No Buts About It

When I was a newly minted teacher (please bear in mind, I started working when I was three), I was told that the word ‘don’t’ was anathema, verboten, that-which-is-never-said when disciplining young children.  So, instead of  saying “Jennifer, don’t run in the hall”, the correct guidance was “Jennifer – walk”.  “No shouting” became “Use your inside voice”.   On the one hand, I thought this was really trite and yet theoretically it seemed reasonable.   It was harder to change my speech pattern than I thought;  frequently used vocabulary become habitual.  Ultimately, this one lesson has remained in my head throughout my career.  In your day-to-day conversations,  do you think of how you’re framing your comments?  Have you listened to yourself lately?  Do your words inspire or deflate?

There are two incredibly demoralizing and powerful words that are regularly invoked in conversations – “no” and “but“.  I realize that there are times when both are necessary.  That said, there are more occasions than not when their utilization causes a far more adverse impact than we may intend.  How many people do you know begin their sentences with the word “no’?  If you listen, you will find that many do.  Even when agreeing with someone,  a response often begins with a negative.  A recent example of a conversation with my son:

“Hi sweetie pie, how are you?”

“No, I’m good.”

“Are you going to go see ________?”

“No, yeah in a little while.”

Though you could toss this up to idiosyncratic conversation, I can regale you with more examples in the workplace, at dinner with friends, in any number of environments than you would care to read.  We are in the habit of saying ‘no’ first.  When providing someone with feedback, we invoke the word ‘but’ as we try to give someone objective, constructive observations of his/her performance.  “The quality of your presentations are excellent, but you need to increase your productivity”.  As soon as the word ‘but’ is introduced into the sentence, the positive sentiment is diminished – if not completely forgotten.  And yet we do this all the time – at work, home, wherever…In my presentations I ask people to insert the word ‘and‘ in place of ‘but’ – the perception of the sentence changes remarkably.  At the end of the day there is no one without strengths and weaknesses.  As a developer of people’s’ abilities, it is your responsibility to find the most effective way to encourage growth and improvement.  Leave out the ‘but’ – try it.  It’s harder than it seems.

I further challenge you to count the times you say the word ‘no’ in a day.  Chances are you often don’t even think about or mean it, you’ve just incorporated into your pattern.  It takes little thought to recognize the impact of our words.  Arguably they are more important than ever before given that we live in a time when we speak with each other less and less, and assume people’s’ intents from 145 characters.

Conversations at Vermillion

Conversations at Vermillion (Photo credit: JeanineAnderson)

But don’t take my word for it – no, you really should find out for yourself.

6 thoughts on “No Buts About It

  1. Great point about language. Words hold such power over our attitudes.

    If it’s alright, I’ll add another example to support your point. An early coach taught me the power of giving feedback to others on their progress toward their goals, not against their goals. “Why do you want people to work against their goals?”, she asked. I never forgot the question.

    Thanks for the reminder.

    • That’s a terrific point Susan, and definitely worthwhile for all those who are looking to engage their employees and strengthen performance. Thanks so much!

  2. I think I am pretty good about not saying no, but no so good with but. See, I said it twice. I do need to work on that a bit. I also hate it when people tell someone that they are wrong. There are very few absolutes in life. You may have a different view than someone else, but it entirely possible and likely that neither of you are right. I long ago stopped assuming I am right about anything. Good post.

    • I’m totally with you on this one – people who dig their heels in and insist they’re right, invite my suspicion that they a) may very well not be and b) are probably far too absolute to engage in meaningful dialogue. So…guess that means that I think you’re right. Which brings to mind the Michael Jackson song, “Black or White”..thanks for your thoughts, as always!

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