Recent Hire Uses Excessive Filler Words Like, Um, “You Know”? Ask Madeleine

October 12, 2019 Madeleine Homan Blanchard


Dear Madeleine,

I supervise a number of educational professionals who are required to report to a team (including parents) regarding their evaluation. A recent hire, with more than 25 years’ experience in the field, uses phrases such as “um” and “you know” excessively when giving his evaluation results to the team. At a recent meeting, I counted over 45 such instances in 3 minutes. I find it very distracting and feel it does not reflect well on our department.

What do you recommend that I do? He was hired by my boss, so I hesitate to say anything.


Dear Distracted,

Oh dear. My daughter and I once attended a college orientation and the admissions staff member who spoke to our tour group had the same problem. My daughter and I exchanged glances and both started counting (a brief search on Google reveals this as the most common response) while suppressing our giggles.

The woman’s presentation was 30 minutes long and by the end of it we were barely able to contain ourselves. We didn’t hear a word she said. We were both mystified that no one had told her about the problem, given that she was the face of the institution to prospective students. I can only speculate that her boss didn’t care.

But you do care—so say something you must. It is distracting and it does reflect poorly on your department—but maybe even more to the point, on your new hire himself. I don’t think it matters that he was hired directly by your boss; your job is to make sure he is successful. And if you don’t help him to be more polished and professional, you are failing both of them.
Here’s the thing: it’s a habit, not a character flaw. It’s a small, common habit, born from a deep discomfort with silence, that has turned into a monster. And there is something your employee can do about it.

The first step is self-awareness. You have to call it out and ask him to notice it as he goes about his business. The next step is for him to decide to do something about it and practice another way.

How to go about this? Directly. Be kind and be brief. Here is an outline of what you might say. Practice out loud and find your own language—this is simply a suggestion.

The Self Awareness Piece:

“Hi Dan. I want to help you be as successful as possible and to leverage your wealth of experience and expertise. I need to share an observation and make a request of you. When you do your evaluations, you use filler words excessively. I think it detracts from your credibility and excellent work. My request is that you pay attention to this during your next presentation. After that, we can discuss it further.”

Do not ask for his opinion on this. You’ll have the urge to say “Have you noticed?” or something like that. If so, you will be doing a version of what he does—substituting filler because you are uncomfortable with silence. Don’t do it.

The What to Do About It Conversation:

“Hi. Did you notice? Good. Are you willing to do something about it? Great!”
I did a little research on this (it’s such a common problem that there is a ton of help out there) and I found a short, easy video that I think might really help. Watch the video together and offer to have him practice with you. (Note: Notice your own filler words and work on them as well.) Many people start every sentence with “So…” My husband drops in “it’s so interesting” where it doesn’t belong. He has to pay attention, still, after 25 years of public speaking. Your employee is not alone! Be his partner as he goes through the discomfort of changing his habit. He will get there with your support—and your boss never has to know.

I guess there is a chance he might disagree with you that his habit is a problem and decline to make any changes. Then you have a bigger problem, one that will require a hard conversation. If he won’t change, at least you’ll know you’ve done your best. If you really think his performance is lowering the quality of your service, at that point you will have no choice but to escalate to your boss.

Good luck,

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard Headshot 10-21-17

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!


About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a Master Certified Coach and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. She is coauthor of Blanchard’s Coaching Essentials training program, and several books including Leverage Your Best, Ditch the Rest, Coaching in Organizations, and Coaching for Leadership.

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