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.

Planet earthThe 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!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenVnykckXMrBfLErNaner@ChacYhzTdOMVPLVOnOhKoCanyon.comSend 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.

Related articles

More articles on Conflict Management:

Tornado in a mature stage of development (Photo #3 of a series of classic photographs)Responding to Threats: II
When an exchange between individuals, or between an individual and a group, goes wrong, threats often are either the cause or part of the results. If we know how to deal with threats — and how to avoid and prevent them — we can help keep communications creative and constructive.
A political cartoon from the 1840 U.S. Presidential campaignHow to Create Distrust
A trusting environment is critical to high performance. That's why it's important to recognize behaviors that erode trust in others. Here's a little catalog of methods people use — intentionally or not — to create distrust.
A flame arrestor of the type that is required on gasoline cans in the United StatesPreventing the Hurt of Hurtful Dismissiveness
When we use the hurtfully dismissive remarks of others to make ourselves feel bad, there are techniques for recovering relatively quickly. But we can also learn to respond to these remarks altogether differently. When we do that, recovery is unnecessary.
A schematic representation of the Milgram ExperimentToxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Minimizing Authority
Toxic conflict in virtual teams is especially difficult to address, because we bring to it assumptions about causes and remedies that we've acquired in our experience in co-located teams. In this Part II of our exploration we examine how minimizing authority tends to convert ordinary creative conflict into a toxic form.
Elia Kazan, award winning film directorOn Snitching at Work: I
Some people have difficulty determining the propriety of reporting violations to authorities at work. Proper or not, reporting violations can be simultaneously both risky and necessary.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) speaks at a recent Senate hearingComing October 17: Overt Belligerence in Meetings
Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern. Available here and by RSS on October 17.
A man, standing, explaining something to a woman, seatedAnd on October 24: Conversation Irritants: I
Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenrdoMVCiCLYIhxqmdner@ChacDTWQVJJBfMZScqAYoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, 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

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople 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.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
More articles about person-to-person communication!
101 Tips for Managing ConflictFed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you the target of a bully? Learn how to make peace with conflict.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
Reader Comments About My Newsletter
A sampling:
  • Your stuff is brilliant! Thank you!
  • You and Scott Adams both secretly work here, right?
  • I really enjoy my weekly newsletters. I appreciate the quick read.
  • A sort of Dr. Phil for Management!
  • …extremely accurate, inspiring and applicable to day-to-day … invaluable.
  • More
52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around.
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.
Comprehensive collection of all e-books and e-bookletsSave a bundle and even more important save time! Order the Combo Package and download all ebooks and tips books at once.