Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 3, Issue 28;   July 9, 2003: Corrosive Buts

Corrosive Buts

by

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.

Full disk view of the Earth taken on December 7, 1972

Full disk view of the Earth taken on December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft en route to the Moon at a distance of about 29,000 kilometres (18,000 mi). Courtesy Wikimedia.

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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Emailstorming  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict 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!

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See also Conflict Management and Effective Communication at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Cracking walnuts with a nutcrackerComing February 1: The Big Power of Little Words
Big, fancy words, like commensurate or obfuscation, tend to be more noticed than the little everyday words, like yet or best. That might be why the little words can be so much more powerful, steering conversations where their users want them to go. Available here and by RSS on February 1.
Two bull elk sparring in Grand Teton National Park, WyomingAnd on February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.

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