Filler words can have strategic use. Find out how.

Seasoned public speakers might frown upon it, but we all use filler words in our conversations. It is not just umm, aah, like. Other common ones include so or maybe (to start sentences), right? (to end sentences), kind of, I think, and sort of (in the middle of sentences). Every language has its own set of filler words, and people in the same organization tend to use the same fillers.

It is believed that overuse of filler words can undermine our credibility and cut the strength or impact of our message in half – ‘maybe this is irrelevant, but…’. It is also a sign that we aren’t confident in our messages. Even if we use fillers to just pause, the average listener assumes that we’re saying ‘like’ or ‘maybe’ because we are anxious or not prepared. Then, is there a way to use fillers to an advantage? Are there situations where they can be helpful? Yes:

  1. To cushion the effect of a message. If you’re giving critical feedback to an employee, fillers help soften the message. Words like ‘maybe’ and ‘probably’ leave some breathing room for the receiver to think about the feedback and make it sound less accusatory.

“When you made that comment about maternity leave being excess, I think it hurt people who’ve just come back from that leave. Maybe they are feeling targeted or left out. Are you willing to speak to them to clarify?”

  1. To give yourself some room to think. When in the middle of delivering a presentation or announcing new initiatives to the team, you might need to answer questions, or need time to recall information. Using fillers intentionally can give you this space. Saying them right will also prevent people from interrupting your thought or speech.

“That’s a great question. Ummm… let’s see, maybe give me a min to think about it.” Or “There could be a different approach to this problem, maybe let’s pause to think.”

  1. To pitch into a conversation or halt someone. This often happens in team meetings where 2-3 people engage in a discussion, and others feel that they can’t contribute. Fillers then offer a gentle way of breaking into the conversation. Another use – if you have something to say and aren’t finding the right opening, fillers like ‘so’, ‘actually’, ‘you know what’, and ‘I feel’ can help you start the conversation.

“You know what, I have someone in mind who could be helpful in this situation,” or “So, I’m wondering if we can hear other perspectives in the room.”

Language matters in demonstrating our effectiveness as leaders. Given that we all tend to use them, are there any fillers to steer clear of? The general consensus – avoid starting sentences with “I’m sorry..”, if you need 10 seconds to think, stop saying ‘like’ multiple times to fill space, and lastly, avoid ending sentences with ‘right’. Keep these three at bay, and you’re good to go!

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