Can hypnotherapy assist people who block and stammer (PWS)?

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  • Can hypnotherapy assist people who block and stammer (PWS)?
  • Why is it that most PWS speak consistently fluent in some situations such as when alone, when speaking to a pet or when speaking to people with whom they experience comfort and safety in their presence; but, in other contexts they block and stammer regularly?
  • Is a speech problem that is context dependent a physical problem or a cognitive problem?
  • Why is it that when the PWS blocks and stammers there is always fear and/ or anxiety present but when they are fluent, fear and anxiety are absent?
  • Is hypnotherapy effective with people suffering from fear and anxiety disorders?

Stammering is not primarily a physiological problem. Many speech pathologists have been taught that stammering is physical both in nature and causation. My work in applying the modeling tools of Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Neuro-Semantics with people who stammer quite clearly demonstrates something different. Although stammering may have started with some neuro-motor dysfunction in early childhood, the fact that most people who stammer can speak fluently consistently in some contexts but not others indicate clearly that cognition plays a major role in the ongoing stammer. Indeed, I propose that blocking and stammering are just a form of a panic attack expressed in the muscles controlling breathing and speaking. And, as such, proper treatment for stammering should address cognition much more than physiology.

Therefore, if you are a hypnotherapy clinician and are very good at assisting people who suffer from deep seated (very well learned) fear and anxiety disorders, then you more than likely will be effective in assisting PWS in overcoming their stammering and in gaining more normal fluency.

My Story

I did not plan to work with people who block and stammer. Indeed, it happened quite by accident. I have been working in Neuro-Linguistic Programmer (NLP) since 1990. In 1996 my colleague, L. Michael Hall, Ph.D., and I started developing a model called Neuro-Semantics (NS).  Our work in this model came out of our experience in NLP and is an advancement of that model. As an NLP/NS practitioner, I have worked with hundreds of clients covering approximately three thousand hours of therapy. Working with fears, anxiety and phobias have been a major component of my work.

Some years ago, a sales seminar participant asked me if I could help people who stammer.  I told him that I didn’t know but I sure would be glad to give it a try. His son, a 25 or 26 year old came in for a two hour session. After one hour’s work we discovered that behind his blocking and stammering were some fears of speaking that rooted in childhood. Once he realized that he was mentally causing the stammer , he thanked me, paid me and left.  Though we had two hours scheduled, we finished in one hour.  As far as I know, he gained complete fluency. The key for him was his understanding that he was mentally causing the stammering and it wasn’t something physical and out of his control.

Excited about the results, I wrote up a case study of the therapy and sent it to Michael. He utilized his expertise and expanded the case study into an article entitled “Meta-Stating Stuttering” that I posted on the web site:

After posting the article, a friend of mind that I had worked with early in my practice contacted me. He had a stutter that we worked on years earlier but it hadn’t helped. After reading the article he called me and asked me if I had learned some new things. I told him that I sure had and for him to come on in. He came for a one hour session.  I saw him six months later and asked him how he was doing with the stuttering. He paused briefly and replied, “I guess I have forgotten to stutter.”  “Well,” I said, “That sure is a great thing to forget to do.

Needless to say, I was quite elated with the outcome. Then, in the spring of 2002, the breakthrough came. Linda Rounds of Indiana e-mailed me. In her search to overcome her stammering, she had read a work by Anthony Robbins at the recommendation of John Harrison. From Anthony Robbins she learned about NLP. She searched for NLP books and found mind and Michael’s book, The User’s Manual for the Brain.  From that work she obtained my email address and emailed me asking me if I could assist her.  In just a few therapy sessions on the phone and some emails, Linda gained complete fluency. Wow, was I ever excited. It has been 2.5 years now and Linda is still fluent.

Linda and I wrote an article entitled “From Stuttering to Stability: A Case Study.”  John Harrison published the article in the National Stuttering Association newsletter, Letting Go and I posted it on our web site at:

Read that article as it will give you an idea of how I use hypnotic language in walking a person through NLP and Neuro-Semantic patterns.  This article really got a lot of attention. Since then I have worked with several people who block and stammer. One of the people that I assisted to fluency was Tim Mackesey, SLP.  Can you imagine the excitement I had in being able to assist a speech pathologist who had blocked and stuttered most of his life to fluency?  I was elated. Tim integrates NLP heavily into his therapy with all clients needing to change cognitive and affective issues related to their stuttering. Tim’s office is near Atlanta Georgia. His web site is:

Let me say up front, all have not attained fluency but many have. Importantly, out of all the people I have worked with, I have total confidence that ultimately all of them have the capacity to eventually attain fluency. This will necessitate their continuing working on their thinking.

Traditional Beliefs/Treatments for PWS

In the US especially, the common mode of treatment for PWS has been directed at the physiological aspects of stammering. Indeed, the Speech Language Pathologists (SLP) have been taught to assist the PWS in the formation of words, in breathing techniques, in avoiding certain words the PWS blocks on and in using substitute words for those words blocked on.

The belief among speech pathologists is that stammering is a physical and not a psychological problem.  In 2003 I spoke at an annual meeting of the National Stuttering Association (US) in Nashville, Tennessee. After I delivered my presentation that primarily asked why it is that PWS are fluent sometimes but not other times and as such; their problem was psychological in nature and therefore required psychological intervention for resolution, I received several angry responses from audience members. One speech pathologist stood up during the questioning time and with great intensity stated, “Everyone knows that the psychological theory for stammering was proven incorrect twenty years ago.”  Fortunately not all speech pathologists are taking that viewpoint and are asking themselves some serious questions about the origin of stammering.

Now, if you believe that stammering is a physiological problem, then that is exactly how you will treat it.  The sad part about this is that thousands of people who have grown up with this debilitating problem are confined to spend their lives with no hope of ever speaking normally. As you listen to their stories, you heart will break and traditional therapy provides them with little hope of being “normal.”

To me, normal speech is when you converse with someone but the “how” of your talking is not even in your mind. You are totally focused on the content of what you are saying and the person with whom you are speaking. Indeed, this is the goal of the hypnotherapist – to lead the PWS to the point that they are never concerned about “how” they are talking.  When they get to that point, they are fluent.

How Blocking Begins – Marking Out Dis-fluent Speech as Stammering

In working with people who block, I have discovered that usually the first thing the person does is to mentally mark out some childhood dis-fluency as “blocking” and/or “stammering.” This, in itself, is no problem. It is when the person comes to believe that blocking is something “bad” and to be feared that the problem begins to be perpetuated.

At the onset of the blocking, the person experiencing difficulty will punctuate dis-fluency as something bad.  Subsequent repetitions of punctuating difficulties as bad, makes the learning deeper until it gets grooved “into the muscles.”

When I say “grooved” into one’s muscles, or it is “in the muscles,” I am referring to the ability of our mind-body system to learn something unconsciously. Our nervous system is located throughout our body.  We have nerves “everywhere.” We believe that learnings literally become embodied into our muscle tissue. This is often referred to as “muscle memory.”  Do you type?  Then, if I were to ask you where the “R” key is, how will you find it?  Did you go to your left index finger and move it up to the left?  If so, that is an example of what we call “in the muscle” learning.

In every case that I have worked with, the roots of the individual’s blocking came from childhood.  However, sometimes the actual blocking does not appear until adolescence or even adulthood. Usually (but not always), when actual blocking begins in childhood, there will be a parent and/or an influential person or someone that “matters” who points out that the dis-fluency is not good and to be avoided.

Embodying Negative Emotions

I began noticing quite early in working with people who block and stammer that they tend to feel the fears, anxieties, etc. that are behind their blocking in the muscles that control breathing and/or speaking.  From this I concluded that blocking is very similar in structure to panic attacks and anxiety attacks. The treatment for blocking is exactly the same as the treatment for panic and anxiety attacks.

Quite often, from the experience with the adults, peers, or from the conclusions they make themselves, children who block define non-fluency or disfluency as something that they wish to avoid and/or control. The blocking does not only have the negative feedback from significant adults or from within themselves, but it also has connected to it the negative emotions from what the person perceived as the painful traumatic experiences that created the non-fluency to start with.

It is also connected with feelings of helplessness in not being able to speak when required to.  This leads to feelings that one is different or strange – something that children wish to avoid at all cost.

Important, when I say “trauma,” I am not necessarily meaning something terrible or tragic happened to the child. I am simply saying that the child interpreted the divorce of the parents, the lack of affection from dad, the lack of emotional support from mom, the emotional and physical abuse, etc as being most painful and threatening. The child did what all children tend to do – they personalize the external problems, then out of these experiences with the hurt installed in the muscles of breathing speaking, the child began to block. For fluency to become real in all contexts, these painful memories must be healed.

That mind can embody emotions is obvious in the most primitive and basic of all our mind-body functions, the Fight/Flight arousal syndrome.  And, you don’t have to be in actual danger to set it off.  All you have to do is think, remember, or imagine something fearful.  Then your body will oblige.  It is wired to respond.

Is it any surprise then that all of our emotions can and do become embodied in certain areas of our body?  Today, we even know that the patterning or habituation of response can become so incorporated that it becomes what we call “muscle memory.”  That is, the muscles “remember” how to run the pattern.  The neuro-pathways have “worn a groove” so to speak so that they have a readiness for certain responses.

For people who block, we find that the negative emotions are typically contained within the chest, neck and/or jaw.  Check this out for yourself.  Ask a person who blocks and stammers the following questions during your information gathering time:

  1.  What emotions are behind and within you blocking?
  2. Where in your body do you feel these emotions?
  3. Where in your body do you feel the fear and anxiety as you anticipate the possibility of blocking?
  4. What do you feel about these feelings? (This last question will begin the process of eliciting the meaning frames that the PWS has placed around blocking and stammering and that “lock in the block” by holding it in place.)

That is what we’re talking about.

In my thirteen years of work in therapy with clients, I have literally asked these questions of hundreds of people who were suffering from some unwanted thought-feeling-emotional problem.  “Where in your body do you feel that emotion?” is a question that enables a person to begin to recognize the embodiment of emotions.

And out of those hundreds of times of asking the question, there have been very few times when I did not get an immediate and direct reply.  The individuals simply told me where they felt the emotion.  Often they pointed to the body parts where the emotion seems located.  This is a general rule of thumb for therapists.  If a person “feels” the negative emotion, they will point to the area of the body where they feel that emotion.  It is in the body (the soma) and so it is psycho-somatic in nature and form.

Consider a panic attack.  When a person has a panic attack, part of the diagnosis involves physical symptoms.  I certainly do not believe this diagnosis is the result of some accident. It is the result of what people experience, as is the case with blocking.  The DSM IV offers this description on diagnosing a panic attack:

A Panic Attack is a discrete period in which there is the sudden onset of intense apprehension, fearfulness, or terror often associated with feelings of impending doom.  During these attacks, symptoms such as shortness of breath, palpitations, chest pain or discomfort, choking or smothering sensations and fear of going “crazy” or losing control are present.

Note the physical manifestations of a panic attack.  Indeed, I have heard many PWS use the same type language in describing what they are feeling during a block. The feelings find expression in the body. Put those feelings in the muscles controlling breathing and speaking and you have a block. Most skilled hypnotherapists are effective in assisting clients with panic disorders and anxiety disorders.  If you are good at doing that, you will be able to assist most PWS towards fluency because the key is to assisting them in overcoming the fear and anxiety behind the blocking and stammering. The structure of panic attacks and blocking is the same; the expressions are different. Reframe or heal the emotions and the physical expression disappears.

The Neuro-Semantic Structure of Stammering

In the field of Neuro-Semantics we recognize the cognitive-behavioral principle that every experience has a structure. The facets of our mind-body-emotion system come together as variables in a system. This has many ramifications.

For one thing, it says that we can model the structure of experience. After all, if we can identify the component elements, arrange those variables in a sequence, identify the feedback and feed forward loops of the system, we can replicate that experience. Modeling in this way lies at the heart of NLP/Neuro-Semantics.

This explains why we can replicate excellence in communication, relating, managing, leading, inventing, creativity, and thousands of other experiences. This focus on modeling also means that every behavior and experience is a skill. Though it may be painful, harmful, and destructive (like manic-depression, schizophrenia, etc.) it has a structure and by exploring such experiences of pain has a structure and strategy that makes it work.

Figure 1.1 The Matrix of Meanings
Does it suggest anything else? Yes. It also suggests that by curiously wondering how something works we are able to thereby enter into that experience and be inside that matrix of frames. And it is in this way that we can develop many more choices about changing and transforming an experience.

Therefore to work with the mind-body-emotion system of human beings which we call the Neuro-Semantic System, we begin with that system and watch how it works

Figure 1.2 The Meaning Table for Creating Stammering – click here to view

(See Figure 1.1). What follows here begins with state and then adds state upon state to create the experience that we call “stammering.”

This means that there is a non-stammering mentality (fluency) just as there is a stammering mentality. In what follows I will be using the 7 Matrices of the Mind Model – a Neuro-Semantic model developed in 2002 that structures the NLP and NS patterns (Hall, 2002). We use this model for coaching, counseling, modeling, and neuro-semantic profiling. Accordingly, we here use it to make explicit the stammering system to provide systemic understanding of the semantics (meanings) that get into the body and nervous system (neuro-) to embody “stammering” so that it becomes part of physiology and a style of moving through the world.

How the Matrix Work to Create Stammering

In Figure 1.1 and Figure 1.2 I illustrate how after the PWS punctuates/classifies non-fluency as stammering (Figure 1.2), the individual will associate fear and shame as to what stammering might mean. The PWS evaluates blocking/stammering as bad and unacceptable thus that which had no meaning now has meaning. Nothing has meaning to anyone until a person gives it meaning.

In blocking and stammering some very unuseful but necessary meanings must come into play for the person to block for they don’t block in all places all the time – it must be a cognitive process and not just a physical process. Obviously, the person does not want to block/stammer so an outcome (#2 Intention; Figures 1.1 and 1.2)) of not stammering becomes priority and drives (frames) the other meanings given to the matrices. The person fears what stammering may mean and thus creates a driving urge to not stammer.  Thus the PWS attempts to “block” stammering because they have defined stammering as being bad and unacceptable.

The person doesn’t want to block (#2 Intention Matrix) and stammer because in their view to do so means that they are deficient in person (#3 Self Matrix), powerless to stop doing it (#4 Power Matrix), believe the problem is permanent (#5Time Matrix), define themselves by how they fear other people are judging them (#6 Other Matrix) and hence they tend to view their world as a hostile place (#7 World Matrix). Their purpose of not wanting to stammer creates a frame of fear and anxiety which determines the other matrices.  So, all of this fear and anxiety is empowered further by the PWS’ meanings in the remaining matrices. They act as a higher level lever that “locks in the block”.

Importantly, as I try to show in both Figure 1.1 and Figure 1.2 the “Intention/Purpose” meaning serves as a filter or driver for all the other meanings in the matrix.  That is why in Figure 1.1 “Meaning” is at the top for the meaning given to any experience determines everything else in the matrix. But, as illustrated, “Intention” is just under “Meaning” and the remaining matrices are under “Intention”. This is due to our belief that the meanings given to what we want, to our purpose, our purpose/ outcome/ desire frames acts as a filter for determining the meaning of the other matrices. In Figure 1.2 as you look in the first row below #1 Meaning/Value you will see that “#2 Intentions” is placed above each of the other matrices.

I shall illustrate. In the “Other Matrix” the PWS has a belief (and a fear) that they will not let other people see their vulnerabilities as a PWS. Indeed, with the PWS, this is an overriding fear that most of them carry. Because they have already given the meaning (#1 Meaning) that their dis-fluent speech is rightly called stammering; they have associated stammering with fear and shame; it is a bad and unacceptable behavior; this results in a strong fear of actually stammering which other people will view as unacceptable. (PWS, like most people, are good at Mind-Reading.)  Indeed, in their fear of being judged by others they in turn “judge” others.

So, having this fear of stammering (#2 Intention Matrix), and looking through those eyes, they see that other people (#6 Other Matrix) will reject them; they will judge them as being less than “normal” people all because they hold the belief that what other people think of them determines their sense of worth and value (#3 Self Matrix).  The meanings given to their relationship with most people basis itself on their belief that stammering is not OK (#1 Meaning Matrix) and that they want to avoid it at all cost and if they do stammer, other people will reject them and so on. In Figure 1.2, you will find numerous meanings that I have elicited from at least 40 PWS.

The “Layering” of Meanings
Creating Anticipatory Anxiety About Stammering
Which Almost Guarantees Stammering!

The PWS will layer the fear of blocking and stammering with all these meanings. These meanings came from one of my clients:

  1. People judge the content of what I am saying so I must always be right. When I am uncertain of my rightness, I block.
  2. I have the ability to be 100% block free (I just don’t know how to do it).
  3. The audience overwhelms me, like I am being attacked. This causes me to block.
  4. I will stutter when I speak.
  5. I need to be respected and loved in order to be fluent.
  6. I need to be perfect.
  7. I am unwilling to feel comfortable with my emotions.
  8. I need to try hard to impress.
  9. I need to have control. My life is totally out of control.
  10. I expect others to judge me harshly for I judge myself harshly.
  11. People judge the content of what I am saying so I must always be right. When I am uncertain of my rightness, I block.
  12. I have the ability to be 100% block free. I just don’t know how to do it.
  13. The audience overwhelms me, like I am being attacked. This causes me to block.
  14. I will stutter when I speak.
  15. I need to be respected and loved in order to be fluent.

You may wish to go through the above list and identify which matrix each belongs.  This client was layering her mind one on top of the other with these limiting beliefs and all of it was about one thing – how she thinks about the possibility of blocking and stammering. Gregory Bateson (1972) shares in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, that higher mental levels modulate and change lower mental levels. Michael Hall (1995, 2000) has taken the theoretical teachings of Bateson and “brought them down to earth” in a usable fashion. Hall explains that the “higher levels” that Bateson was talking about included the mind’s ability to have one thought about another thought and the second thought that is about the first thought serves as a higher level to the first thought and will indeed modulate or change the first thought.  Do what?

I shall illustrate. Suppose you are in a state of fear. Your thinking is about fearing something.  From that thought you start layering your mind with the thought “I can’t handle this?”  And, then, you layer that thought with, “I am a worthless idiot.”  What will happen to the original thought of fear by layering that thought with all these negative thoughts?  The fear will increase. Indeed, that kind of thinking leads to paranoia.

However, if instead, you layered that first thought of fear with, “I am a courageous person.” “I can handle this situation. I have done it before.” What happens to “fear” when “courage” is layered on top of it?  The “fear” will change. It will begin to ease and if the courageous state is strong enough, it will blow that fear away. Bang!!! That’s right! When one thought is applied to another thought, Hall (1995, 2000) refers to this as Meta-Stating as the previous thought-feeling state is modulated by the second thought-feeling state.
Our minds tend to not stop with one thought; our minds tend to keep on having thoughts about thoughts. In looking at the computer monitor as I type this, my first thought about the computer monitor was the text that I am typing on the monitor. But my mind didn’t stop there; my mind instantaneously went to the next thought about that: “This is useful information for the hypnotherapists.” Neither did my mind stop there for my next thought about the previous thought was, “The skilled hypnotherapists as abilities help a lot of suffering people who live daily with the horrors of stammering.”  The next thought was really a “feeling of excitement and passion” about this material and how it can provide realistic hope for a lot of people and bring the hypnotherapists into areas of work that they may have never previously known.

Meta-Stating the Fear

The mind creates our internal states through this process of layering one thought-feeling on top of another thought-feeling – layering one state of mind on top of another state of mind.  This is true for bad states as well as good states.  In bringing healing to the negative states, I follow the following simple model:
» Associate the person into the problem state.
» Dissociate the person from the problem state.
» Lead the person to discover internal resources while mentally “outside” or dissociated from the problem state.
» Associate the person into the resource state and then lead them to apply (Meta-State) the resource state to the problem state – i.e. bring the resource state to bear onto the problem state.  This can be done visually, auditorily or kinesthetically. Most PWS have a strong feeling of fear and anxiety. Lead them to access a resource state like courage or faith until they “feel it” and then lead them to move the resource state into the same location as the problem state of fear. “What happens to fear when it is embedded with courage and faith?”

The Hidden Purposes for PWS – More about the Intention Matrix

During the last two years of doing a lot of work with PWS, I have come to appreciate just how the stammering seeks to serve a positive purpose for the PWS. In NLP, we believe that every behavior has a positive intent. Now, by positive intent, I am not talking about every behavior having a correct intent or a morally acceptable positive intent; I am referring to our belief that when the person learned the behavior that that behavior at that time was that person’s way of trying to get something that the person felt like they needed. Such thinking is usually in the unconscious and oft times “deep” in the unconscious.

I often hear the objection, “Well, if every behavior has a positive intent, how can you explain an adult molesting a child?”  Good question. Even in that gross and deplorable situation, you will find a positive intent in the person’s behavior. I know for I have worked therapeutically with several and in every case there was a positive intent behind the behavior. Most child abusers have been abused themselves. The dysfunction of molesting a child is oft a perverted attempt to receive and even give love. The roots of this go back to the person’s childhood where they learned this from what was happening to them.

Well, what could be the positive intent behind blocking and stammering?  I have thus far discovered four that are prevalent:

Protection – By far, the one that I hear the most is that the stammering serves as a protector from being hurt. The PWS learned in childhood that to talk meant pain. Sometimes this is just from normal conversation. The child would not be permitted to speak. “Children are to be seen and not heard.” Have you ever heard that one?  Well, when that is taken to the extremes and there is much pain associated with self-expression, the child may just decide to “block” speaking. And, the world gains another stammerer.

Also, blocking and stammering serves as a protector for some PWS because they grew up in an environment that somehow was painful for the child. This is more common.  I have found that the degree of pain varies from something as simple as pain from a one time event at a critical time in speech development to pain from a childhood filled with all kinds of emotional and physical abuse.  I have worked with PWS clients who’s blocking and stammering were encased in a sea of mental frames of hurt, pain, abuse, sorrow, rejection, fear and so on. Many sessions over many months were required to bring the person to a state of equilibrium with the pain of the past. Skilled hypnotherapists will know exactly what I am talking about as you have encountered such mental frames of mind many times.  The treatment for stammering is the same as with other clients overwhelmed with such pain. Even with such treatment, not all PWS have overcome their stammering because the problem is so well learned and “in the muscles”. But, fortunately a significant number have become more fluent.

Stammering serves for some PWS as a protector from the fear of failure.  The PWS will hold the belief that as long as they have the stammer, it provides them a convenient excuse to not to take responsibility for their lives. Stammering becomes a handy “whipping boy” for the PWS. On the other side of that, I have found that stammering served as a protector from the fear of success.  Due to unconscious beliefs learned in childhood, the PWS was fearful that they may become a success. Well, what is wrong with that?  Success meant more responsibility and then the fear of failure would come in, “I may not be good enough. Look at me. I stammer. No one will let me continue to be a success.” Thus the person gets into a vicious loop – “If I succeed, I might fail.” “If I succeed, it will not be good enough.”  So, stammering serves as a protector against fearing both failure and success – if you don’t do anything you want fail at it nor will you succeed in it.

In working with PWS, there are an amazing number of similar beliefs held by them. And, one that jumps out constantly is the “need for perfection”. This perfectionism mentality is always present in the fear of failure and fear of success looping.  Look for the roots of perfectionism in childhood. Usually there will be a parent or both parents that the person could never please.  In other cases, the PWS will develop a sense of guilt that if they were “good enough” then this awful affliction of stammering would not be a problem. Having such a dis-fluent problem in childhood leads a lot of children to do what children do well – they personalize it.  “It must be my fault. There is something wrong with me. If I were perfect, I wouldn’t have this stammer.”

Control – Second to protection, I hear the need for control as a higher positive intent/ purpose for stammering.  Have you ever known a control freak?  Well, anytime you find a control freak, you can bet that that person’s childhood was to some degree out of control. Now, to the adult mind, it may not seem to have been out of control but to the mind of that child it was. So, the reasoning goes like this, “This family is out of control. Because this family is out of control, I don’t feel secure. Security is an absolute must for a child to feel loved, comfortable, happy, etc.  Since this family is out of control and there is nothing that I can do with it, I will control my speech. I can stammer. Just watch me stammer. See, I can bring some control into my life!”

Attention – Another unconscious purpose for stammering is that it gets attention. I was the middle child in our family. And, I didn’t believe that I was getting enough attention. So, I learned if I rebelled, I got attention. Now, it was negative attention but it was still attention – negative attention is better than no attention for some of us.  Well, the PWS learns as a child  that this behavior called blocking and stammering sure can get attention. It not only gets attention at home; it also gets attention at school. So, such thinking can serve as another reason to “lock in the block.”

Revenge – Using stammering as a means of revenge is not common but it does happen. Again, this problem roots in childhood.  The few times that I have found this purpose, it was a way for the child to “get back” at the parents for the way the child perceived himself as being treated. One PWS said, “They (the parents) made life uncomfortable for me; I am going to make their life uncomfortable by blocking and stammering.”
How do you find the unconscious purposes of blocking and stammering (or any other behavior)? Usually you can do this quite simply by using what we call “chunk up” language – language that will send the person’s mind to higher and higher thinking. The simple question to ask the PWS is: “If your stammering had a purpose, what purpose would that be?”  The question contains the presupposition that the person’s behavior of stammering may have a purpose. By the way, it is rare for the person to not give you a purpose. The fact is that all behaviors have a purpose. If they didn’t have a purpose or function, they would quit behaving. Now, this question may have to be repeated several times for their unconscious mind to hear the question as the conscious mind gets over the shock of even considering that stammering has a purpose.
In going for their purpose, have the PWS associate fully into the fear of stammering before questioning them. The more they feel the part, the easier for the unconscious mind to provide answers. It is simple to do. Just ask the person:
» “What is the purpose or intention of stammering?”
» “What is stammering trying to do for you?”
» “What does stammering want for you that is important?”
» “What would stammering have to give up which is important to you in order for you to stop stammering?”
One of the major keys to doing therapy, I believe, is to find out the purpose of the problem behaviors, heal the hurt behind the problem behavior and then find healthier ways for them to meet the needs of the original purpose the stammering.  If the purpose is for protection, the part responsible for that needs to come to understand that the person has survived childhood and now has adult resources to protect them. If the PWS that you are working with is still a child, find ways in the child’s life to re-assure the child that they are protected. This may require family therapy.
king means living with an awareness that much of our perceptual mapping is by “choice” and is not “caused” by the territory or the world.


There is hope for the PWS. There is hope because their experience has structure as do all experiences. That they have gotten certain ideas incorporated or embodied into their very neurology and physiology does not mean it is not psychological. It only says that it has a lot of habit strength and that it now operates apart from their conscious awareness. Structure means that we can intervene at numerous places in the system, sometimes reversing the structure and sometimes messing it up.

More Information

For more about this, see the book that I wrote with Dr. Hall’s help, Mastering Blocking and Stuttering: A Cognitive Approach to Achieving Fluency.” It is the first book of its kind. I am delighted to state that more and more PWS and Speech Language Pathologists are beginning to take more seriously our models. At this year’s conference, four of us are promoting the NLP Neuro-Semantic cognitive model for treating stuttering. Two of these presenters are Speech Language Pathologists. One of them told me recently, “Our discipline is changing.”
If you ever meet a PWS, be patient with them; do not complete their sentences for them; operate from care and compassion. These are some of the bravest people whom I have ever met.


American psychiatric association diagnostic criteria, from DSM-IV (1994). Washington DC, American Psychiatric Association.
Bateson, Gregory. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Ballatine.
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Bobby Bodenhamer

Dr Bob Bodenhamer is the Co-Founder of the International Society of Neuro-Semantics, the co-author of 10 books on NLP and Neuro-Semantics and the author of Mastering Blocking & Stuttering, A Cognitive Approach to Achieving Fluency.

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