as well people; athletes training for a challenge. The McGuire Programme does not offer a cure for stammering: it differentiates between fluent speech and eloquent speech. The greatest stress in our lives is often caused by the feeling of not being in control. By stripping away their fear, people can say, ‘Now my stammer no longer controls me’.

Elizabeth McBarnet BSc (Hons) CertMRCSLT, MASLTIP
Lismenary Speech and Language Clinic

Thanks to Joe O’Donnell and Brendan O’Carroll, the course organisers, and to the students and graduates of the course who made me feel so welcome.