I often write and speak about maintaining openness to views that are different from your own; to take on a stance of curiosity rather than judgement. Getting careful about when you use the word ‘but’ is in line with my views of keeping an open mind.
The word ‘but’ is used to signify negation and to create contrast. In terms of creating contrast and describing events, the word ‘but’ has a necessary place. Take for example this sentence used by dictionary.com under the definition of ‘but’: She was so overcome with grief that she could do nothing but weep. In this sentence, the word ‘but’ really emphasises how upset the woman was.
In everyday conversations the use of the word ‘but’ is pervasive. It is a problem when in a conversation of differing opinions, particularly if you’re intention is to create a common view. You may want to share your own views and and it may not be your intention to disregard the other persons opinion while you do that. Given ‘but’ negates the sentence that came before it, and that the word is such a habit for many people, you may unwittingly be disregarding the other person’s opinion.
When it comes to conversations involving opposing opinions I suggest replacing the word ‘but’ with the word ‘and’. The ‘and’ stance will assist you in maintaining openness and expressing respect for the other person’s opinions and ability to make decisions about their own circumstances while also expressing your own needs.
Let’s look at examples of how this could work…
- 1 – “I know it’s important to you that I am there with you, but I want to [insert activity here].”
- 2 – “I know it’s important to you that I am there and I want to [insert activity here].”
- 1 – “I know you’re only trying to help but you make me so mad when you talk over me.”
- 2 – “I know you’re only trying to help and you make me so mad when you talk over me.”
- 1 – “I hear that you only want what is best for our daughter but I really believe that XX is what she needs.”
- 2 – I hear that you only want what is best for our daughter and I really believe that XX is what she needs.”
Notice how in each of the option 2 versions of the above sentences, the person speaking has expressed their opinion while not negating the opinion of the other person, i.e. the speaker has maintained a higher (and expressed) level of respect for the other person.
It is likely also apparent from the topics discussed in the above examples that the two people talking are important to each other. Particularly when people are important to each other, the ‘avoid the word but’ rule can be very powerful because when two people are in conflict, escalation of conflicts rarely happens because of the content of a conversation. We may think that the conflict is escalating because of differing views. Often what is happening is people are feeling hurt because they are not feeling valued by someone that is important to them and that their opinions are being disregarded.
Watch out for the ‘fancy but’…
People will often use words like ‘however’ or ‘though’ in replace of the word ‘but’ because they think it will be better received and they think they are being softer as they ultimately attempt to dominate with their own opinion. Yes, a word like ‘however’ is not likely to be received as bluntly as the word ‘but’ AND the word ‘however’ is a fancier way of negating the words that came before it.
It’s okay to start again…
The use of the word ‘but’ in everyday talking is pervasive. It can be a challenge to make a shift like the one I am suggesting when everyone else continues to use the word in much the same way that you have for all of your life. That has been my experience. In spite of my best efforts to adopt the ‘and’ stance, the word will still just fly out of my mouth sometimes as though I had no regard for what my friend just said. I think these days I catch myself most of the time when I do it. I simply pause, notice and then repeat the whole sentence again, replacing the ‘but’ with an ‘and’.
It’s an ongoing process of practice.