Do you remember the happy School House Rock singalong song, Conjunction Junction? According to the song, the function of “but”, a conjunction, is “hookin’ up words and phrases and clauses”. The song made “but” seem so innocent and even helpful.
Unfortunately, a serious and unnecessary cause of stress today is what I call “but-itis”. (I’d call it conjunctivitis, if that weren’t already taken. J) But-itis is the frequent, chronic and inflammatory use of the word “but”. The result of but-itis is to resist or mitigate what was just said before it. And it has unintended effect of creating unnecessary tension.
“But” is commonly used in everyday conversations and it has many uses. It can be the grammatically equivalent of putting your foot down, or padding the impending hammer blow or just punctuating a difference. How often have you said something like: “I’ll agree to leave this alone for now, but we need to be making some changes.” “Jeff’s smart and all, but he’s got such lousy people skills”. “Team, we had a great year this year, but next year is going to be tough.”
A leader who speaks in “buts” projects a sense of “black- and-white-ness”. Not this, but that. A leader uses “but” because it creates contrast. The problem is: But also creates an “either/or” thinking, the thinking of scarcity, it creates stress and tension and it just plain feels bad.
The solution: “But” Elimination Therapy (BET). BET is simple. Any time you are tempted to say “but”, say “and” instead. It will feel odd at first, AND it’ll grow more comfortable over time. “And” has a much more inclusive and accepting feel and it allows for more than one thing to be true.
Hear how much less ominous these statements from recent WSJ articles sound when replacing ‘but’ with “and”. “Nearly half of small business owners believe they will hold their own in 2012 but are poised to grow when the climate is right.” That should be good news, right? Why doesn’t it feel that way? Try this. “Nearly half of small business owners believe they will hold their own in 2012, and are poised to grow when the climate is right.” Don’t you think the second statement sounds decidedly more optimistic, more “half full”.
Here’s another one: “According to the survey, nine out of 10 small business owners said they are concerned the nation could slip back into a recession. But 79% of small business owners said they are prepared if the economy were to experience another downturn”. Why the “But”? In this case, “but” distorts the meaning. Try this: “According to the survey, nine out of 10 small business owners said they are concerned the nation could skip back into a recession. And 79% of small business owners said they are prepared if the economy were to experience another downturn”. Doesn’t that make more sense? Here how the angst and tension is reduced.
Next time you’re tempted to use the word “but”, give BET a try and use “and” instead. Notice how much lighter it feels to have less “but”.