When Words Leak

I like the word perhaps.  Perhaps became one of my go to words in college when my friends and I were working to eliminate our filler words. Those words we often didn’t hear ourselves use like um, right, er, you know, ah, and my personal former addiction, actually.

Two perspectives generally exist about filler words.  One suggests they paint the speaker as unprofessional, uncertain and distract the listener from the intended message.  The other, a research perspective, suggests they serve the important purpose of creating tiny conversational pauses that allow our brain to catch up and formulate an answer while simultaneously queueing the other person that we are being thoughtful and intend to respond.

As a Coach, my ear is also tuned for things like ‘sorry’, ‘I guess’, ‘and I don’t know’.  They grab my attention triggering conversation about if they are heard, what prompts them and their possible impact.

What if you’re leaking more than just filler?

It was clear that Pete was an experienced coach, and understood the coaching methodology of allowing people to find their own answers through inquiry and conversation. Our work together was around self-assessment and garnering external feedback as part of refining and expanding his expertise.

In the taped conversations Pete had provided (with permission), a pattern emerged where comments slipped in to conversation often at transition points from discovery to action planning, when refocusing back to the topic, or in staging a key point. Seemingly innocuous things, for example, ‘when you arrive at work all bright eyed and bushy tailed’ and, ‘as you were planning for this meeting the night before’.

Are these innocent?  Do we know if the other person is bright eyed and bushy tailed in the morning?  If they plan the night before the way we might?    Another common word leak is telling people how they feel.  Oh, (my, wow, no, gosh), that’s_______. You must be/feel  ________.   Do we know that their reaction aligns with ours?

These speech habits are just that – habits.  A set of go to phrases that we have incorporated into the cadence of our conversation.    Pete’s aha was that while he was focused on creating good questions and safe space for a meaningful conversation, his filler phrases were busy sending a message of their own.   This led to a heightened awareness that for the receiver, these things that we don’t hear can be potentially leading, make assumptions about the listener’s values, outlooks and actions, and have the potential to trigger a defensiveness that could compromise the willingness to share a different perspective.

Uh, huh… little filler habits, big impact.   What are your filler words and phrases?

Here are three ways you can perform a filler words and phrases self-assessment:

  • Try to hear yourself. Though it’s not easy to hear every word you say, if you tell yourself what you want to listen for, often your brain will begin to notice when it happens. Writing it on a post It you regularly view and putting it on your to do list further boosts this strategy by using the top down attention system. Top down attention is something commonly experienced if you are looking for a new car and you suddenly notice the car you want all around you.
  • Ask for help. Extend the invitation to those around you in social exchanges to interrupted every time you say it.  It’s the put a $1.00 in a jar for swearing strategy.
  • Gather input. Uncertain if your values and opinions leak into conversations and how they impact others?   Pull in those that know you very well and that interact with you regularly, for many, their closest friends and family. Share what you’re trying to learn this and invite their objective observations.

When it comes to change, big and small, noticing and self-awareness is a foundational step to making it happen.

Well, perhaps, um, er, ah, you know, I guess, that’s like all for now!

PS…Thank you to Pete (and you know your real name) for permission to share this story.




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