Communication is the cornerstone of society, and even in the digital age, speech is still a part of our daily lives and interactions. When someone has trouble speaking clearly, it presents barriers to effective communication, and it can make things awkward for everyone involved.
So how do you figure out the best way to deal with someone with a speech impediment? Well, all people are different. But here’s a set of personal reports from the trenches – nearly twenty-four years of living with a speech impediment have taught me a thing or two. I know I’m hard to understand, and that sometimes I have to work to make people look past my speech impediment and truly hear what I’m saying. Because speech therapy has helped, and my communication skills have improved. But it’s not easy sometimes.
You might wonder what the best (or most politically correct) way to talk to someone is when they stammer or lisp or are just plain hard to make out. What can you do to streamline the process? More importantly, what should you not do? Here are five simple tenets for talking to people with speech impediments.
(1) Remember, it’s only the speech that’s impaired.
There are millions who have trouble speaking without any other disabilities or troubles. While it’s true that speaking problems do sometimes come hand-in-hand with other mental or physical disabilities, often they come all by themselves.
Don’t assume you must speak slowly or use simple language around someone with a speech impediment, any more than you would someone in a wheelchair. Chances are they can hear you just fine, and understand as well. It may just take them a while to get their responses off their tongue.
Stuttering comes with its own subset of concerns; a stutterer may come off as nervous or exceptionally shy. Do not assume this to be true.
(2) Don’t be afraid to ask them to repeat.
People who stutter or fumble with words or just don’t speak clearly are well aware of the problem; don’t worry, you’re not the first person to ask for a repeat. Sometimes I will think I got a sentence out right, but I didn’t. Everyone wants to be heard and understood, so if you didn’t catch what someone with a speech impediment said, let them know so they can make their point. No need for guesswork.
(3) But don’t try other corrections.
It is tempting to play armchair speech therapist and say “slow down” or “take a deep breath”; this does not actually help, and often only makes the person nervous, which aggravates the problem.
(4) Be mindful about the phone.
Verbal communication is augmented by visual communication; the way we stand and gesture says as much as our words. On the telephone, someone with a speech impediment is reduced to their weakest element.
Some people with speech impediments may be self-conscious about use of the phone. For example, a business environment with strangers or clients calling does not appeal to me. If an employee raises these sorts of concerns, take them seriously; you may be able to find a way to facilitate communication. But, again, do not assume; many people with speech impediments enjoy talking and interfacing, even by phone. Indeed, many actively seek out careers and hobbies requiring extensive verbal communication. Why should a speech impediment keep anyone from job satisfaction?
(5) Don’t finish sentences.
Unless you are in a romantic relationship so close that it’s cute when you finish each other’s sentences, someone with a speech impediment would prefer to get the words out on their own. You wouldn’t want someone second-guessing your thoughts.
In short, simply follow the rules of common courtesy. After all, common courtesy is there to make life easier and more pleasant for everyone. Use an open ear and listen to the words and content, not the context, when a speech impediment surfaces, and soon enough the impediment will cause little trouble.
Speech impediments are a great annoyance, but need not prevent anyone from a normal and fulfilling communicative process. Talking to a person with a speech impediment, whether in a business or personal environment, is really no big deal in the end. Don’t feel anxious about talking to us. We’ll talk right back.