My communication breakthrough happened in the most unexpected of places: FreeConferenceCall.com. I was 25-ish at the time and enrolled in a personal development program focused on language, interpersonal relationships, and goals. The company had seen potential in me, but whenever I opened my mouth, the words that came out sounded more like verbal diarrhea than management material.
“Yes, ma’am?” I replied over the phone to the facilitator, somehow still slipping a voice crack into my two-syllable response.
“I want to give you an assignment to do between now and our next session.”
Young and ambitious, I emphatically agreed before even hearing what my homework would be. This was teleconferencing, so the lack of body language cues and pauses from delayed connections added a quiet anticipation.
“I want you to listen to yourself while you speak. I want you to listen for two words in particular so you become aware of them. And over time, I want you to eliminate those words from your sentences when you share.”
I said yes. Over the next two weeks, I was shocked to discover how often I used these two words to express myself — sometimes hundreds of times a day. My verbal detox not only helped me to better communicate my feelings; it also transformed how others perceived me, opened doors to new opportunities, and changed my life in the years to come.
What were the words?
Why Language Matters
Before we get to the reveal — how do filler words creep into our vocabularies in the first place?
As it turns out, the root of the problem is simply that we’re not very good at analyzing our own speech patterns. James Pennebaker, a psychology professor from University of Texas at Austin, co-invented the Linguistic Inquiry And Word Count system to help professionals better analyze their words. In a Wharton business school article, Pennebaker noted the following:
“Self-reports are poorly related to real world behaviors. Self-reports are self-theories; they are theories about who we think we are.” — James Pennebaker, psychology professor
The problem with this lack of awareness is that words alter your brain chemistry more than you might think. A study published in the scientific journal PAIN found that the more we focus on negative language, the more our brain’s pain centers become activated.
And according to the book Words Can Change Your Brain, which was co-authored by neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg and communications expert Mark Robert Waldman:
“By holding a positive and optimistic [word] in your mind, you stimulate frontal lobe activity. This area includes specific language centers that connect directly to the motor cortex responsible for moving you into action.
As our research has shown, the longer you concentrate on positive words, the more you begin to affect other areas of the brain.” — Dr. Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman
Takeaway: The words you use day in and day out not only have an emotional undercurrent, but are likely to elicit emotions in both you and others that shape the way you are perceived.
The Two Words
To project confidence and clarity whenever you write or speak, eliminate “guess” and “just” from your vocabulary. ‘Guess’ and ‘just’ are defense mechanisms masquerading as filler words. In most cases, adding either or both of these words to your sentences comes off more like apology or a defense mechanism than politeness.
- “Just wanted to follow up…”
- “I guess my idea is to….”
- “I’m just worried about you…”
- “I guess we should just move on, then.”
Want to be taken seriously in emails, meetings, or conversations? Consider scanning your language for filler words like ‘guess’ and ‘just’ that are not only extraneous, but also make you sound less clear and confident. Here are the same phrases with filler words stripped out.
- “Hi — I am following up.”
- “I have an idea…”
- “I am worried about you.”
- “Let’s move on.”
My word elimination diet made me more mindful. (And happier, since I talk to myself in my head all day along.) But the even bigger result was that it changed my interpersonal relationships and inspired action both in myself and in others. In a strange twist, I accomplished more by speaking less.
Common communication advice is to “think before you speak”, which can be a tall order at first. Consider identifying one or two words that have crept into your lexicon over the years and slowly weed them out. Over time, as you shift the words you use to express yourself, you may find the relationships you have with others and yourself moving in a new direction as well.
Thanks for reading. 🙏🏼
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