"I didn't count your ahs," Caroline said as she handed me the Ah Counter's report. I slopped, surprised and looked at her, but I couldn't think of anything to say. Then I had to hurry to get the Timer's report for the minutes of our Tuesday lunchtime Toastmasters. Within an hour, Caroline's words triggered decades of self-criticism about my stuttering. "A stutterer like me doesn't belong in Toastmasters. The other members don't want me there. They are only tolerating me."
I tried to drown these feelings with positive thoughts. I told myself that I've done six of the ten speeches in the Toastmasters Communication and Leadership Program. I'm learning to think on my feet during Table Topics. In the speeches and Table Topics, I enjoy telling long stories -- a surprise since I've always been afraid to say more than three sentences at a time. My club even elected me secretary. But my self- limiting thoughts overcame the positive thoughts. "It's stupid for me to think I can give a speech"
That evening at my biweekly speech therapy, I told the story to Mary, my therapist. She suggested that I send Caroline an e-mail explaining why I'm in Toastmasters and saying that I want to be treated like everyone else. I muttered that I might be able to do it. Perhaps I could refer to a speech that one of the members gave about his volunteer work teaching disabled children to ski.
The next morning, however, I decided to forget the incident and do nothing. That's what I always did in the past, and I didn't want to take the risk of writing Caroline and talking about being hurt. But I couldn't forget, and for the next two days my negative thoughts kept eating at me. "A stutterer like me shouldn't try to do things with nonstutterers. It's ridiculous."
By Thursday afternoon, I felt I had to do something and came back to Mary's idea. I knew that Caroline wasn't the problem, but I had to deal with her as if she was. I decided to take the risk and wrote the following e-mail:
"Dear Caroline: At the end of Toastmasters on TUesday, you handed me the slip of ah-counting and said that you didn't mention my ahs. Presumably this was because of my stuttering. I wanted to give you some information on that, but I didn't have time at that moment.
"I'm in Toastmasters to help my speaking. I don't want you or anyone else to treat me differently because I stutter. I regularly give speeches in professional and business meetings, and I deal with customers in Washington. My need to speak better is the same as everyone else's, but I happen to have a slightly more complex problem.
"In the meeting, Wayne gave an excellent talk about dealing with persons who have disabilities. His story was about a young girl with limited eyesight, but the same ideas apply to other disabilities. One of Wayne's main points was that if you help a disabled person by doing things for him or her, then you limit that person's ability and willingness to do things for himself or herself. So the help becomes harm.
"You were trying to be kind and help me. I appreciate that. But as Wayne said in his talk, that's the wrong thing to do. Regards, Steve"
I clicked the Send button, the e-mail was gone, and I felt released. At first, the self-punishing thoughts tried to come back. "Caroline will think this is stupid. She will show it to others, and they will laugh." Then I reread my e-mail and liked it. It defined why I want to be in Toastmasters, and that I have the same needs as everyone else. My self-limiting, self-punishing, negative thoughts died away. I felt happy and didn't care what Caroline thought.
Two hours later, I checked my mailbox and found the following reply:
"Steve. You are correct and I am sorry. I have a real problem with ums, ahs, etc. It's embarrassing to me, because I have such a hard time suppressing these darned filler words. That is a large part of why I joined Toastmasters. Another reason is that I have a real problem formulating intelligent responses on the spot. I end up sounding like an idiot. You've given me a lot of courage, and I admire your own quest for speech improvement. I promise I'll count all your ums/ahs from now on when Ah Counter. Caroline."
I quickly read and reread her e-mail, then read again what I wrote, and again what she wrote. My spirits soared. I wrote her to define myself, not to confront her, and it worked. Taking the risk was enough, but -- even better-- she understood completely and could define her problems as similar to mine. When something like this happens in the future, I can take the same risk with others, and they may understand too.
Stephen is a mathematician who joined the NSP San Diego chapter in May 1995. He heard RussHicks and John Harrison describe Toastmasters at the June convention and joined it the next week during a post-convention high.