I am a researcher at a university. I have supervised some Master's theses, but never a work project.
Today, I informed my first ever student assistant that she is hired. She is a nice girl and has more work experience than the average student. But she also has a strange form of stutter. She can talk smoothly for some sentences, but at some point, she starts searching for a word. At this point, she lays her had to a side, and her eyes roll up, showing only the whites, while she is trying to say the word. This can continue for up to a minute. The fact that we are communicating in her third language probably doesn't help either.
Co-workers who have taught her warned me what to expect, so I wasn't shocked the first time it happened during her job interview. I also asked less questions than I would have if she hadn't had the problem. I just patiently sat there while she searched for the word, and there was only one time she gave it up, else she was able to recover and say the word at some point. They also told me that she usually just tries to speak as little as possible, but they don't really know more than that.
Later, she will be able to do most of her work by herself. But at the beginning, we will probably have to discuss a lot. And I am afraid that especially at the beginning, when she isn't yet at ease around me, she will have the most problems talking.
My experience from the interview was this: When we are talking and the tic happens, I am feeling silly and inadequate. I try to sit there with an encouraging smile and wait, but have no idea how she is interpreting my behaviour. I can think of several things I could do in the future, and have no idea whether she would be glad for it, or consider it rude. What I have thought of until now is:
- If I have a good guess of what she is trying to say, I can prompt her with the word. But I don't know if she would like that, and my guesses aren't that good (unlike some stutterers, she doesn't pronounce the first part of a word before getting the tic).
- I could offer her to converse by instant messaging, even though she is sitting in the same room. It would be a very thorough solution if it works, but also one which feels even more awkward than the rest.
- I could offer her to talk in English, because it is her second language. Maybe she grasps less for words in it, so this could lower the frequency of the tics.
- The approach I would like best is that I just directly ask her how she would like me to behave, and whether there is something we could do to make the situation better. I mean, she is aware that I am aware of her tic, so why not speak openly about it? But I am afraid that she would consider such open speaking rude, and I don't want to be considered rude by somebody I will be working with a lot.
It doesn't help that most people consider me very blunt. My friends have grown used to my sometimes tactless questions, and know that I often don't realise that they will have a problem answering them until after I have asked them and noticed their reaction. But discussing such a sensitive topic with a person who is still practically a stranger, and presumably quite shy, will really be very hard for me.
So I wonder, how should I react. Should I ask her for her preferences? Or suggest ideas of my own? Or say nothing and treat her with patience, hoping that we'll get the communication done somehow? And if I decide that I should talk to her about it, when should I bring it up? Is it better to give her some time to get more comfortable about working and communicating with me, or will waiting look bad, as if I have been hoping that the problem will be minor, but have noticed that it hampers our work? And if I should wait, than for how long should I wait?