Communication – Why we should reduce the word “BUT”

By John Giffney (CEO of ACS NSW Branch)

Lately I have had opportunity to be included in discussions on a number of interesting developments with some very passionate and dedicated people.  Firstly, I feel privileged to be invited into the circle of these fine people, it is a real honour.  Secondly, I was reminded of one of the most important lessons of communication, complementing my 3 rules (The Ratio, Question, Pause), it is not just what you say most importantly how you say it.

As you could imagine these passionate people can and do have some very similar  views and some that could be best be described as differing.  Clearly these people respect each other, with plenty of what appears as polite debate and competition to have their point of view heard and considered by the others.  People would complement the points of that they agreed with before critiquing the points difference.  Hearing this you would say it was almost text book stuff with one exception “BUT”.

BUT is a funny word in that it is a nullifier of everything that went before it.  Has anybody said to you “you look great in those clothes but your shoes could be better”, “I love what you have done here but this area needs more work”, “everything is going great but why is he here” and all time classic “I am sorry but I have to let you go.”, how do you feel?  People think they are doing the right thing by saying something nice before commenting on some aspect that has the potential to cause disappointment.  In actual fact by including “BUT” the person could have saved their breath and just launched into the criticism or their stuff because they certainly have not helped the feelings of the other person.

Consider the long held opinion that in order to have a positive impact on somebody you need to mention 3 positive things for each thing that needs improvement.  Clearly the chances of ever getting to a resolution with this approach on issues that need debate would be extremely minimal.  So how can you get there quickly and with everybody’s self-esteem and feelings intact simply drop the “BUT”.  Beware “however”, “notwithstanding”, “nonetheless” and “nevertheless” are all disguised BUTs, so use them judiciously. 

How do you replace “but”?  Ask a question, such as  “you look great in those clothes, are those the shoes you are planning to wear?”, “I love what you have done here, do you feel this area meets the same standard” or state the facts “everything is going great, oh look who is here”, “I am sorry I have to let you go ”.   It is the simple little things like dropping the BUT that helps keep people’s emotions and feeling in tact allowing them feel good about making a contribution plus it speeds up the debate.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.