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I work at a bank in the United States. Every month we have a two hour department meeting and the head of Loan Operations talks first and gives a run down of the past few weeks activities. What bothers me the most about these meetings is that it is hard to follow what she is saying because she says "you know" so often. It's distracting and it is like someone scratching fingernails on a chalkboard.

I am thinking of providing constructive criticism by either telling my supervisor about this or telling her directly that her use of "you know" so often makes what she is saying hard to follow. But would I be out of place for giving criticism to my boss' boss? Can I suggest she work on cutting down or eliminating the phrase "you know" by practicing or taking a class? Or would this be insulting? I would like to point out a way to improve from one professional to another, but I don't want to come across as offensive.

Update -- Thanks guys for all the feedback. The consensus is not to let her know her "you knows" are hard to hear. I get it. Thanks.

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on The Workplace Meta, or in The Workplace Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – motosubatsu
    Sep 26, 2023 at 13:46
  • Should the 'update' part of the question be there? Sep 27, 2023 at 22:29
  • Constructive criticism is not what you think it is. Oct 10, 2023 at 13:40
  • Can you try to comprehend why the exact phrase "you know" bothers you so much? Maybe a shot in the dark, is it possible that one of your parents or any significant other used that exact phrase in his language long time ago. Maybe during criticism?
    – Mike
    Oct 11, 2023 at 9:57
  • For me it's that I wish she would just say what she wants to say directly. No one in my past has used this to this extent. Oct 11, 2023 at 18:28

12 Answers 12

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Can I suggest she work on cutting down or eliminating the phrase "you know" by practicing or taking a class? Or would this be insulting?

Telling your boss' boss that they should take a class on how to speak better is likely to be a career limiting move - and if they're not a native speaker or it has some kind of mental health related cause then it could also land you in trouble with HR.

If you find it distracting and irritating, then you should practice your listening and find ways to stop yourself getting annoyed by it. But bringing it up with them is likely to cause far more issues than it might solve, and depending on whether you work somewhere with decent employment rights, could even result in your losing your job. And for something that slightly annoys you for a few hours once a month, the risk/reward ratio means that you should just put up with it.

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  • Good point. Thanks for explaining. Sep 25, 2023 at 11:12
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    Maybe a soft way to give a hint would be asking for a "talk training" for yourself. You know - because you say "Erm" so often when you talk publicy *wink wink - Of course that only works if you indeed need to talk publicly in your position.
    – Fildor
    Sep 26, 2023 at 6:57
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    @Fildor that could interestingly enough actually be an option. Because it shows the boss that a) such courses are a possibility and b) that it's ok to take them plus c) if they see you with "better" speech taking one they (hopefully) seriously consider one
    – Hobbamok
    Sep 26, 2023 at 11:35
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    @Fildor, that will probably only work if the boss in question is in the approval chain who need to sign off on the training for you. Sep 26, 2023 at 14:14
  • @BartvanIngenSchenau True. Yes, a lot of "if"s, unfortunately.
    – Fildor
    Sep 26, 2023 at 14:29
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No. Absolutely not. Have you given that type of advice to other people? Have they taken it? What makes you think she would be any different?

The best you can do is start a Toastmasters club in your bank and invite everyone (including her) to join, but even then, it takes a lot of work to get rid of those verbal ticks.

Do not mention it. If you do, you could seriously torpedo your career. It's not worth the risk.

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  • Thanks. Good point. Sep 25, 2023 at 11:13
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    "Have you given that type of advice to other people?" It all depends on the relationship. I've given such advice to my boss. He used to insert "hm..." into every sentence. He worked on it and eventually got rid of that habit. But your milage will wary, of course, especially if you have to ask. Sep 26, 2023 at 2:51
  • @Stephan Branczyk You keep recommending Toastmasters. Quite a few times. Can you please stop it?
    – user135112
    Oct 10, 2023 at 3:41
  • @Gantendo, Perhaps it's my fault for not explaining why such a non-profit club is relevant to this issue. In some Toastmasters clubs, you can request to specifically work on ticks and filler words, in which case, a few people are given clickers, and their role is to click you every time you use a tick or a filler word during a speech. Now, I suppose you could ask a friend to click you in the same manner, but if you ask a friend, there is the risk that they will keep on clicking you even when you don't want them to. In any case, if you know of a better solution, I'm all ears. Oct 13, 2023 at 5:39
  • @StephanBranczyk A "non-profit" that has almost 60 million usd in total assets. Exploiting people's perceived weaknesses has always been very profitable. Maybe your experience was different, but Toastmasters is a net negative on this planet. On Google there are plenty of bad experiences. Please don't promote them on stackexchange. MLMs are bad. The CEO made $624K in 2017 (a 41.3% increase from 2016). jsimmsfun.wordpress.com/2019/09/20/daniel-rexs-salary You got hustled and now you are luring others into the scam.
    – user135112
    Oct 13, 2023 at 6:19
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I have an alternative approach to the "don't ever do this" mentality, and I don't disagree necessarily with the advice of "just don't".

It is possible to deliver this feedback by seeking guidance or assistance in the issue that you're having. Right now, you find it highly distracting for these interruptive colloquialisms, and you can express it exactly like that. I would start with your boss.

"[boss' boss] has a manner of speaking that I find hard to follow due to certain mannerisms. Do you have any techniques to help keep me focused during these discussions? I am very much interested in what she has to say, and I really learn a lot from her when I am focused. I have tried tuning them out and found that ineffective. Do you have some suggestions I could try?"

This turns it into a "Me Problem" rather than a "Her Problem" or "Your Problem". In seeking guidance for your own needs to stay focused and engaged, you're able to deliver the feedback of what's giving you trouble without pointing a blaming finger requiring this person to change.

Consider also that other people may be similarly suffering in silence. This may be feedback that the person needs to hear. Similarly, you could be the only one experiencing this issue, and leadership may have some handy tips for remaining focused.

It's still an area where you need to tread carefully. We don't know this leader in particular so it would be dangerous to provide encouragement to "rebel".

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  • 8
    See this question and its outcome: workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/190385/… is flooded by similar advise to not do anything but as it turns out, someone brought it to the boss' attention and the boss appreciated it and got quite upset with the people who kept silent as he continued to to present himself foolishly. That said, "You know" is nothing compared to the verbal ticks brought up in the linekd question or answers to it.
    – DKNguyen
    Sep 25, 2023 at 23:23
  • This is a good technique. Sep 26, 2023 at 0:09
  • @DKNguyen This is most likely very dependent on the culture, which in turn should be part of these kind of questions. Oct 10, 2023 at 13:42
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Constructive criticism is great, especially when the recipient appreciates it.

Unfortunately some people confuse constructive criticism with being taken down a notch. They think you are trying to insult them to lower their status, so that your status can be higher than them.

The chance of this is lower when the potential gain in status is very small, and the benefit of the constructive criticism is very large. Then it is easiest for people to take the constructive criticism as intended.

When the difference in status is great (as in this case), and the benefit of the criticism is tiny (as in this case), it would have to be an extraordinarily big person not to take it the wrong way. Nothing against your boss's boss, but speaking purely based on statistics, she probably isn't.

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A speech tick is generally at least a slight impediment to a successful career in management.

Making it through line management and into middle management means the person's bosses have found her to have other skills or experience, which outweigh less than perfect communication.

In some companies (small IT ones, never banks) there's next to no hierarchy, and the lowest QA intern will crack jokes about the CEO in their presence, but in that case you'd probably be discussing it with her already, not asking here.

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  • 1
    You make a good point. She has proved herself that's why she's so high up in management. She manages the rank and file as well as a Lead person and a Manager. Sep 26, 2023 at 0:08
  • I worked for a small IT company, and the hierarchy was very rigiid. Sep 26, 2023 at 14:52
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Don't waste your time. Even if there's a polite way to broach this subject, it's not likely to help. By the time someone is a mature adult, speech patterns like this are difficult to change, along the lines of changing your accent.

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  • I think it might be possible to change, but it would require coaching.
    – Llewellyn
    Sep 30, 2023 at 17:37
  • Right, like when an actor uses a dialect coach to learn to speak with a different accent. It's unlikely to happen just due to an employee's suggestion.
    – Barmar
    Oct 1, 2023 at 5:38
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If the department is bigger than 10-20 people, it could make sense to pass on this advice anonymously.

It sounds like it could be beneficial for your boss' boss to get this advice, but it's probably too risky for you to attach your name to it.

If the department is too small, you risk the chance that a (worst-case scneario) vindictive person could narrow down through the process of elimination who you are.

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I completely agree with other answers that just telling your boss what to do is a very unwise thing to do.

First, because it is for something that for most of people would not be an issue. She has a uncomfortable speech habit, so what? Do not engage with her outside of work. While at work, deal with it as long as it does not interfere with your job.

And if it interferes, think how it would paint you if you are the only one complaining... Even without taking into account the hierarchical situation, will it be viewed as your fault or hers? "Sorry boss, but I do have an issue with you way of speaking that none of my coworkers has. Please fix that for me. Thank you!"

If it is so bad as that you feel that something must be done (which again, sounds like a terrible idea), by all means avoid framing it as her fault. No "Your way of speaking distracts me, fix it" but "I find it difficult to follow you, please help me with my difficulties by trying to avoid certain constructs." And, by all means, tell her the issue but do not tell her what she has to do in order to please you. Do not tell her to go to classes or any other remedy; if she finds it worth helping you she will do that on her own terms.

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  • I don't understand why you advise "Do not engage with her outside of work." A majority of people with such a speech issue only exhibit it during public speaking (when they are tense) and not in a normal conversation (when they are relaxed). Now, there are valid reasons to avoid engaging with your boss' boss outside of work but the speech issue isn't one in my opinion.
    – user29390
    Sep 27, 2023 at 5:36
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Giving constructive criticism to your boss' boss is absolutely fine as long as it's done professionally, politely, and it's directly relevant to how they're doing their job.

However, what you're talking about here is an idiosyncrasy of the way they talk, not anything that's materially relevant to how they're doing their job. As such, it would be wholly inappropriate feedback to give to anyone at work, let alone your boss' boss. If, however, it was that you found that they tended to gloss over things too quickly, or use too many acronyms, and that makes it hard to follow, that would be valid.

If you can't follow someone talking who just says "you know" a lot... I think the problem is with your comprehension, not their delivery.

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"Can I suggest she work on cutting down or eliminating the phrase "you know" by practicing or taking a class?"

As OP has an ear for communication quality, consider helping out the company as a whole is a positive, supportive way.

A career path improvement can include joining Toastmasters or starting one up in your company - perhaps with company backing. Not only does that group improve on quirks like "you know" and "and um" in a positive safe manner, you starting that group, with company support, demos your company commitment.

Later, extend the invitation to others, including your boss's boss.

For me, it improved my ability to present technical ideas to non-technical audiences.

A win for OP, OP's management and others.

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You can reframe your constructive criticism.

Every month we have a two hour department meeting and the head of Loan Operations talks first and gives a run down of the past few weeks activities.

A two-hour long meeting once a month is going to be hard to focus on for the whole 120 minutes. Such a meeting will also be expensive in staff costs.

A good constructive critique would be that the meeting is too long. It could be better served with a good written or pre-recorded update to review offline then a shorter meeting for questions, high priorities, or open discussion.

This meets your goals because if the meeting is shorter then it is less time for you to have to listen around the verbal tic.

This is effective constructive criticism because it addresses something that the person can fix. It also has a benefit to the company. It probably has a benefit to the presenter as well.

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There are power dynamics and politics at play here that may complicate things. That's difficult to judge from here.

In general you can give feedback to anyone about a presentation they gave. However, if they did not solicit feedback, the key step here is that you first have to ask them if they want feedback from you. Proceed based on their answer:

  • Yes: Be brief, be polite. Do not try to fix them. Do not criticize. Explain what you have observed in a neutral way. Treat them like an adult. If they want to discuss it further, you get to have a conversation.
  • No: Move on with your life.
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  • Thank you. I'm getting out of the habit of trying to fix people. Oct 10, 2023 at 1:23

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