What’s The Rush?
Our Time, Founder and Director
I am a person who stutters. I have stuttered since I was about five years old. I am now 40
years old. I can say with confidence and a ton of experience that being a person who
stutters is hard. Very hard. Sometimes it can be agonizing. Sometimes it can be
depressing, humiliating, frustrating, and anger-inducing. And sometimes it can just
I am a person who listens. I can say with confidence and a ton of experience that being a
person who listens is hard. Very hard.
It takes more work to listen well than to do anything else. And let me make one thing
clear: I do not think I am a great listener most of the time. Sometimes I am. Sometimes I
am not. Sometimes I think I am but in reality I am not. Sometimes I really try to be a
good listener, and yet I still end up falling short. Am I trying every day? Yes. Is that all I
can really ask of myself? Yes. I think most of us try our best to be our best selves every
day. I wish that more of us—including those of us in the stuttering community—would
try a bit harder to be the best listeners we can be, every day.
Why is listening so hard? You don’t have to leap tall buildings in a single bound. You
don’t have to memorize any wild mathematical equations. You don’t have to sing in front
of hundreds of people. You don’t have to run 26.3 miles. You don’t have to have a PhD.
In fact, you don’t even have to have a high school diploma or even ever attend school.
Sometimes the more you know can make it harder to be a good listener. Sometimes the
people who want to be heard the most are the people who struggle to listen the most.
We all want to be heard and understood. In fact, we get quite upset when we don’t feel
heard, understood and validated. We want respect. And respect starts with listening.
So let’s break it down. What does one have to do to become a better listener?
* Step 1: Talk less, listen more. Kick your ego to the curb. Don’t worry about constantly
proving your intelligence, humor, wit, and vivaciousness. Trust that your greatness will
* Step 2: Don’t attempt to multi-task while listening. As hard as it may be, try your best
to allow listening to be the main event.
* Step 3: When someone is speaking to you, don’t focus on what your response should
be; just listen. When we spend our energy preparing for our perfect response, we lose out
on a golden opportunity to listen. We must resist the urge to say, “Yes! I totally know
how you feel! The same thing happened to me!” Trust that you will get your chance to
share your stories—after you listen.
* Step 4: Make eye contact as much as possible. You may think that you already make
good eye contact, but I bet you can do better. I know this can be hard when you are
listening to someone who is really struggling to speak. Do your best.
* Step 5: Know that when you are listening to someone, especially a child, and especially
a child who stutters, you are giving them the greatest gift possible. What they most want
is your undivided attention.
* Step 6: Create special time to listen. Create the time, perhaps the same time every day
when listening is the main event. Parents, perhaps this is at bedtime. And even if it is only
for 15 minutes, at least it will be 15 minutes of undivided attention your child can count
on. Now, as you probably already know, giving someone who stutters (in particular a
child who stutters) a 15-minute time limit may not work at all. In fact, that time pressure
may only make matters worse. This is something you can discuss with your child— get
them involved in coming up with a listening game plan. Whatever specifics you agree on,
just remember: in that moment, be 100% present. Do your best to not think about your
work or that impending to-do list. Do your best to not check your smart phone. Trust me,
you do not need to update your Facebook status or take a photo or check the score of the
game or read the paper in that moment. You can wait to flip through channels to find the
best show to unwind to. Just really be there, looking into your child’s eyes…listening.
Now, let’s be real. I often find it challenging to give my children (ages 5, 2 ?, and 4
months) my undivided attention. Every morning when my wife and I wake up, the to-do
list starts yelling at us at the top of its lungs: make breakfast, clean up the house, check
emails, wash the dishes, do the laundry, pay the bills, check emails again, take care of the
kids, etc., etc., etc….and that’s just during the week!
Then there’s the weekend: two days to jam-pack in everything we couldn’t do during the
week, including that cherished quality time! But then the weekend arrives, bringing with
it its own overwhelming to do list.
How can we do it all? Can we do it all? Is it possible to do all the things we have to do
and have any time left to really listen to anyone? I say yes. But change isn’t easy, and
shifting our focus to being more in the moment and present as listeners takes practice and
vigilance. The payoff of enriched relationships and deeper understanding is worth the
It was an April evening in New York City. Our Time (the non-profit organization I
founded, dedicated to helping kids who stutter) was about to begin its largest and most
important Annual Benefit Gala to date. New York University’s Skirball Center for the
Performing Arts was sold out. The place was buzzing. The audience was ready. It was
SHOWTIME! I was standing backstage with an 8-year-old child who stutters. She was
about to kick the whole gala off by walking to center stage, microphone in hand, bathed
in spotlight, all eyes and ears on her. In the moment before she started walking, I turned
to her and asked, “Are you ready to rock this?!”
Her answer did not take one second or two seconds or ten seconds. Her response took
three minutes. For me, as the Director of the high-stakes show, this was a time of truth. I
momentarily struggled with what to do in the pressure of that moment: Should I rush her
along so the show can start? Or do I stay true to myself and listen to her, even if it means
that the audience of over 750 people becomes restless? Despite the challenges inherent in
doing so, I chose to listen. I gave her the time to express her fear and excitement. When
she was finished, I said, “You got this.” We high-fived. Then I watched her walk on stage
as the audience gave a huge round of thunderous applause. The young emcee beamed.
I’m glad I listened.
I don’t always make the best choices. As much as possible, I try to imagine that my three
children are standing next to me every moment of my day; I think, “What would I do if
my kids were watching and listening to me right now?” That helps me try to be my best
One of my favorite programs at Our Time is our summer camp, Camp Our Time. I love
all the various activities, the staff is outstanding, and having the opportunity to meet so
many young people who stutter from all over the country and abroad is amazing. I also
love Camp Our Time because I get to have my cake and eat it too! I get to oversee a life-
changing experience for kids who stutter, and have my family there the whole time. And
my kids love it! They get to come to the Our Time programming during the year, and that
is a lot of fun. But Camp is their ultimate playground with their favorite people: the Our
Time campers, counselors, Mom, and Dad.
Each morning, they get up and walk over to the dining hall and eat with 150 other people.
They listen to the morning announcements and the beautiful, original morning song
(which a few brilliant members on our staff write and perform each day). Then they
bounce between many fun activities for the next several hours (the pool, the lake,
horseback riding, rock-climbing, arts and crafts, basketball, softball, soccer, tennis,
singing, archery, the zip-line, and gem mining). Before you know it, everyone meets back
up for lunch. My kids witness the campers (ages 8-18) and the staff (ages 19 and up)
engage in great conversation, including great listening.
There are no Internet devices allowed at camp: no smart phones or laptops. People can
listen to music on their iPods, but only when they are in their bunks. That means my kids
get to eat three meals a day with 150 people for ten days in a row, with no checking of
phones or texting or sending emails or social networking. My kids get to experience
something that I don’t see happen anywhere else: they get to feel what it’s like for a
community of people to listen to each other, share stories with each other, joke around
with each other, and get to know each other, without the distraction of everyday life.
The day ends at a campfire with s’mores. The level of listening at the campfire blows my
mind. 150 people sit around listening to one person speak for however long it takes,
without interrupting, commenting, judging, or laughing. And good listening is
contagious. My oldest son listens to dozens and dozens of young people who stutter share
their stories. He is patient, understanding, and content. He falls asleep in my arms,
listening carefully to each camper share their stuttering struggles and triumphs. These
kids are his heroes.
When we look back at our lives and how we spent our time on this earth, my gut tells me
we won’t say, “Gosh! I wish I had spent more time emailing and texting! I wish I had
shopped more and collected a few more things!” More likely, we’ll think things like: I
wish I had spent more time with my children. I wish I had worried less about my to-do
list, and just relaxed more often. I wish I had listened to my kids when they wanted to
talk—about anything. I wish I had been more patient and understanding and less in a
Because when it comes down to it, what’s the rush? We are all in a race to the same
place, so we might as well stop more often to listen to the beautiful sounds and words
around us every day. And if we happen to be a person who stutters, or a parent or family
member of a person who stutters, lucky us! Because if we accept and embrace the
moment, people who stutter give us the opportunity to slow down just a bit, listen more,
and experience the treasures of communication that life has to offer. People who stutter
help us all listen more. And that just might be the greatest gift of all.
Taro Alexander is a person who stutters and Founder and Artistic Director of Our Time,
a theatre company for young people who stutter in New York City. Taro also founded
Camp Our Time – an annual summer camp for children and teens who stutter and their
siblings and friends between the ages of 8-18. In 2002 Taro was honored by the National
Council on Communicative Disorders at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where
he received the Charles Van Riper Award. Alexander performed for 4 years in the
successful Off-Broadway production of STOMP.