Approaching Stuttering Using NLP and Neuro-Semantics
L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.
Bobby G. Bodenhamer, D.Min.
The subjective experience of stuttering occurs as a speech pattern when we begin to say something, but then feels “tied up” and unable to express ourselves in an easy and spontaneous way. Sometimes it feels as if we have two or more competing ideas or feelings fighting for dominance, each interrupting the other. At other times, it feels as if we’re fighting against a state of stress and anxiety. We all experience this from time to time. And yet we do not identify ourselves as “stutterers,” or think of stuttering as a particular problem. Yet others do.
Stuttering, for some people, involves a long established speech habit. For whatever reason, the experience of speaking in a non-fluent way has become one’s very style of speaking. To create this phenomenon, a person has to give lots of attention and mental-and-emotional energy to the non-fluency.
Of course this reveals a meta-level (or meta-state) structure: awareness of non-fluency, dislike and negative evaluation of the non-fluency, defining “self” in terms of this experience (“I am a stutterer”), and trying hard to not speak with non-fluency, in other words, hesitating in the hesitating.
- How can NLP effectively respond to stuttering?
- What patterns, insights, and processes in NLP can we apply to the experience of stuttering that will access the magic of transformation for those who suffer from stuttering?
Exploring the Structure of the Non-Fluency
Typically, the linguistic experience of stuttering involves a person accessing a state of stress and feeling that stress about speaking. This becomes especially true with regard to being put on the spot, pressured to speak, pronouncing a difficult term, presenting an idea that might not be well-accepted, feeling unprepared, etc. This implicates the role that stress plays in the experience of stuttering. This seems especially true when it involves the self-imposed stress of judging that we should not stutter or that stuttering is “bad.” In this, the more stress, the more pronounced the stuttering. In this we recognize a meta-level structure, the more we dislike and negatively judge the stuttering, the more likely the stuttering.
“Stress” here refers to a psychological state wherein we think-and-feel that a situation is threatening, dangerous, or overwhelming. In the representing of these ideas, the automatic nervous system gets cued into the Fight/Flight or General Arousal Syndrome which then activates our whole organism for survival. When we do this, it obviously affects muscle tension, breathing, and other facets of physiology affecting how we use our body, throat, vocal chords, etc. for speaking. This sets the foundation for problems with stuttering.
Yet to become truly proficient at stuttering, something more is needed. Speaking with tension in one’s voice and non-fluently alone does not lock in stuttering as a habit. To do that, we have to go meta and set a frame of judgment that we really “should not” do this. We have to taboo and prohibit non-fluency.
As we outframe our non-fluent talk with judgment, negative evaluation, dislike, self-contempt, embarrassment, etc., we give more and more psychic energy to it. This kind of negating (Command Negation) has a paradoxical effect. It makes things worst. It brings the non-fluency more and more into our mind. We mark it out even more. We punctuate it as an experience and an experience which we do not tolerate. We highlight and solidify the experience. Here we send a demanding order to ourselves:
“Do not stutter… do not hesitate in speaking. … Do not make a fool of yourself by stumbling over your words.”
Now this kind of negating will almost always amplify the very thing we’re trying to make go away. Of course, not all negations work this way. But Command Negations do. In The Structure of Excellence (1999), we have described seven other kinds of negations, some which provide us very effective ways to actually negate things so that they truly go away.
For stuttering, we begin with a state of stress as we define our speaking as dangerous if we do not speak “correctly.” We access a primary state of stress. After that, we layer yet another state of stress about the first state. We stress ourselves that we should not stutter, that it is “bad,” that it shows ourselves as inadequate, etc. In this way, we meta-state ourselves into self-judgment about non-fluency. We make a big deal over the non-fluent talk and punctuate it as something to become very conscious about. Yet, paradoxically, the more we punctuate it, the more self-conscious we become of it. We call “stuttering” into existence in this way.
Stuttering as a Skill and Accomplishment
In working with numerous clients with “stuttering,” Bob says that without exception, in every single person, he has found the anticipatory fear of stuttering precedes the physical act of stuttering in speech.
When I (BB) met Clint, he had problems pronouncing words that started with consonants. With words that started with vowels, he had no problem. With great mental exertion, Clint would plan what he was going to say in order to avoid words that may cause him to stutter. So he constantly, with great mental anguish, thought ahead and planned carefully what he was going to say to avoid the experience of self-conscious stuttering. Talk about a state of painful self-consciousness. Of course, this became a vicious loop. As a result, it created the anxiety and in him, first at the primary level, then at meta-levels as he brought stressful thoughts back onto himself. It all began with a fear the fear of an idea. He feared the idea of standing and reading in front of a class or a group. He feared that he would not be fluent. Therefore he became hyper-vigilant about choosing his words carefully.
He said, “I have to pronounce all of the words ahead of time in my mind as I speak.”
“Clint,” I said, “you really work hard at this!”
“Yes, I do.”
“Can you imagine what it would be like if you used all these energies to focus on the persons you’re speaking to rather than on your own self-consciousness regarding how you are saying it? What would happen if you devoted this much work and energy to that?”
From our experience in working with people who stutter, the anticipatory anxiety itself (a meta-state structure) significantly contributes to causing an actual constriction of the muscles around the larynx. This constriction prohibits the free flow of air through the larynx. The literature on stuttering confirms this.
Because Clint had real problems saying words that began with the letter m, I asked him to say multiple motors motivate us. Each time he repeated this phrase, he would stutter on the first “m” in multiple, yet once he got started, he would flow through the other two “m” words without any problem.
In NLP and Neuro-Semantics we readily recognize this mind-body or neuro-linguistic relationship. As the mind accesses states, attributes meanings, and layers thought upon thought, it evokes various muscular responses the mind-muscle connection.
Knowing this, I (Bob) directed Clint to begin forcing air through his larynx before saying “multiple,” This made a big difference. As air flowed through his throat, he begin speaking the word “multiple.” This time he did so without stuttering. When this happened, I explained that this procedure relaxed the larynx muscles and allowed him to speak without stuttering. I also informed him that before we would finish the session, I had high hopes that we could eliminate the cause of the anxiety and stress so he wouldn’t even have to worry with doing this.
The General Semantics of Stuttering
Wendell Johnson (1946/1989) has an extensive presentation of stuttering from the General Semantics model. In his classic book, People in Quandaries, he speaks about the social construction of stuttering. He spoke about this as our semantic environment in his seventeenth chapter, “The Indians Have No Word for It.”
As a linguist and psychologist who worked with speaking disorders, Johnson described stuttering as having the structure of “hesitating to hesitate,” or “hesitating to speak in a non-fluent” way. This negative meta-state describes a frame of prohibition and rejection over the non-fluent talk. In all of the Native American cultures that Johnson studied, he never found a single case of stuttering.
The only Native Americans that he found who did stutter had been raised in a white culture. There the parents followed their cultural programming and punctuated the experience of not speaking with perfect fluency (the natural state of children learning to speak and adults for that matter!). They marked it out. They anchored it. They set a frame to not speak hesitatingly.
This made the children aware of the non-fluency and invited them to dislike it, try to stop it, condemn it, forbid it, taboo it, etc. This did not occur in the Indian cultures. They never noticed the non-fluency. They attached no significance to its presence and so it did not “exist” for them, it was not “real” in that culture.
This describes the seeming paradoxical nature of installing a meta-frame of negation. To install “Don’t hesitate” over the normal process of talking highlights hesitancy and gets us into a self-consciousness of it. If we then attach pain to this (the psychic pain of embarrassment, inadequacy, mockery, etc.), then we have an energy system that amplifies the effect.
The Structure of Speaking with Ease and Fluency
If we do not stutter and hesitate when we speak, how do we speak? What is the opposite of stuttering?
The opposite is to calmly speak which usually enables us to speak smoothly and gracefully and when we are searching for words, nervous about the impression we’re making, unsure of the content or language of what we want to say we calmly speak in a non-fluent way without making much of a deal about it. The opposite of the behavior of hesitating, blocking, and stuttering is to just speak, to do as in as relaxed manner as possible and to breathe fully as we do so.
What does all of this presuppose? It presupposes that we will be operate from the frames of mind that empower and enable these kinds of states, namely feeling relaxed, calm, at ease with self, un-self-consciousness, etc.
To set these kinds of frames we have to take away the prohibitions, taboos, and inhibitions. We have to take away the dangers and threats that set off the psychological stress. As we set such frames, this gives the diaphragm and the larynx muscles permission just to relax and allow for the free flow of air and speech.
Even earlier, Viktor Frankl addressed this by using “paradoxical injunction.” He would provide instructions for clients to “speak with lots of hesitations,” and to purposefully stutter. This presupposes that we have “the stuttering” rather than the stuttering having us.
The Drop Down Meta-Stating Technique for Stuttering
In the following case study, Bob illustrates how to use the meta-stating process of moving outside of all negative frames and to invite a client to drop down through emotion after emotion until he drops into a Void of Nothingness, and then to drop through that. This depth metaphor essentially lets us drop down through the old frames that created the problem and then to drop into higher level resources. We can then use these meta-frames to apply (or bring to bear upon) to the experience.
Clint, a single young man of 30, had stuttered for years. With a college degree in English, he plans to teach at the college level. He will soon enter graduate school.
I (BB) began the therapeutic process by first meta-modeling the trigger that set off the stuttering. This involved “difficult” words, especially those that began with a consonant. When Clint thought about speaking difficult words, he would say to himself, “Oh, gosh, I’ve got to say this next word,” and then would come the “block.” When he then experienced this “block,” his neck muscles constricted.
As it turned out, the “block” involved a negative kinesthetic in his stomach. He called this feeling “dread.” Interestingly, Clint had already devised a kinesthetic strategy to overcome this. Once he got the feeling of dread, he would do something physical, like flip a pen in his hand. Or, if the block was especially strong, he would slap his knee very hard. By doing something physical, he could then “get the word out.” The physical act relaxed the muscles.
Given this, I had him access a relaxed state. From there I meta-stated him with that resourceful state of calm relaxation. In the process I drew a diagram illustrating the concept of Meta-States, and how they work. With his sharp mind, Clint grasped it immediately.
As he accessed a calm and relaxed state, he said, “With this feeling, the block of that dread feeling has no power to make me stutter.”
I asked about the visual images of his relaxed meta-state. He said it was just above his head in a panoramic fashion. So I next asked Clint, “What happens when you bring that relaxed state to bear on your state of dread?”
“Well, Bob, it would invalidate it.”
We repeated this process a few times and it did make some differences. Yet the resulting testing of Clint’s speaking did not satisfy me. I asked him to repeat the phrase, “Multiple motors motive me.” He stumbled again on the first word. He was pleased about how much it had diminished, but I wanted it to vanish entirely.
So I had him access his kinesthetic of “feeling of dread” which operated as his cue for stuttering. He located the “feeling of dread” in his stomach. Since a negative kinesthetic like this usually responds well to The Drop Down Through TechniqueTime-Lining, 1997), I asked him to drop down through the feeling of dread to the emotion below it. (see
He went immediately into the Void.
I then asked him to drop down through the Nothingness. “And what is out the other side?”
“I can see a pool of water.”
I suggested that he drop into the pool of water. “And now that you have dropped into the pool of water, describe what you feel being present in the pool of water.”
In describe the meaning of that meta-state, he used the words, “free and cool.”
That did it. That was the meta-state resource that he needed. So I kept accessing the state of feeling totally free and cool in him, and as I did, suggesting that he bring those feelings to bear on the feeling of dread that he had about speaking.
“Where is the dread now in the cool pool?”
“It is disappearing, I can see it far off. It is going. I see it above me and it is going away.”
So I prompted, “Let it go away.”
And he did.
I broke state and we began talking about something else. We did, Clint went on for tem or fifteen minutes talking in a very relaxed way. He did not stuttered one time. In our small talk, I spoke to him about NLP and described what the model offers. He kept right on talking without ever stuttering. So I anchored the cool pool and then had him anchor it in so he could recall it at will.
When he left, he knew that he had gained control over the stuttering. For years, he had exerted lots of mental and emotional energy continuously to control it. He now realized that he was free to use his mind for creativity rather than worrying about stuttering.
- Behaviors come out of states. The speech behavior of stuttering similarly arises from certain states and meta-states. As an expression of state dependency, stuttering makes perfect sense and functions as a highly developed skill. But it is not a very useful one. Nor does it enhance life. By transforming the state and by accessing more empowering states and meta-level structures, the experience can change for good.
- Here we have applied neuro-linguistic states and meta-states to stuttering. Additionally, a person could look for limiting beliefs that support the stuttering and transform them into empowering beliefs. A person could use the Swish Pattern to enable the one stuttering to step into “the Me for Whom that is no longer a problem.” Time-lining, collapsing of anchors, and reframing providing some other useful processes.
Did you like this article? Then read From Stuttering to Stability: A Case Study by Linda Rounds with Bob Bodenhamer, D. Min. for another case study of Linda’s overcoming a long term stuttering disability.
Also, Rising Up to Drop-Down Through: The Art of Dropping-Down Through Experiences; Even Stuttering While Rising Higher by Bobby G. Bodenhamer, D. Min. and L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.
Hall, Michael; Bodenhamer, Bobby (1999). The structure of excellence: Unmasking the meta-levels of submodalities. Grand Jct. CO: E.T. Publications.
Johnson, Wendell. (1946/ 1989). People in quandaries: The semantics of personal adjustment. San Francisco, CA: International Society for General Semantics.
Lederer, Debra; Hall, Michael. (1999). Instant relaxation: Stress reduction for work, home, and life. Wales, UK: Crown House Publications.