Why is it so hard to use fluency techniques in real life?
How can you learn to do this?
There are fluency techniques that can help reduce stuttering. You can find guides and exercises for some of these techniques here. These techniques are fairly straightforward to learn and to use in a relaxed environment, for example with a speech therapist. However, it is much more difficult to learn to use these techniques in real life, challenging speaking situations.
This is the experience of many people who stutter. You might learn a fluency technique, e.g. easy onsets or prolonged speech, and have some success in using this when you work with your speech therapist. You then leave the therapy room and try to use this fluency technique in real life situations. You try using the technique when meeting new people or when making a difficult phone call. The technique might work sometimes but often it does not. Eventually you lose faith in this approach and decide that the fluency technique was not helpful after all.
Why is it so difficult to use a fluency technique in those real-life, challenging speaking situations? The process of learning to use a new skill in your daily life is one of the most challenging parts of therapy. Different speaking situations place different processing demands on the brain. Situations like talking with a friendly speech therapist place a relatively low processing demand on the brain and leave lots of processing capacity for using the new fluency technique. On the other hand, learning to use a new technique in a situation with high processing demands, e.g. speaking to a stranger on the telephone, is very challenging as lots of your brain’s resources are being used up doing other things. Trying to use a fluency technique too early, when you have not first practised it in less challenging real life situations, puts too great a processing demand on the brain.
Imagine that you are someone who is not used to running. You decide that you want to run a marathon. What would be the most logical way to achieve this? You find a running coach and first learn to run for just a few minutes with good technique. You build up your stamina and eventually are able to run for a mile. From here you continue to practice and eventually feel able to run for 5 miles. You continue to build up the length of time that your body can run until eventually you are able to run a marathon.
When learning a fluency technique we need to approach things in this same way. It is not enough to go to some therapy sessions and learn a fluency technique with a speech therapist. You must also gradually learn to use this new fluency technique in your real life. The key word here is gradual. To learn a speaking technique with your therapist and then be surprised when it does not immediately work in challenging real life speaking situations is like training to run a few miles and then being surprised when you can’t finish a marathon. You need time and structure to be able to use a fluency technique in those challenging speaking situations.
So how do you learn a fluency technique in a structured way?
Once you are able to use a fluency technique on your own or with a speech therapist, you should practice using it in the least challenging real-life situation you can think of. For example, you might first practice using your fluency technique with a sibling when talking face-to-face. Once you have mastered this then you move on to the next least challenging situation (e.g. using the technique with a close friend) and so on. Only progress to the next speaking situation when you can reliably use the fluency technique in the speaking situation before. You must build a solid foundation for this new speaking behaviour.
Make a list of all the speaking situations in your life. Be specific. Give each a number, with 1 being the easiest, 2 the second easiest and so on. The higher numbers will be the most challenging speaking situations in your life. This is known as a speaking hierarchy. See an example of a speaking hierarchy below:
Speaking with a close friend face-to-face
Speaking with a family member face-to-face
Speaking with a close friend on the telephone
Speaking with a family member on the telephone
Talking to a colleague face-to-face
Talking in a group of 4 or more close friends face-to-face
Talking to a colleague on the telephone
Talking to members of the public while at work
Talking to my manager
Giving a presentation at work
First practise using your technique in the first speaking situation in your hierarchy. You will likely find it easier if you tell the person that you are practising using a new technique, at least in the early stages of the hierarchy. It will take time and regular practice to feel that you can reliably use the fluency technique in these situations. Give it as long as it needs - weeks or even months. We are talking about changing a very firmly embedded behaviour - your speech pattern - and this will naturally take time.
Only move on to the next, slightly more challenging, step in your hierarchy when you feel confident that you can use your fluency technique in the current step. This takes patience and dedication. Do not try to rush this process.
Try to keep your focus only on the speaking task you are currently working on. It will take a lot of focus to use your fluency technique in your current speaking situation. Trying to use a fluency technique in all situations straight away is very unlikely to be successful. If you do sometimes try to use the technique in more challenging speaking tasks, do not be surprised if you are not yet successful. For example, you might try to use your fluency technique to give a presentation but find that you are stuttering more than you expected. This does not mean that the fluency technique does not work – only that you have not worked your way up to practising using fluency technique in that situation just yet. There will be time to work on all these areas in the future! For now, try to master your fluency technique in only the speaking situation that you have selected.
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