The Art of Stuttering

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Most of us take for granted that we can open our mouths and say words. It seems so natural, so easy. But everyone does not see it that way, or experience it that way. In every country and every language there are people who spend most of their conscious thinking worrying about being able to open their mouth and speak in a way that doesn’t embarrass them. They are people who stutter (PWS).

This article speaks about the mental strategy that informs those who struggle with just talking normally. What causes that which limits and blocks them from unleashing their best fluent talk and conversation is a mental map full of threatening meanings. In this article, Dr. Bodenhamer uses the technical term “blocking.” For people who stutter, this refers to what happens when a stutterer learns how to begin to catch the feeling that he or she will stutter and so blocks that response. The blocking is a holding back of a verbal response; it may be experienced by the listener as a silence or alow tone.

Actually, we all stutter. Most of us stutter and never notice the dysfluency. As we do so, we are merely searching for words or feeling nervous. But those who have labelled themselves a “stutterer” and hate it, change the way they breathe and then become focused on it, so that eventually that behaviour comes to dominate their lives.

The Art of Stuttering

A person who stutters (PWS), asked me, “Why, for example, is it that I can speak fluently when I am by myself, but as soon as I go out into public, I start blocking? I know how to speak fluently for there are times I do it. Indeed, for most of us PWS, there are times that we do it consistently. Then again, there are times that we block and we usually do that consistently in certain contexts. What is going on?”

Could we not summarily state that your mind-body system has basically two different strategies when it comes to speaking? You have a strategy for speaking fluently and you have a strategy for blocking. Well, what determines whether you speak from the fluency strategy, or when you speak from the blocking strategy? You don’t want to block but you can’t help it. What is going on?

To find the answer, let’s not study the behaviour – the blocking. I will leave that to those knowledgeable of the physiology involved in blocking. Let’s look at what is behind the blocking. How does your brain know when to tell your mouth to speak fluently and how does it know when to tell your mouth to block? How does your brain know which strategy to fire? I mean, after all, you already know how to speak fluently. Let’s seek to understand why you can’t speak fluently all the time.

To do this, let’s look at what we basically know about how the brain creates meaning. for I am convinced that it is the meaning given to a particular context that determines whether you speak from your fluency strategy or your blocking strategy. Ask yourself, “What kind of meaning(s) do I place on those times when I am fluent, that permit me to be relaxed and calm – that allows me to speak without fear and anxiety about speaking?” And, “What meaning(s) do I place on those contexts where I block all the time? How do I mentally frame these contexts so that I experience fear and anxiety about speaking that leads me right into blocking?” “What are the differences in meaning between these two contexts?”

A Little History

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Behaviourist explained behaviour from a stimulus-response perspective. Something happens that triggers the person to respond a certain way. Later, Cognitive Psychology began to look beyond just the basic stimulus-response model and they started talking about other variables, specifically cognitions – language. The Cognitive Scientist wanted to know more about what was going on with a person’s thinking that led to a certain response from a particular trigger. This model was later advanced by Bandler and Grinder, who specified cognitions or thoughts as a product of our five senses (see, hear, feel, smell and taste), plus the ability to create meaning with words. These co-founders of Neuro-Linguistics (NLP) determined that we create thinking via the movies (pictures, sounds, feelings, smells and/or taste) that we create inside our heads and importantly, the meanings we give the movie via language. This comprised the “language of the mind.”

This “language of the mind” allows a NLP Practitioner to understand what a person is doing inside their head to create a certain response to a certain signal. The movies and the language are the basis of all thinking – all perception. We refer to this phenomenon as mental mapping or just “mapping.” All behaviour has behind it a mental map comprised of movies and/or language. Of these, the meaning created by “words” is where the difference that makes the difference is.

You have a set of meanings that drive fluency and you have a set of meanings that drive blocking. You have a “mental map” for each behaviour and it is this mapping that determines whether you block, or whether you speak with a naturally free expression – fluency. No matter the original cause of your blocking – whether you block or whether you speak fluently -is a product of how you map out the situation that you find yourself in.

When our mental map of the world is fearful, limiting, impoverished, childish, anxious, weak and unresourceful, etc., the world becomes a fearful and dangerous place. We do not believe that we have the resources to live in the world as a complete and happy person who verbally expresses him or herself with great freedom of expression. Such impoverished thinking will trigger fear and anxiety that will trigger the blocking strategy.

On the other hand, if our mental map of the world is one of excitement, opportunity and enrichment, we can face this world with great resourcefulness and strength. When we operate from such mapping, we not only do not experience childish fear and anxiety, we experience great anticipation, joy and excitement over just sharing out of the riches of our lives to all who will listen. Words flow naturally and freely from the well within. For, after all, most anxiety is repressed excitement.

The “Map is not the Territory”

What does all this have to say about whether I block or whether I speak freely and fluently? It has everything to do with it. The foundation of NLP is based on General Semantics developed by Alfred Korzybski in his classic Science and Sanity. As an engineer, Korzybski brought the mind of a scientist to the world of thoughts and communication. One of his great insights is summed up in the phrase, “The Map is Not the Territory.” This means that our perception, our mental mapping, is not, nor can it be, the “territory” (or the world) that we represent with the movies and language of the mind.

Think about it. All the pictures, sounds and feelings in our head are not what they represent in the world. They are just symbols of what we have experienced from the world/ territory. Our words whereby we create meaning, are just symbols of our experience of the territory. All of our mapping is metaphorical. Indeed, our perceptions are all abstractions. Is there a scientific instrument that can go into the brain and find a picture? A sound? A word? No, of course not. A great mystery of Neuro-Science and Neurology is just how does the brain create these abstractions from the energy manifestations of our neural networks. We don’t know, but we do know that we operate from them as if they are real. Yet they are not real in that sense, they only have as much reality as we give them.

For instance, when you go to a job interview and fear overwhelms you that you may block, how old do you feel? For most PWS, they will feel very young. And, there is a reason for that. You cease being an adult, because the event triggered you back to when you were a child and you became fearful of speaking to an authority figure. Maybe your father was very harsh and kept on you to “Spit it out, son. Spit it out!” Or, maybe a school teacher would stand you up before the class to read and you would stutter. The class laughed at you and the teacher made fun of you.

What is happening? You have confused the “map” with the “territory.” You have ceased operating from the map of an adult who has adult resources and you have regressed back to a child and you are operating from the map you created as a child in those difficult situations. Now this happens fast – in about 1/3000th of a second. That is one of the reasons that it is so hard to control. This is what happens in the vast majority of blocking situations. You cease operating from a map of a resourceful adult and operate from a map of a child full of fear, anxiety and embarrassment. This triggers your blocking strategy.

But, when you are by yourself, or maybe when you are with trusted friends, you place the meaning on those situations that do not trigger you back to a childhood map, but you instead, operate off your map as a mature, resourceful adult.

Indeed, in my opinion, mental health has a whole lot to do with our creating a mental map that accurately, as symbolically possible, maps out the world that we are living in right “now”, not, when we were children. No wonder that we experience so much fear and anxiety when we operate from a child’s map. We are trying to perform in an adult world with the thinking of a child. That is scary.

People who make mental changes believe that “the map is not the territory” or “the menu is not the meal,” and they believe it is their map and their map alone that they operate from. This is another way of saying that our perception is not reality. It is only our perception of it. However, because it is our perception (our internal representation and conceptual meanings) it is what we operate from. It doesn’t matter how accurately it maps (perceive) our present reality. We will operate from our perceptions as governed by our higher-level frames of mind.

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D. in article entitled “Seven Key Distinctions of Masterful Communication” at states the following:

“The map is not the territory” summarises the common-sense wisdom that a map never is the territory it is designed to represent. The menu is not the meal; the sex manual is not love making; the photo is not the person. These are different phenomenon. They operate at different levels and in different dimensions.

“So simple, yet so profound. So simple and yet so easy to forget. How and when do we forget it? When we think (and feel) that what we think (our mapping), what we perceive, what we believe in, what we value, what we identify with, etc. is what is real. That’s the delusion. Yet it never is; it cannot be. At best it can be a good, useful, and fairly accurate map about it.

(Note: I [Bob] believe that the reality Michael speaks about here explains where many PWS find themselves. Holding to such beliefs as ‘stuttering is not a psychological phenomenon’, exemplifies what Korzybski warned against – identifying person with behaviour. Holding to such beliefs forgoes the possibility of making new discoveries in the realm of cognition around blocking.)

“But when we forget, we identify. We identify map and territory. What I think about something is real, is the final word, is absolute, is beyond question, is unquestionable, etc.

And this describes the concrete thinker, the absolutist, the pulpit pounding pundit who has “the answers,” the guru who demands blind and unquestioning obedience, the fundamentalist in any and every system (Christian, Moslem, Liberal, Conservative, Political, etc.).”

Map is all of the stuff inside, from the way the outside world impacts upon your senses and sense receptors (eyes, ears, skin, etc.). Map is all of the ideas, beliefs, understandings, feelings, memories, etc. that you create inside about the outside world. We do not deal with the world directly, but indirectly. We interface with the electromagnetic spectrum as mediated through our sense receptors, neuro-pathways, brain cortexes, beliefs, belief systems, etc. Territory is the outside world, all of the experiences, words, events, and happenings “out there.”

“The masterful communicator knows that all of our mapping is fallible and is, at its highest development, still our best guess. He or she also knows that the value of a map lies in its usefulness, lies in it being able to provide us some navigational guidance as we move through the world and experiences. Does the map correspond well enough so that we can use it to direct our thoughts and actions? Does it facilitate me having the experiences I want to have? To achieve the things I want to accomplish?

“How well do you recognise that all of your mental mapping about things is just that, a map? How much is this your frame of mind? How quick are you to explore and ask questions rather than go into “deity mode” of telling, demanding, or giving advice? How grounded is your recognition that your feelings are functions of your maps, not of the world? How intuitive have you driven in this distinction so that you recognize that any and every emotion is the difference between your map of the world and your experience in the world?

“These are questions that help us benchmark where we are in our own development of making the map/territory distinction and meta-stating ourselves with this, as a premise for moving through the world so that it becomes our in-knowing (intuition) as we communicate.”

What does this mean to the PWS? This means that:

» Those PWS who grow in the freedom of verbally sharing themselves recognise the value of recreating their map (perception) that accurately, as far as symbolically possible, maps the present moment.

We are a “symbolic class of life.” We do that with our mental movies and words acting as “symbols” from our experience of our world through our five senses. But, these are just symbols about our world. They are not the world. We get into trouble when we confuse the two and label our “symbols” as being “real.” We also create trouble for ourselves when we think that they are a totally accurate map of our world.

When we consciously or unconsciously operate from frames of mind that we learned in childhood, we certainly are not operating from a map that even comes close to accurately mapping out the adult world we now live in. This is the root of most problems, if not all of them. It is most certainly the root cause of many PWS operating in their adult world from their blocking strategy rather than their adult fluency strategy. Unconsciously the PWS is living in their past, which is usually their childhood.

Understandably, some PWS find such statements quite irritating and many reject such diagnosis as non-credible. Therefore, to understand my point, recall the last time you blocked. How did it feel? Did you feel powerful or powerless? How old did you feel while you were in that block? Did you feel your present age or younger, maybe even much younger?

» Those who change their thinking by recognising that their map is not the territory will eliminate the problem of cause-effect in their lives.

What does this mean? It means that the individual who understands and accepts that their internal map/perception is not, and cannot be, the territory (the external world) will stop the foolishness of believing other people control their mind without their permission. No one can make you believe or feel anything you choose not to believe or feel. That “other” person you you fear will judge you, should you block has absolutely no power over you without your permission.

In a recent correspondence with Christine on the PWS e-mail list, Christine stated:

“Although the ‘map is not the territory’ in the semantic sense, I’m inclined to think that the map indeed affects the territory as well; most certainly if the territory is our brain processes. Different thoughts will create patterns that eventually affect brain chemistry, hence, will affect the territory. It’s kind of like how the observer will affect the object according to quantum theory…

“In a way, it makes no sense to stutter. regardless of the situation, unless stuttering is all we can do – which it is, of course, not. Also, the situation is never exactly the same twice, but yet we stutter if there’s a resemblance. Resemblance is the most illusory element here (much more so than the initial map of the territory), thus, it’s in many ways the creation of resemblance we must alter. Resemblance is a map about a map and by definition, over that we should have the most power to change.”

In part of my response to her insightful post, I shared:

Korzybski’s point was that the map and the territory are two distinct entities and cannot be the same. And, yes, the one affects the other. However, we have much control about how the one affects the other.

The sub-title of Korzybski’s book Science and Sanity is “An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics.” Korzybski aimed to defuse the Cause-Effect ideology so prevalent in Western Cultures. Aristotelian thinking is “Cause-Effect” thinking. Non-Aristotelian thinking means living with an awareness that much of our perceptual mapping is by “choice” and is not “caused” by the territory or the world.

Children engage in this kind of cause-effect thinking; “Mom and dad divorced. I caused it for there is something wrong with me.” As we mature, we take responsibility for our own thinking and understand the fallacy of cause-effect thinking.

We get into trouble when we hold onto beliefs that just because something has happened in our territory, we “have to” respond a certain way.

In the world of mental health there is a Diagnostic Book called the DSM IV: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This book provides all the present diagnosis for mental disorders. When a person is diagnosed as suffering from a Social Anxiety Disorder (which much of blocking is) and then that person “identifies” with that diagnosis, then that is cause-effect. “I have a Social Anxiety Disorder. I am ill.” That person has taken a diagnosis of a “process” and then jumped to identifying with it and thus the person “becomes” the disorder. It is that kind of childish thinking that Korzybski attempted to bring a halt to. He called such identifying as “unsanity”.

Another example would be, “I grew up in a dysfunctional family, therefore I am dysfunctional.” Another one, “I have my father’s temper.”

Such thinking is an over-simplistic cause-effect thinking. It ends up nominalising (or making a process real by labelling it) behaviours and identifying with it. This locks a person into the behaviour.

All behaviors are a result of the mental processing of our minds through our movies and our languaging. It is all a process. It isn’t set in concrete. It can be changed. Because you learned how to block as a child, does not mean you must block the rest of your life.

Just think how much “not blocking” would affect your view of the world that you live in. Korzybski would say that the territory doesn’t cause your blocking; you trigger your blocking with unconscious learning. It is unconscious. It can be quite a task to learn how not to do it, but you can do it. You are in charge of your thinking. Nobody else is driving your bus. You are driving your own bus.

» They recognise that the words and images inside their heads are not “real” in the sense that they are absolute or unchangeable. They are changeable.

They are just “symbols” of the external world. We have instruments that will detect the nerve cells and the neuro-transmitters that allow one nerve cell to communicate with another nerve cell. However, can neuro-science go inside the brain and find/ measure a picture, a sound, a feeling or a word? No, they are “abstractions” of the mind. Our conceptual states are generated at the moment of thought and then they disappear until we think the thought again. Because the images and word meanings inside our head are not “real” in the sense that they are set in concrete, they only have the reality we give them. In understanding that the “map” is not the “territory,” the PWS will know that those fearful mental movies cannot harm them without their permission.

When to Block and when not to Block

This clarifies what is taking place when the brain knows not to block and when the brain blocks. For, when the PWS is in a context that is not threatening to their verbally sharing themselves, the mental-movies and the language structures are not there for they haven’t triggered the neural networks that create the movies and the language structures. Now, the neural networks are there but are not activated thus the movies and the language of stuttering are not present – the PWS now speaks fluently without those old movies of the past creating so much fear and anxiety that triggers blocking.

On the other-hand, when the PWS is in a context that threatens their personal sharing of themselves the neural networks of blocking fire – and bingo, there are the movies and the language structures that serve to hold the blocking in place. In most cases when this happens, the PWS mentally ceases being a resourceful adult and they associate with childhood memories operating from the mental movies and language structure of when they were a child. Unconsciously the PWS becomes a child with the mental mapping of a child. Those old images of being made fun of by peers; those old images of blocking in front of the class; those old images of hearing dad say “spit it out son, spit it out” suddenly become real and the person “blocks” their personal sharing, for it is threatening to share oneself.

It is really true, “The map is not the territory.


For anyone familiar with NLP and/or Neuro-Semantics, the material contained in this article will be readily understood. However, the field of Speech Language Pathology (SLP) sees this material as hearesy. As I write this, I am on my way to Atlanta, Georgia to attend the National Stuttering Associations’ Annual Conference and present for the fourth time, a workshop.

Here’s what they say on their web site ( about the cause of stuttering:

“The precise cause of stuttering is not known; however, researchers around the world are actively seeking new information about this complex communication disorder. We do know that stuttering is not caused by emotional problems, and it is not a “nervous” disorder. We also know that stuttering is not the fault of the family, or of the person who stutters.”

This explains why many in that community are extremely sceptical of what I’ve written here. Yet when I ask them why most PWS are fluent in some contexts but not in others, they cannot say. Yet with Neuro-Semantics I can both explain why and provide proven tools to help those who stutter.

So the hopelessness that many stutterers have suffered over the years from such “professional” ignorance can be dealt with using NLP and Neuro-Semantics. It is still challenging because the behaviour is well-learned and it may take some time for full recovery to fluency, but it can be achieved.

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.

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