What to Do
and What to Know
When Speaking with a Person Who Stutters


When someone to whom you are talking is having trouble speaking fluently, they most likely have a stuttering problem. You will probably react appropriately by instinct, but if you are not sure what to do, you are not alone.

Stuttering is often misunderstood and can cause the listener to feel anxious. If you keep the following in mind, however, the experience will be a more comfortable one for you and the person who stutters.


  1. About one percent of adults and four percent of children stutter.

  2. We do not know why people stutter, but apparently it is not a nervous or personality disorder. People who stutter are normal except they lack the ability to varying degrees to get words out fluently. It is known that stuttering runs in families, and research shows neurological components are probably involved in the disorder. Stuttering almost always starts between the ages of two and five. Also, boys are five times more likely than girls to stutter, a gender ratio we see in other developmental disorders.

  3. People generally do not stutter when they sing, whisper, speak in chorus, or when they do not hear their own voice. There is no universally accepted explanation for these phenomena.

  4. The degree to which people stutter varies widely. Some people who stutter have more natural control over their speech than others do. And the degree of stuttering will also vary within the individual. How much control they have will depends on the particular situation in which they find themselves, the difficulty of the words they must say, and how they feel, in general, at that moment. People who stutter, universally report having "good days" and "bad days."

  5. Stuttering may look like an easy problem that can be solved with some simple advice, but for adults it is a chronic, life-long disorder. People who stutter can achieve more control over their speech, but total fluency is not a realistic goal for most adults.

  6. The list of notable people who stutter (past and present) includes: Moses, Aesop, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and his grandfather, physician Erasmus Darwin, Somerset Maugham, Lewis Carroll, Clara Barton, King George VI of England, Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe, John Updike, Mel Tillis, Bob Love, James Earl Jones, Bruce Willis, Carly Simon, Bo Jackson, and Annie Glenn.


  1. You might be very tempted to finish sentences or fill in words for the person. Unless you know the person well and have his or her permission, please do not do this. Your action could be taken as demeaning. And, of course, if you guess the wrong word, the difficulties multiply.

  2. Refrain from making remarks like: "Slow down," "Take a breath," or "Relax." Such simplistic advice can be felt as patronizing and is not constructive.

  3. Maintain normal eye contact and try not to look embarrassed or alarmed. Just wait patiently and naturally until the person is finished.

  4. Be aware that people who stutter usually have more trouble controlling their speech on the telephone. Saying "Hello," in particular, often presents a special problem for us. Please be extra patient in this situation.

  5. People sometimes ask if they should ask the person questions about his or her stuttering. This is something we must leave to your judgment. But surely, stuttering should not be a taboo subject. If you have a question about it, the person will probably appreciate your interest. It is in your mutual benefit that it be talked about openly. You should be prepared that some people who stutter will be sensitive about it, but if you follow the rules of common courtesy, you should be fine.

  6. The person's stuttering sometimes makes it harder to understand what he or she is saying. If you do not understand what is said to you, do not be afraid to say, "I'm sorry, I didn't understand what you just said." No matter how much of a struggle it was for them to say it, this is preferable to your pretending you understood, or guessing what his or her communication was.

  7. Set a relaxed pace when possible, using a moderate rate of speech yourself.

  8. In general, let the person know by your manner and actions that you are listening to what he or she is saying and not how he or she is saying it. Be yourself. Be a good listener.


The language we use can be very important, not just in how we come across to others, but also in the way we think about something or someone. We in the NSP obviously have no objection to the word "stuttering," but we do find the word "stutterer" to be an inaccurate and non-constructive term. We prefer the term "person who stutters" or "child who stutters." We suggest that you adopt this habit also, not just with us, but with other people who are different in some way.

We are sure you understand our meaning here. Stuttering is something we do; it is not something we are. Furthermore, stuttering may be the most apparent thing about us, but it is not the most important thing about us. And, of course, this is true for any difference or disability we see in ourselves or the people around us.

Thank you for reading this. If you follow the above guidelines, your job as the listener will be well done. The rest is up to us.


The NSP is a non-profit organization founded in 1977. We have 4,000 members nationwide and support groups in 55 cities, and we can provide you with informative brochures for parents and teachers. Please contact us for more information:

National Stuttering Project
5100 East LaPalma Ave.
Suite 208
Anaheim Hills, CA
FAX 714-693-7554
Please feel free to copy this brochure for your purposes. It is not copyrighted.
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