A dear client and I were having a call the other day, discussing some development that one of his subordinates needed. “I’m going to tell her that this is good,” he said, “but I need her to do these other things as well,” and he laid out the problem that really needed attention.
I was surprised. “You really think she’s going to buy that?”
“No,” he answered, and laughed, because it was so obvious.
No Buts About It: “But” Means Trouble
Most leaders recognize that it can be a problem when your communication includes the word “but.” It’s generally understood that a sentence containing the word “but” carries a barb in its tail. Not only does “but” negate everything that came before it; it can also be used — and perceived — as a way to diminish or undercut the object of the sentence or the person being spoken to.
It’s actually possible to use “but” to link a positive thought with a negative one when giving feedback, particularly if you say the negative first, followed by the redeeming positive, like this: “It doesn’t work so well when you do X, but I have confidence that once we talk about it, you’ll be able to handle things better in the future.”
There’s also a remedial view that the more effective substitute for “but” is “and.” My client’s conversation could have been improved by saying, “This is good, and I really need you to do these other things too.” If you look up the use of the word “but,” you’ll find lots of postings recommending the use of the additive “and” technique from improv theater and comedy: Adding, rather than contradicting, helps people feel more open. It also makes them more receptive to feedback or requests, and more likely to respond positively.
[Here’s a side note, however: What really makes people feel better is when they have a long and trusting relationship with you, know you care about them and what is good for them, and also believe that you are truly interested in whatever they’ve just said. This lets them feel comfortable enough to have a true dialog with you, not a stilted conversation. But even then, it can be tricky.]
What’s Important Now
There’s another approach, though, which calls for the use of a different special word that conveys the sense of “on the one hand/on the other hand” in a situation containing both positives and negatives. That word is “now.” Here’s how it works.
Say the positive thing in a complete sentence with a full stop. For instance, “Xavier, you’ve really made progress with your team this week!” Then pause, so they can take it in. Start the next sentence, the one that tells them something is not yet perfect, with the word “now,” like this: “Now, we’ll need to talk about how your team’s interacting with Ermengarde’s.”
Try the sentences together. First, the old way: “Xavier, you’ve really made progress with your team this week, but we need to talk about how your team is interacting with Ermengarde’s team.” Hear the negativity? Then the new, more positive way: “Xavier, you’ve really made progress with your team this week! Now, we’ll need to talk about how your team is interacting with Ermengarde’s team.”
See how “now” takes on the sense of “next”? It leads to something else, in the more positive future, as opposed to undercutting what came before.
Now, could this new approach work for you?