Asserting Your Personal Rights

Stuttering is really an interpersonal problem, not a speech problem. The tension that is part of certain relationships is ‘fatal’ for the stutterer. --- Robin, a 44-year-old sales manager

It was said in the chapter on ‘The Problem of Change’ that people who stutter (PWS) are at a disadvantage in terms of social and communication skills. In this chapter we will consider this issue in more detail.

The misconceptions

There are several misconceptions about self-assertion. Some people wrongly think that it is an inborn feature of one’s character. In fact it is a communication skill which can be learned.

A second important misconception equates it with aggression. Experts, however, distinguish between 1) self-assertion, 2) aggression, and 3) non-assertion.


Self-assertion has been described as standing up for one’s personal rights and expressing thoughts, feelings and opinions in a direct, honest and appropriate manner which does not interfere with the rights of others. It allows you to behave in accordance with your personal rights (more about this later) while respecting the rights of others; it allows you to express your opinion and to accept responsibility for it, as you allow others to express theirs. It is a positive and constructive attitude. In conflict situations the focus is on the problem and not the personalities, either that of the speaker or the listener.


Aggression entails directly standing up for personal rights and expressing thoughts, feelings and opinions in a way which is usually inappropriate and often dishonest, and which always interferes with the rights of others. The focus is on the other person, not on yourself. It is a negative and destructive attitude. In conflict situations it disregards the problem and emphasises personality differences in the search for a potential scapegoat.


Non-assertion entails the violation of your personal rights by failing to express your honest thoughts, feelings and opinions, with the result that you allow others to harm you. One of the personal rights is the right to express yourself, ie to reveal your thoughts, feelings and opinions. By failing to exercise this right you allow others to regard you as a doormat, take you for granted and treat you with disrespect. The person who stutters tends not to express himself, with the unfortunate result that his rights are often infringed, so diminishing his self-image.

Personal rights

What are the ‘personal rights’ mentioned above? These are rights that ensue from being human; they are natural rights to which every human being is entitled regardless of his or her social status, race, etc. Some of these rights are fundamental human rights, eg the right to express yourself, and are recognised as such in legal systems all over the world. A few personal rights are mentioned below.

The right to express your thoughts, feelings and opinions

Even though you stutter, you have the same right as everybody else to speak and reveal your thoughts. You have the right to be part of the speech community. It also means that you have the right to inform others of your speech problem, and that others must take it into consideration. You also have the right to be emotional – eg angry or sad – and to express these emotions.

The right to speak slowly

Above all you have the right to speak slowly. Don’t lose your cool every time you encounter a rushed speaker!

When two people are having a conversation they tend to influence each other’s speaking style. Eg. a PWS having a telephone conversation with a very fast speaker may feel pressurised to increase his own speaking rate – usually to the detriment of his speech. He needs to learn to resist this pressure.

This is how Prof Martin Schwartz explained it during a workshop: ‘Why must you be the victim of every fast-talking meathead that comes your way? Why sacrifice yourself daily to a fast-speaking world? Be in control! It is true that you will be under pressure for the rest of your life to speed up – but it is possible to learn to withstand this pressure ...’

If the speaker has a right to speak slowly, it also means that the listener is obliged to listen calmly and patiently – one of the principles of jurisprudence is that where one party has a right, the other party has an obligation. If the listener responds negatively to your speech, it’s not your fault – and it shouldn’t be your problem. It is HIS problem. If he’s impatient, then HE is the one who is rude and transgressing the rules of the speaking community.

The right to make mistakes and to fail

Making mistakes is part of being human. Nobody is perfect. Being too hard on yourself will only harm your self-image. Accepting your own human fallibility will also make you more tolerant toward other people and their mistakes. Accepting the right to fail enables a person to try new things and take risks. If, after having internalised this right, you do fail in whatever you have tried to do, it won’t have an effect on your self-image, the reason being that your psychological system can now cope with fallibility.

Many people feel that by exercising this right they will abandon all standards and make too many mistakes. This attitude is typical of a modern tendency of strictness towards oneself for fear of losing control – of allowing ‘the monster within’ to escape. This attitude ignores the basic principle of pedagogy that children learn to walk through encouragement and support rather than by means of threats and punishment. Making mistakes is part of the learning process. Be gentle with yourself; be your own best friend. We all have an inner child who needs to be encouraged and pampered.

The right to stutter

The PWS has the right to stutter, and should get rid of all feelings of guilt about his speech. It is after all not his fault that he stutters. Stuttering is a speech and communication disorder affecting many people. Moreover, nobody speaks perfectly all the time. Let the listener wait – most of what is said is not urgent anyway. If they want to engage in a conversation with you, they will have to be patient.

The right not to stutter and to succeed

Although the PWS has the right to stutter, he also has the right not to stutter. He has the right to speak fluently, to manage the disorder and to gradually overcome it.

Many people have difficulty coping with the possibility of success. Success is always accompanied by new responsibilities. People, yourself included, will expect more. Some may be jealous. As a result, many fear success. These fears have to be faced, and can be conquered. Conquering your fears is easier if you believe in your right to succeed.

The right not to assert yourself

You do not have to assert yourself all the time. The individual who invariably insists on his rights will in all probability be a very difficult person! Exaggerating your rights amounts to aggression. The ideal is that you will develop the ability to CHOOSE whether to assert yourself or not, depending on the circumstances.

The right not to speak

This is an extension of the right not to assert yourself. It means that you do not have to speak if that is what you prefer. It is your choice whether you speak or choose not to. A distinction has to be made here between the pressure exerted on you to speak, and your freedom to choose to speak or keep quiet. The point is that you always have a choice whether to speak or not, regardless of the extent to which others pressurise you to speak. PWS should be aware of this distinction.

Too many people respond automatically to a question – they answer immediately. The PWS has to learn not to answer immediately, but to create a pause between the question and the answer; a pause in which he can formulate his thoughts and apply a speech technique. One should actually try to acquire the unhurried manner of speech of certain American Indian tribes (see the chapter ‘Background and Misconceptions’).

You have many more rights than those mentioned above. Each person can draw up his own list of personal rights and claim it as his own – provided of course that they stay within reason and do not infringe the rights of others. Here are some examples: the right to ask a favour, the right to be treated with respect, the right to privacy, to say no, to refuse a drink, to do nothing, to say that you don’t understand something, etc.

Body language

Communication experts point out that between 70% and 90% of interpersonal communication is non-verbal. Tone and inflection of voice, speech rate, eye contact, body posture, hand gestures and facial expression all play a part in communication. An apologetic attitude can cause untold harm to one’s self-image. Clothes and personal appearance are also part of body language. Three types of body language can be distinguished: self-asserting body language, aggressive body language and non-assertive body language.

Self-assertive body language:

Comfortable, direct eye contact

Open body attitude, limited body movements

Erect posture

Straight shoulders

Sincere voice

Appropriate distance from the listener

 Hand gestures that emphasise words

Aggressive body language:

Direct eye contact leading to an ‘eye confrontation’

Closed body posture

Bored appearance

A sarcastic tone of voice, or too soft or too loud

Standing too close to the listener and invading his personal space

Fists, hands on hips, pointing finger

Non-assertive body language:

Averted glance

Inappropriate smiling

Hanging shoulders

Voice too soft and difficult to hear, or complaining tone

 Fidgeting/playing with hair/jewellery, wringing hands

Setting goals

Set yourself a few life goals. Establish where you are heading – and decide whether this is really where you want to be. If not, decide where you want to go, and who you want to be. Write these objectives down – so verbalising them and making them concrete. A life without goals is like a ship without a rudder. You have to know where you are heading, but you should also be flexible and prepared to reach your goal via an unforeseen detour. It may even become necessary to adapt your goals en route.

Keep in mind that your goals should be realistic and attainable. Unattainable goals lead to failure and frustration.

There are many courses available these days for people who want to improve their assertion and communication skills. PWS should find such courses a great help, especially where they have already acquired a speaking technique and are able to apply it to some extent.


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