by Rick Brenner
When we discuss what we care deeply about, and when we differ, the word "but" can lead us into destructive conflict. Such a little word, yet so corrosive. Why? What can we do instead?
When they decided to take a break, Yvonne had been relieved at first. Heated meetings made her uncomfortable. But now the break was ending, and she worried that they'd just pick up where they left off. She was right to worry. Harvey began the festivities.
"But" is so common
that it carries with it
the baggage of abuse"I've given this some thought, and I still think that an investigation would be worth the risk. We should understand the problem before we try Jean's idea."
"But then we'll be three weeks in the hole," Jean replied, "and I could have used that time."
Harvey's turn: "True, but we're not sure your scheme will work. We don't know what the problem is."
Yvonne's hopes collapsed. They were back where they started, with Harvey and Jean endlessly batting the same objections back and forth.
The energy for repetitive debate has many sources. One source can be the participants' word choices. And one word that tends to set people off is "but." It seems tiny, neutral, and harmless. It isn't.
Probably "but" is the most popular form of issue raising. Because it's so common, it carries with it the baggage of abuse. It's often used as a tool for excessive discounting of counterbalancing issues. For instance, "Global warming would be bad, but so far, we still have winters." In this instance, the "but" elides the fact that the presence of winter doesn't contradict the global warming hypothesis.
In the workplace, we use "but" to refute or devalue the positions of others. A common form is "<Statement1> but <Statement2> and <Bad-Implication>". Even if our intention is to acknowledge Statement1, and then add Statement2, and possibly the Implication, the receiver might hear us as rejecting Statement1.
For example: "I really like the feature that turns lead into gold, but we can't afford the additional delay." The receiver of this statement can hear that alchemy is being excluded from the product, and might even feel personally devalued.
We do have alternatives to but.
- Replace "but" with "and"
- Although this often works, use it with care. It sometimes sounds forced, and it can be a transparent cloak for but:
- A: "If you had listened to me, we wouldn't be in this fix now."
- B: "Yes, and we'd be in a much worse place."
- Use other conjunctions
- "But" has many lower-risk siblings: although, yet, all the same, be that as it may, still, nevertheless, even so, however, that said, having said that, despite that. Because they are less used, their effects can be more benign.
- Raise questions
- Express your concerns directly: "I like the feature that turns lead into gold. I wonder, though — can we afford the additional delay?" Now you've nudged the group toward problem solving and away from oppositional debate.
Controlling corrosive buts is one step in keeping conflict constructive. Taking that step helps you see the next one. Top Next Issue
Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. Order Now!
Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? Send me your comments by email
, or by Web form
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful,
and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive
of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout,
as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in,
anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Conflict Management
- When Leaders Fight
- Organizations often pretend that feuds between leaders do not exist. But when the two most powerful people in your organization go head-to-head, everyone in the organization suffers. How can you survive a feud between people above you in the org chart?
- Email Ethics
- Ethics is the system of right and wrong that forms the foundation of civil society. Yet, when a new technology arrives, explicitly extending the ethical code seems necessary — no matter how civil the society. And so it is with email.
- Peace's Pieces
- Just as important as keeping the peace with your colleagues is making peace again when it has been broken by strife. Nations have peace treaties. People make up. Here are some tips for making up.
- The Advantages of Political Attack: Part II
- In workplace politics, attackers are often surprisingly successful with even the flimsiest assertions. Often, they prevail, in part, because they can choose the time and venue for their attacks. They also have the advantage of preparation. How can targets respond effectively?
- What Insubordinate Non-Subordinates Want: Part III
- When you're responsible for an organizational function, and someone not reporting to you doesn't comply with policies you rightfully established, trouble looms. What role do supervisors play?
See also Conflict Management and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact me for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com
or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout
are available in six ebooks:
Reprinting this article
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline?
Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product development. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: