Actively Listening in a World that Does Not

About a bit more than a month ago, I listened to an episode of “D&I Spy – Inclusion, Uncovered,” the podcast currently hosted by Reach PLC’s Group Head of Diversity and Inclusion, Dr. Julie Humphreys, and Global Inclusion & Diversity Lead at Rolls-Royce, Natasha Whitehurst. The two women discuss unspoken issues around diversity with some well-known guests from all walks of life to connect with and learn from one another, offer diverse perspectives, and reflect on how we can do better – all that with openness and a good dose of humor. It is no wonder that their objective resonates with me.

The episode I listened to featured a conversation with “50 Million Voices” founder and chair Iain Wilkie – a person who stutters and leads a campaign bringing together leaders from across the world to collaborate, share good practices, and transform the world of work for people who stutter. During the podcast, Iain Wilkie revisits his life experience as a person who stutters – when and how it started, the challenging effects it has had on him, personally and professionally, and how he came to create and lead an organization aiming to deconstruct implicit and explicit societal biases in the workplace.

As a child, I stuttered after severe emotional trauma from physical violence. My rapid repetition of word sounds was ascribed to intense fear and anguish, shame and anxiety, which was treated as “developmental stuttering induced by trauma,” bound to resolve itself in time. Today such a condition is labeled as psychogenic stuttering, close but not the same. After losing the ability to find my voice, making me feel even more scared and unable to communicate effectively in an impatient world, I did not speak for a long time. I would draw, gesticulate, and write but not utter words. When my voice returned, the stutter appeared, adding to the communication challenge. Eventually, the stutter disappeared through therapy, support, and encouragement. It reappears quite strongly when I am extremely emotionally and physically stressed; thankfully, that has not happened but a handful of times in the last decade.

Back to the D&I Spy podcast: Iain Wilkie reflected on how society perceives stuttering as a weakness and how being open about one’s stutter is difficult because of its stigma. Broadening the thought, we appear to share the belief that speaking up is not as simple as it is made out to be because it faces challenges not solely based on physical complexity. Active listening, patience, and avoiding common communication pitfalls, such as interrupting or finishing sentences, are all choices relatable to anyone without a neurodivergent condition – not to mention the numerous emotions and feelings they may prompt.

He said, “Just because somebody is extroverted and talkative does not give them the right to dominate the conversation. In fact, the thought that you might even think that or assume that is not very nice, actually. Be aware of fluency privilege and use it to help others.” Iain Wilkie adds, “30% of people dominate 70% of the conversation”. If his statement sounds familiar – and you are not neurodivergent, then you should understand that conversation becomes nearly unbearable for those who are. How often do we say, “Let’s have a conversation” or “We need to talk”? But do “we”? And when we do, is there an equal balance of intention? (And no, I am not speaking of language comprehension)

It is true that stuttering (or stammering) is a different way of speaking and should be taken precisely as such. Not speaking a language other than one’s mother tongue does not mean you are disabled. It does not imply inability, either. You may not have wanted to learn another despite your de facto ability to do so. And it is in this analogy that everything boils down to accepting and respecting that no one has the right to demand that their “mother tongue” (used with latitude) be the only acceptable means of communication. Communication is never based on a single language. Frequently it is more transparent, more expressive, and sensible through nonverbal, visual, and written added cues and expressions. Parents learn that as soon as a child is born, for example.

Iain Wilkie said, “We need to be actively listening in a world that doesn’t.” I agree wholeheartedly. Being willing to listen to all the cues that make up communication is critical to seeing the whole picture of what is being attempted to articulate to us and appreciating the effort it takes for anyone to find a way to do so with any means at their disposal. It is a learning opportunity that can only enrich our knowledge of how to be inclusive by simply embracing our differences and benefiting from what we can achieve together – we as able to and not as disabled by.