Avoiding the word BUT

Certain words are like signposts, warning of an impending emotional and negative exchange.

Effective Communication is a pivotal skill. When we as leaders consider requests, there are often times when we must communicate “no.”

Many entry-level manager classes include this tidbit: non-verbal cues make up at least 55% of verbal communications.  The actual words themselves may convey as little as 7% of the message, with tone making up the rest. Part of the tone includes the grouping of words. Certain groups carry a positive tone (“Happy Birthday!”), and others are more negative (“This is the IRS.”)

More skillful communicators have grown sensitive to the nature of this tone. There are many times I’ve presented an idea, been flatly turned down, and have still gone away with a smile on my face. This was not because of the negative words themselves, but rather the skill of the other person in avoiding a negative emotional tone.

As receivers we have also grown sensitive to tone, often on a subconscious level. Certain words are like signposts, warning of an impending emotional and negative exchange. One such word is BUT. It is a qualifier that can shut people down immediately. Perhaps this sounds familiar:

“Your idea has merit for several reasons, BUT those reasons are not sufficient for me to accept your request.”

Which part do you focus on? Is it the praise for taking a risk (the first part), or rejection of the idea (the second part)? That tiny little word BUT changes the tenor of the statement in a very tangible way. It shuts down further dialog and hampers constructive development. Now consider this response:

“Your idea has merit for several reasons. Those reasons are not sufficient for me to accept your request.”

The second phrasing allows the communicator to continue the conversation, perhaps:

“If you present better evidence, I’m open to reconsider.” Now the receiver is likely to go away and actually do more work for you! Avoiding BUT keeps the options open. By using BUT, an emotionally charged word, you shut them up tight.

As a challenge to my fellow communicators, try avoiding the word BUT for one week. Can you do it? Can you adjust your habitual speech and writing patterns to steer clear of the emotionally charged BUT? If you make the effort, you will discover many other words and phrases that impact the tone of conversations. The real challenge is bending that tone to reinforce elements of your message, team cohesion, and political effectiveness.

Sometimes an emotionally charged word or phrase is necessary, even desirable. But adding them to conversation should be a conscious choice.

Please share your experience with my communications challenge in the comments. Besides BUT, what other words did you find with emotional impact, positive or negative?

2 responses to “Avoiding the word BUT

  1. Great post, but….
    I couldn’t think of other words that, by themselves, have a significant emotional impact. These words, when used as an adjective frequently make me suspect of the speaker. They include: silly, disastrous, cheerful, looming, and risky.

  2. Thanks for the comment Rick. Good food for thought. – EB

Leave a Reply