Cluttering Interviews: A personal perspective

In June 2023 I took part in the  50 Million Voices practice interview event;  an initiative that does so much to unlock the talent of people who stutter by tackling the barriers created by workplace interviews.  I’ve been involved with 50MV since meeting Iain Wilkie and Sam Simpson when I was a mentor on the first  Stambition  program run by Action for Stammering Children in 2021.  This time, as agreed with the organisers, I was participating for the first time as a person who clutters.

Although I’ve been dysfluent all my life, I always sensed I wasn’t a person who stammers, even though my speech sometimes displayed similarities. I’d never heard of cluttering but following a referral to a specialist speech and language therapist I was formally diagnosed as a person who clutters. Doing so has had a profoundly positive impact on both my work and social lives and has made sense of so much of what has gone before.

At this year’s 50MV event, I was specifically paired with another person who clutters so that we could share our experiences and draw learnings that might help people for clutter participating in future 50MV events. We identified that people who clutter experience many similarities at workplace interviews as people who stammer, not least the fear of discrimination and nervousness that our dysfluency might lead to the perception of poor performance or lack of ability. But we also noted some specific and subtle differences for people who clutter, and it is these which I would like to share and discuss further in this blog.

Much of the discussion at the 50MV Practice Interview briefing session is around disclosure of dysfluency. Unfortunately, many still fear to disclose when applying for work for fear of outright rejection. Others prefer to disclose at the start of an interview, or when first stammering during the interview. Some may choose not to disclose at all. There is no right or wrong and the most important thing is that everyone does whatever is most comfortable for them. However, one key difference between cluttering and stuttering is that those of us who clutter often do not know we are doing it. When that occurs, we can believe ourselves to be communicating more clearly than we perhaps are. I well remember once giving an interview to a  trade journal and discovering that the draft write-up bore scant resemblance to what I (thought I) had said. Consequently, I’m a firm believer that in order to ensure that effective communication takes place, it is vital for me to disclose. I now do so on my CV and LinkedIn profile, and whenever I meet a new colleague or team at work. I try to explain what cluttering is, hopefully with some humour, and to make clear it is just how I speak.

Having disclosed, I will propose there is then an important difference in the response and form of accommodation that a person who clutters can request from an interviewer or listener. With stammering, that request is often to provide more time and space to speak, and for the listener not to interrupt or complete sentences. By contrast, a person who clutters, who, as I’ve highlighted, may well not realise when they are cluttering, can helpfully be made aware they are doing so and invited to slow down in order for effective communication to be resumed. This requires an active response from the listener, which may be uncomfortable, not least to the trained interviewer who has learned how to respond to a person who stammers.

In addition to the continuous concentration needed to reduce the pace of speech, people who clutter can also struggle to coherently assemble in their minds precisely what they want to say, and often mentally revise even as they speak. So quickly delivering answers to questions, especially under interview pressure, poses an additional level of challenge, as indeed so often does normal social conversation. Consequently,  for a job interview, there may be merit for a person who clutters to write out in advance (and practise, ideally to camera) prepared answers to foreseeable questions and to ask to bring these written answers (or cue cards) into the interview. This is easy to do for online interviews and, as an interviewer for 50MV, I use the same strategy to structure my questioning in advance as far as possible, rather than relying on improvisation. I also routinely use the technique to run work meetings and workshops.

This same tendency to mentally revise can also mean that a person who clutters repeats themselves, saying essentially the same thing several times with minor variations. When inviting an interviewer to intervene to help slow me down, I also invite interruption if I start repeating myself. In this way, the responsibility for the cluttering is shared in the interaction.

It was an interesting observation during the recent 50MV Practice Interview event that many people who stutter report finding online interviews more challenging  than face-to face. As a person who clutters, I have found the opposite and that having a familiar, quiet online environment, and avoiding all the precursor stress and distractions of travel, makes it far easier to concentrate both on the formulation and slowing down of speech. Certainly, ensuring sufficient time and a suitable space before an interview to be quiet and to be able to focus on the first few opening sentences is a reasonable accommodation I would encourage all people who clutter to seek.

In summary:

  • People who clutter share many of the same fears and challenges as people who stutter when facing a job interview
  • Disclosure of cluttering can help to facilitate communication in the event that the person who clutters does not realise that cluttering is occurring
  • For that same reason, interviewers can usefully be invited to offer feedback in the event of cluttering
  • Prior written preparation of answers to foreseeable questions can be a valuable strategy for people who clutter, and the use of prepared notes can be considered a reasonable accommodation
  • Allowing sufficient time and a suitable quiet space prior to an interview is vital

I hope this personal reflection provides some useful insight and help for others who clutter. I will be most happy to share and discuss further with anyone interested.

By Graham Barton