“Er”, “Um”, “Like”: Mindful vs. Mindless Speech

I stumbled across a creative and innovative practice this morning that is worth sharing. It incorporates mindfulness into our daily lives in a way that forces us to actually think about what we are saying and how we are saying it. This simple but challenging instruction brings an immediate and positive shift to how we are in the world. 020206_trdp_s6 (1)
The exercise is to become aware of the use of “filler” words and phrases, and try to eliminate them from your speech. These are words such as “um”, “like”, “well”, “you know”, “kind of.” I have been told that one of mine is “by the way.” You may already know what yours are, or perhaps haven’t given it any attention and are somewhat unaware. These phrases can shift overtime for us but underlying them is the question of why we use them. See if you can notice what is happening when you do. Where are you when it happens? Is it an ingrained habit? Are you giving a presentation and there is some anxiety? Do you feel like you are entering a difficult conversation?
photo_468_20080904This is not easy. When you first begin to practice in this way, you may be shocked by how much you use these filler words. This habit tends to be strong, so remember to be patient with yourself. It can be helpful to enlist friends and family to point out when you are “doing” it again. Bring lots of friendliness to yourself, even smiling softly as you notice the tendency and practice this intentional thoughtfulness. To give a little perspective, Jan Chozen Bays in her wonderful book, Mindfulness on the Go, reports that “a typical teenager uses the filler word “like” an estimated two hundred thousand times a year!”
Filler words seem to serve several functions. For instance, Bays says, “They are space holders, telling the listener that you are going to start speaking or that you are not finished speaking yet…they also soften what we say, making it less definitive or assertive.” You can imagine how this tendency can hinder us in all areas of life, in particular our work life. If you are trying to win the hearts and minds of a client, your team or coworkers, ending your presentation, “So, anyway, I, you know, think we should, basically, kind of go ahead with the project” doesn’t quite move or inspire.
branch4The most effective speakers, the ones that are truly inspirational and effect change do not use filler words. Martin Luther King, Gandhi, we recognize this kind of clarity when we hear it. Conversely, lots of “ums” and “sort ofs” obstruct the listener from hearing you in subtle and not so subtle ways. They can make the speaker sound less intelligent, less competent and dilute the importance of what is being said.
We could point to our modern culture with its relativistic bent as the cause of the increased usage of filler words. Decades ago, speaking in this way was not commonplace. Yet no matter the catalyst, with mindful attention we can choose to do things differently.
We can speak clearly, concisely and without couching our wisdom and knowledge. With mindfulness, we refrain from harmful speech. You begin, as Don Miguel Ruiz instructs in the First of his Four Agreements to, “Be impeccable with your word.” It takes patience, kindness and yes, practice. And it has the power to open wide the gate of communication with others and illuminate your own path.070711a7017 (1)


We humans have a tendency to label things as good or bad, wanting more of the former and avoiding the latter at all costs. Yet this labeling is the antithesis of mindfulness. In truth, it is the root cause of much of our suffering and stress.

You don’t need to take my word for it. Try it for yourself. Throughout the day, see if you can notice how much of the time you are either liking or disliking almost everything that’s occurring.  dreamstime_11087921 (1)

Perhaps you may want to learn a new language. But you say to yourself, “I’m not good at languages” because in high school you struggled in a Spanish class. Once we label an experience, it colors all future experiences that even resemble it slightly. And yet is it necessarily so? Or is it just more thinking that we are inadvertently believing in any given moment?

These assessments, though occasionally conscious are more often unconscious. They are simply reflex reactions based on past experiences. Our judging mind is showing up in the habitual, predictable way as it has countless times before. This is not about fault finding or trying to control our thinking. The process happens so quickly that we are not even aware that we are unaware. These thoughts have become automatic.

However, we do have a choice. In fact, we have many choices. When we become present to the content of our thoughts, we gain access to our available choices-to respond rather than react to these thoughts. We open up a pause that can generate countless opportunities for new experiences.  dreamstime_12677239 (1)

I often share the story below with my students in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction courses. It illustrates how our interpretations of what is happening is directly linked to the level of stress we may be feeling at any given time. And how our interpretations are never the whole story.

There once was a peasant farmer who lived in a remote village in China. His only means of plowing his fields was an ox. When the ox died, he flew into a panic about how he was going to feed his family. The villagers told him to seek counsel at the home of the old sage who lived on the outskirts of town.

The farmer said to the wise man, “I don’t know what to do. My ox has died and my family may starve. This is the worst thing that could ever have happened to me!”

The sage paused, looking him squarely in the eyes and said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

The farmer walked away in disbelief. How could he say such a thing when here he was in such distress. He told his family and neighbors that this was no wise man; he didn’t know what he was talking about.

However, the next morning the farmer discovered a strong young horse grazing in a distant field. He trained the horse and in short order, he was able to plow his fields better and faster than before. Not only that, the horse ate less feed than the ox. The farmer thought to himself, “You know, maybe that old man is wise after all. Finding this horse was a stroke of great luck.”

He decided to go the sage and thank him. “You know”, the farmer explained, “I thought you were crazy for telling me that maybe it wasn’t bad luck that my ox had died. But now I know you were right, I found this horse and he plows even better than the ox. It has been the best thing that has ever happened to me.”

The sage again looked into his eyes and said, “maybe yes, maybe no.”

The farmer, incredulously said, “Are you kidding me?” Shaking his head and walking away, he thought “This guy is nuts! I am not coming here again.”

A few days later, his only son was riding the horse while working and was bucked off. He broke his leg and the horse had to be put down. Inconsolable, the farmer recalled that the sage had indeed spoken wisely and decided to go back to seek advice. After sharing these latest events, he said to the wise man, “Now you have to admit, this is absolutely the worst thing that could have possibly happened to me!!”

And the old man, calmly and lovingly replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”cairn over rocks

This infuriated the farmer so much, he stormed back to the village and told anyone who would listen how ridiculous the so-called wise man was.

The very next day, troops arrived in the village to take all the able-bodied young men away to fight in the on-going war. His son was the only one who was saved. His broken leg spared him from almost certain death.

When we can step back and pause with a mind that does not truly know the answer, we can extend our view. We can see potential in all occurrences, gaining a bird’s eye perspective, a wisdom on our own lives.


waves7You may be  familiar with the adage “Try, try, and try again. Then, at last, youwill succeed.” And there can be some truth in that. Preparation, practice and experience are vital ingredients to success. But we also know that constant pushing, striving, and doing in a largely effortful way is stressful and often, self-defeating. Philosophers and neuroscientists alike agree that our most productive, creative self emerges when we are in the flow. Engaging with our lives in a relaxed but keenly receptive way.  Author Edward Slingerland in his book “Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity” calls this “embodied cognition.” It’s often referred to as being “in the zone” or acting spontaneously: it is a state of complete mental focus and ease.

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