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


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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.

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)

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