‘I understand you, but I think …‘
‘I’m sorry for changing plans, but I cannot promise …’
‘You are right about that, but I am …’
These statements are few exemplary snippets from a couple therapy session. While I was sitting in my counsellor chair allowing the couple to continue the argument they brought to the session, I was wondering how come they both feel absolutely misunderstood while being very clear in expressing their points of view and feelings with each other. What makes their communication so ineffective? 10 minutes passed and suddenly I realized:
There is not a single sentence without any BUT.
BUT – a tiny, three-letter word, just a conjunction. It cannot do that much harm, can it?
Just imagine someone speaks to you and then adds ‘BUT’ – Don’t you automatically think what follows will be somehow negative?
The tiny word BUT negates or cancels whatever goes before it, it basically removes its significance completely or even reverses it. So, hearing the word BUT as a conjunction in a statement signals that the important part of the sentence is upcoming. What remains and gets through to the dialog partner is:
‘I understand you, but I think …‘ ‘I’m sorry for changing plans, but I cannot promise …’ ‘ You are right about that, but I am …’
So yes, can you see the harm being done here by the tiny conjunction BUT?
Why avoiding BUT can improve communication
When starting your response to someone else’s statement using BUT or acknowledging what the other person said and then adding BUT, you basically state ‘This is why you are wrong’. Now we understand why this couple was about to argue endlessly. I doubt it was anyone’s intention to come across as being attacking and yet it happened – therefore, the other partner got defensive, both felt misunderstood.
By the way, what has been said above also applies in communication with ourselves. BUT statements can have a negative impact or your subconscious and therefore affect our positive mindset. Imagine your inner dialogue being this:
‘I lost weight, but it’s still not enough’. Again, what our brain understands is
‘I lost weight, but it’s still not enough’. You are automatically putting your effort and sense of achievement down with this statement. Therefore, it is worth avoiding BUT.
Other words that have a similar negative impact on effective communication are for example YET and HOWEVER.
‘You managed to do this, and YET …’ ‘I enjoyed that, HOWEVER …
So, what would work better than using BUT and similar negatively connoted conjunctions?
Replacing ‘but’ with ‘and’
A useful tool to make communication more effective is to replace BUT with AND. Using the examples from my couple therapy session, we would then get:
‘I understand you, AND I think …‘
‘I’m sorry for changing plans, AND I cannot promise …’
‘You are right about that, AND I am …’
Do you see the difference it makes? The communication is not closed anymore, it becomes more open and accepting. A collaborative feeling is being triggered in your communication. The connotation of AND is positive and allows both points mentioned in the statements to be true.
Does that mean we all have to remove BUT completely from our vocabulary? Not necessarily. Being aware of how it can affect our communication will help using it in a way that is not cancelling praise, agreement, or anything important anymore which will automatically lead to more effective communication.
Notice how often you are using BUT in your daily conversations. Once a BUT comes up, reframe your sentence:
yes, but” —> “yes, and”
Notice the positive difference – on your communication and eventually your friendships/relationships.
If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.
Franziska Richter is a transcultural counsellor with Willingness Team, offering counselling sessions to individuals and couples. She is particularly interested in trauma, addictions, migration, sexuality, and eating disorders.