Filler words such as “um”, “like,” and “you know,” get a great deal of attention in discussions about communication. Ums and filler words occur in all languages. Speakers use them to indicate when they are pausing to think but intend to continue talking. I reject the assumption that ums are some kind of poison that need to be eradicated from your speech, especially if we’re talking about conversational speech. They’re a normal part of communication.
I do agree that overusing filler words in a mindless, habitual way can indeed make you sound hesitant, unprepared, unfocused, and even less intelligent. So it’s a good idea to assess your own speech patterns first. Record yourself giving a presentation or speaking on the phone. Have someone you trust remind you when you are using ums and filler words. Awareness is always the first step toward improvement. If it’s unconscious, you can’t fix it.
If you do find you’re overusing filler words, what can you do to reduce the ums? The key word in that question might be “do.” I believe it’s very difficult and ultimately ineffective to practice not doing something. How do you reinforce a non-action? Don’t talk to fast. Don’t rock back and forth. Don’t use ums. You just get uptight and rigid trying to stop yourself. If you’re serious about eliminating an undesirable behavior, you must implement a new behavior that displaces the first. Psychologists call them “competing” behaviors.
In my opinion, the most effective competing behavior for ums and filler words is breathing. I’ve noticed a connection between breath-holding and the use of ums. Poor breathing habits increase tension, induce fast speech, and inhibit clear thinking. Tension, fast speech, and muddled thinking, that’s a perfect breeding ground for ums and filler words. When you are searching for the right idea or word, just pause and allow a breath to enter your body. You can’t say “uhm” when you’re inhaling. The rate of your speech becomes more deliberate, and your brain functions more optimally. You become more conscious of the core of your message and how that can be best expressed. Ums and filler words diminish.
I get a little crazy when people start counting the number of ums a speaker uses as though it was some kind of important indicator of competent speech. It’s not. I think people latch on to uhm-counting because it’s a simple and obvious thing to monitor. Anyone can do it. But it takes skill to assess why a person is overusing ums and filler words, and those underlying issues are much more critical. Things like preparation, relaxation, breathing, and presence.
I certainly agree that using frequent ums and filler words in a prepared speech probably does reflect a lack of preparation. But great communication involves so much more than the absence of ums. Factors such as clarity, presence, passion, and connection are much more critical. It’s hard to cultivate those qualities if you’re tied up in knots afraid that a couple of ums might slip out.
Of course, when it reaches a point where the ums and filler words become a distraction for listeners, you do need to take action. In that case, “just stop doing it” is not an action. Cultivating awareness and reinforcing competing behaviors, like pausing to breathe, are effective solutions for this nagging problem.
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