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.
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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More articles on Conflict Management:
- The High Cost of Low Trust: II
- Truly paying attention to Trust at work is rare, in part, because we don't fully appreciate what distrust
really costs. Here's Part II of a little catalog of how we cope with distrust, and how we pay for it.
- Assumptions and the Johari Window: I
- The roots of both creative and destructive conflict can often be traced to differing assumptions of
the parties to the conflict. Working out these differences is a lot easier when we know what everyone's
- How to Prepare for Difficult Conversations
- Difficult conversations can be so scary to contemplate that many of us delay them until difficult conversations
become impossible conversations. Here are some tips for preparing for difficult conversations.
- See No Bully, Hear No Bully
- Supervisors of bullies sometimes are unaware of bullying activity in their organizations. Here's a collection
of indicators for supervisors who suspect bullying but who haven't witnessed it directly.
- Pushing the "Stupid" Button
- Some people know exactly how to lead others to feel ignorant or unintelligent. Here's a little catalog
of tactics to watch for.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
- And on December 25: Disjoint Awareness
- In collaborations, awareness of how our own work might interfere with the work of others is essential. Unless our awareness of others' work — and their awareness of ours — matches reality, the collaboration's objective is at risk. Available here and by RSS on December 25.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
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