The less you knowA couple of months ago a person with my best interest at heart was within earshot as I had a casual conversation. This was a conversation he was welcome to join but didn’t. That he didn’t join was neither a good thing nor a bad thing so his not adding to the conversation went unnoticed. Later, he mentioned that it was almost impossible to even listen to the conversation because “you know” was said so often it was not only distracting, but seriously annoying.

I was shocked and grateful at the same time.  You see, I’m a speaker and in Toastmasters and in both of those situations you work hard to eliminate unnecessary fillers (for instance, “you know,” “um,” “like,” etc.)  I thought I was pretty good at that. Guess not. I’m glad he had the courage to hold up the proverbial mirror.

So I’ve vowed to change.  It’s one thing to be completely aware that it’s a bad habit. More important to be aware of what is coming out of my mouth.

Unfortunately, I’m not alone in exhibiting this cringe-worthy behavior. Now that it’s been brought to my attention I notice it everywhere. In speeches, in meetings, during face-to-face and phone conversations. Being uttered by interviewers and interviewees alike.  Even on NPR for criminy’s sake, where you expect the guests to be more scholarly than the average person.

Equally unfortunate is that what is being said can be lost completely as the listener starts focusing only on the “you knows” and misses the message or information.

Perhaps people say it because true listening has become such a rare skill. Maybe the person not talking is just waiting for a break to say what he wants to say. The talking person senses this and so makes certain there is no break where he might lose the floor. Fill any dead space with “you know.”

It could also be that people need affirmation that they’re being understood. Or perhaps seeking agreement for the point they’re making. In those cases it may come out as “You know what I mean?” or “You know what I’m saying?”

Or maybe people are uncomfortable with silence (silence that could be spent formulating thoughts and eloquent comments) and so fill it with blather.

No matter the reason. It just makes smart people sound dumb.

Wonder if you are an offender?  Ask someone with whom you talk often — as long as she will be candid with you. Afraid you won’t speak naturally when you’re being assessed?  Ask her to do it when you’re not expecting it and give you a tally. It becomes much easier to track the frequency of your own “you knows” once it’s brought to your attention the first time.

Get comfortable with pausing instead of filling the void with sound. Like anything, it takes awareness and practice.  If you try it, let me know how you do.