By Bill Leinweber
When I read the article about a 17 year old young man who took his own life, apparently because of his stuttering, I was moved to tell my own story. Stuttering can be embarrassing, debilitating and isolating and has a profound impact on all who are afflicted. Living with a stutter is hard, like wearing a life-restricting device that never comes off. At the same time, my stuttering had a positive effect on my life and the person that I am today.
As early as I can remember speaking, I remember stuttering. I could barely speak my own name. “B-b-b-b-b-b-i-l-l-l-l-l L-l-l-l-l-l-e-i-n-w-w-w-w-w-e-b-b-b-b-e-r,” the b’s, l’s and w’s were awful letters for me. Unfortunately, when you’re a little 4 or 5-year-old, people like to bend down and ask, “What’s your name little boy?”
As the fourth of six children, I was “the sensitive one,” in the middle of a very busy household. Sometimes it was just too hard to get a word in or to be heard. When it was my turn to say anything, I felt I had to speak quickly and always had an audience, neither of which helps a stutterer much.
Elementary and junior high school were the worst. The prospect of having to read ANYTHING aloud in class had me terrified on a daily basis. I never sat in the front of the class although I was a very good student. Instead, I would sit behind one of the bigger kids in the middle or back of the room so I could “hide” from the teacher and avoid being called on. If the teacher started a round of student reading, paragraph by paragraph, student by student, I would get sick to my stomach (literally) before it was my turn to read. I would sooner skydive than hear the words, “Bill Leinweber, please read the next paragraph.” Miraculously, during math or music class, I felt fine. The rhythm of numbers and music seemed to ease my self consciousness and boost my confidence.
I don’t recall specific instances of teasing by other kids but I know it did occur. That usually resulted in a cycle of further withdrawing until I felt strong again. My mother, Grace, raised all of us to be aware of how others were feeling. Early in our childhood, if we laughed at someone for tripping and falling or dropping something, Mom would always put us back in our place by saying something like, “How would you feel if that had been you?” I heard that question so many times growing up that I just began to naturally put myself in the other person’s shoes. How would I feel if...?
I never went to speech class or a therapist. By high school, I gained more confidence, made friends easily and learned to live with and adjust to my stuttering. In sophomore year of high school, I stepped further out of my shell, was drafted into school choir and became active in Spanish club and other activities, still, always taking a side role or a back seat in class. Writing was by far the biggest outlet for me. What I couldn’t confidently say, I could write instead. I loved writing and still do to this day. Looking back, I did miss things I would have done had I not stuttered. I would have read morning announcements over the PA system. I would have auditioned for drama classes, plays, and performances. I would have joined Toastmasters, debate club or competed for Academic Challenge.
What I didn’t realize at the time is that the inhibition caused by my stuttering resulted in my becoming a really good listener. I mean I REALLY listen to understand others. I also became attuned to others whose voices were not being heard. I instinctively want to hear from the introverts in a group, from the people who don’t feel they have power. The extroverts rarely need help being heard. This combination of listening and mom’s persistent asking “how would I feel if that were me” became a strong foundation for my career in customer experience and in developing others to be great leaders.
In business, the best results occur when there is coherent Voice Around the Table. In order for that to happen, everyone needs to be heard. And don’t we all want to be heard? In the world of customer service, understanding how the customer feels and making sure the customer is heard are key components to success in business. My personal path, stuttering and my mom, provided me with a perspective that I know to be unique.
Today, I give presentations and speak in public about my own journey and about how businesses can create WOW experiences for their customers. Sure, I still get nervous. The fact that I can stand in front of an audience and speak is no small miracle to me. In my own mind, I believe I still stutter although most people say they don’t notice it. Whether I do or not, I wouldn’t change a moment. I do know that we all have something important to contribute and we all need to be heard.
-From the Summer 2012 Newsletter