I’m going to share with you a simple tip that can significantly change the focus of your conversations and make them more productive. It has to do with the word “and.” By consciously choosing when and how you include “and” in your conversations, you can go from frustrating exchanges that don’t get anywhere to discussions that explore options and come up with viable solutions.
To understand how this works, we first have to start with the way our conversations normally progress. Typically, when you’re having a discussion with another person, both of you are going back and forth with each of your own proposals, and not really listening to what the other person has just said.
So, let’s say Joe and Mary are talking about the best way to invest their savings. Joe wants to invest it very conservatively and Mary would like to take more risk. Joe states his concerns about protecting their money and then suggests that they invest mostly in very safe municipal bonds.
Mary doesn’t acknowledge what Joe has just said. Instead, she immediately begins her response with the word “but” and proceeds to state her position only – that they invest exclusively in a portfolio of stocks. They continue to go back and forth with “but” statements in this manner and make no progress toward an agreement on their investment strategy.
Think about it. When we immediately introduce our conversation with the word “but,” we are essentially negating and dismissing what the other person has just said. We are not valuing that person’s experiences and ideas and are just focusing on the point we want to make.
The conversation is experienced very differently if instead we start with the word “and.” In that case, we are acknowledging that we have heard what the other person has said and allowing that there may be value in his or her words. Thus, we are effectively keeping the channels of communication open, encouraging problem solving, and moving the conversation along to a more likely resolution.
You might think it is easy to replace the word “but” with “and” in our conversations. Not so – you have to work at it. It requires you to begin to adopt a different mindset and way of communicating with the other person. Even after my many years of mediating, coaching and negotiating, I sometimes have to remind myself to drop the “but” in order to open up the conversation. The good news is that the effort is well worth it. We can all reach more satisfying, viable solutions by befriending that little word “and.”
Comments from Social Media
Hi Susan, thanks for this post which is so apt in a time of continuing relaxation of the use of appropriate language. I have also found that a change from “but” to “and” changes how one thinks about the issue and opens up possibilities. The negativity of “but” and its inappropriate use takes away from its serious value at the right time.
By Barry Berger
This seems like really good advice. I enjoyed reading your article. Some people feel like if they listen to the other person they are giving up something of themselves. But this usually has more to do with past experiences, such as with their families and feeling that they had to fight for even a small amount of recognition.
Susan…I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on this topic of “and” instead of “Susan…I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on this topic of “and” instead of “but”. I agree with you when we use but..as in “yes, but” we completely negate at least the phrase that was said prior. In a humorous example it’s like saying, “I like you. but…” In a serious vein, wouldn’t it be better to say, “I like you and …”? Being on the listening side of the comment I would be more likely to hear all the speaker is saying and not filtering out the “but” and everything said afterwards. I believe that’s what you’ve been saying. I’m re-affirming.
I also have to say every once and a while, “but” is an appropriate response depending on the statement being made. I struggle with this one for I want to be sure to express myself appropriately in my communications and encourage open conversation to others -And- at the same time not drive myself nuts in the process.
Pearl M. Georgen
Well said! Rote replacement doesn’t work well, because saying “John wants this, but Jeff wants that” is fundamentally a different way of thinking from “John wants this,and Jeff wants that.” The first implies a very constrained range of agreement (to the extent John gets what he wants, Jeff does not get what he wants, and vice-versa); the second doesn’t.
So true! I also have found AND to be very powerful in reframing conversations and healing conflict. Thanks for your writing!
Great tip. I was thinking about this just today during a session. If you really must present a contrary perspective, you can begin with, “Yes, and at the same time…” A simple rephrasing that helps keep the tone constructive. Thanks for highlighting this.
Susan, I agree with your analysis of the function of the word ‘but’ in a dialogue, that can be changed for the better by substituting the word ‘and’. This awareness has afforded great benefit to me in the past when listening to parties with the aim of understanding what they are really saying beyond their words. In this context I usually take the presence of the word ‘but’ in a sentence as a sign that the speaker was throwing away a group of words up to that point that I can now ignore and what is important in the sentence is what follows the but.
How true. In training we teach words to avoid and “but” is at the top of the list, but(just kidding). Other words also have the wrong effect. “If” is often used by the mediator, as in…if we get to agreement….What we think should be said is…when we get to agreement….Being positive about the mediation result has a reassuring effect on the parties since a positive result is what they want to achieve.
Well said Susan. I was introduced to the “but” avoidance technique some years ago by an HR person and have applied it in numerous mediations. It has proved very effective, and some attendees have later told me that they apply it in their personal lives as well. When I introduce the “no buts” rule I predict that if they remember nothing else from the mediation process, they will remember to watch their buts.
Joseph Grynbaum, P.E.
Well written! Yes, and…. Is how I teach this to couples. Which, as I teach it is saying “Yes, I hear your point of view, and I add mine to it.” So from your example… Joe says “I want to invest”, and Mary says, “Yes, and I want to buy stock.” That leaves both thoughts out on the table for discussion. A small difference that can transform!
Glori Zeltzer, MFT
I work with many clients in family support who love to “but” . When I observe the buts and suggest and, it is as if I have opened a door. The wide use of but can be exampled daily by leaders, teachers, executive directors et al. I agree however that intention is very important. We are not replacing but with and, rather changing the opportunity to include and look at things differently.