In my practice, I try to share simple, powerful ideas on how to improve communication skills so our relationships – both personal and professional – can thrive. In my last article, I talked about the importance of deep listening. Today I want to focus on being impeccable when it comes to one word – but.  This one word can change how we communicate with our most important partnership: marriage.

“But” is a toxic word when it comes to interpersonal communication. It is not only a stumbling block to effective communication, it actually undermines consensus building and throws a monkey wrench into cooperative pursuits. Linguistically “but” signals a transition. It effectively tells the language side of our brains to disregard everything that came before and pay particularly close attention to what is about to be said. On the surface, this may seem like a good thing. Consider, however, how we typically use the word and the impact on the relationship in the examples below.

Example 1:

Child: But I’m not hungry right now. (Protesting finishing what’s on his plate.)
Parent: I know you aren’t hungry, but I want you to finish what’s on your plate before you get down from the table.

Example 2:

Spouse: I know we agreed that we were going to rein in our spending, but it was on sale and I’ve been wanting one for a long time.

Example 3:

Coworker: I’ve been thinking about the Anderson project. I reworked some of the ideas over the weekend, and I really think there is an opportunity here to do something different.
Supervisor: I appreciate your enthusiasm and creativity, but the Anderson team have been long time customers of ours. I don’t want to rock the boat rolling out something new with one of our longest standing clients.

Do you see it? More importantly do you feel it? “But” often creates a power differential. The speaker is giving lip service to – pretending as if they want – cooperation and collaboration. In reality, however, they are looking for submission communicating that they are in a position of authority.

In the first example, the child’s own physical boundaries are being imposed upon. They are being asked to neglect their own internal cues (satiation) in order to satisfy the authority’s (parent) desire that they clean their plate. Repeated over time, the child learns to distrust their own instincts and instead to prioritize the wants of others. They may learn to defer to others, to downplay their own wants and needs. Of course, this can lead to many difficulties emotionally and interpersonally if the habit endures into adulthood.

In the second example, the spouse is communicating a unilateral veto power regarding decisions. Their wants and needs supersede agreements made between partners. Agreements are good and worthy of enforcement only when they align with their wants and needs. But agreements that are not in alignment with wants and needs are subject to immediate nullification without consultation. The other spouse is not an equal partner with an equal voice. They are listened to and considered only when the spouse in authority deems it appropriate.

In the third example, the coworker’s creativity, enthusiasm, and initiative has been punished. The message is clear. Stay in your lane. Don’t think for yourself. Do what you’re told. Observe the status quo. This is not a team environment (despite what we said when we hired you). You are not to do anything that may reflect poorly upon company tradition or your line of supervision.

Replacing “But”

To be sure, my analysis of these situations is perhaps more dramatic than the listener/receiver of the message may perceive or interpret the message of the speaker. I’ve elaborated to emphasize the power of this small word – “but” – and the automatic habit we have of using it in our everyday discussions. The dramatic interpretation creates a window of opportunity to try something different and develop a new habit. Instead of saying “but” build the habit of saying “yes, and”.

“Yes, and” communicates acceptance. It lets the speaker know what they have said has been heard and more importantly valued. “Yes, and” fosters creativity. It sets the stage for true collaboration. “Yes, and” is so powerful in terms of fostering collaboration that improve theater students train in the use of “yes, and”. “Yes, and” is Miracle Grow for problem solving and brainstorming.

Take on this challenge for the next week. Replace “yeah, but” thoughts and responses with “yes, and” thoughts and responses. See how relationships change as a result. Making this a consistent practice will not only change relationships with others, it will also changes the way we relate to ourselves.

Recommended Resource:  “The Four Agreements” by Miguel Ruiz. I highly recommend it for those on the path to personal freedom. Briefly, the four agreements outlined in the book are: 1) Be impeccable with your word. 2) Don’t take anything personally. 3) Don’t make assumptions. and 4) Always do your best.

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By: Sean Smitham

Dr. Sean Smitham, Ph.D. a licensed Clinical Psychologist and family therapist who lives and practices in Spokane, Washington.

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