Why Your 'But' Gets in Your Way and What to Do About it

3 years ago

It's time to talk about those big buts!

We've all done it. It's the 'yes, but' response. And it happens all the time, every day, and mostly under the consciousness radar. And your big but is getting in your way when it comes to connecting, collaborating and building relationships.

"It's a great idea, but..."

"Yes, he's a great guy, but..."

"I really like this, but...."

We're trying to have our cake and eat it, too. That expands our, ahem, 'buts.' When we 'but' people, they don't hear the 'yes.' They hear the but...and that is a flat-out denial, not the 'yes' we're trying to make it out to be. Everything that comes after the 'but' invalidates what we've just said. We're not fooling anybody. Sunglasses aside, you're still shoving a metaphorical dog's behind at people.

'Buts' shut people down. I was an in a team meeting the other day where every idea was met with a 'yes, but' before it had time to be explored. Look, there's a place for Devil's Advocacy. In the early stages of brainstorming or relationship-building, however, buts tell people their ideas aren't welcome. After a while, people simply stop trying. Your collaboration, your idea-storming and your relationship-building simply stalls.

Try this exercise (which any improviser will recognize)...in pairs, 'yes, but..' everything some one says to you, and have your partner do it to you. Just explore. After a while, not only will you shut down ideas, people will want to slap you. Yep. Not only does 'yes, but' kill ideas, it destroys relationships. You know the type - the brilliant Sheldon Coopers of the world - that has to be right or have the last self-righteous word, even at the expense of human relationships. And being right can come at a high cost of interpersonal dynamics.

Most of the time we do this at an unconscious level. Try this: wear a rubber band for a few days, or even one day. Each time you 'yes, but' - snap that band. Yes, your wrist may be incredibly sore in short order. You'll raise your level of awareness of how often it happens. That's huge.

Yes, and!

 A simple way to get out of this is to try a 'yes, and.' Add onto what the person is saying. "Yes, I see you want to add this feature to the product, and we could explore how that will benefit customers before we do it." You can feel the difference between that and a 'yes, but..' (a thinly veiled: "hey your idea sucks, mine is better").

Too many people conflate 'yes, and' with 'yes, we will.' Yes, and-ing someone's idea doesn't mean you will do it. It's not a commitment ceremony. You're just taking an idea out for a few drinks. Lighten up! Too many people fear that they will send the wrong signal. You're not marrying an idea - think of it as just having a good time! The point is to draw out great ideas and not shut people down before good ideas are able to surface. And, you can keep your integrity in tact, draw out an idea, and still add your thoughts to it (and..) even when you disagree with it.

And, of course, a literal 'yes, and' can feel stilted, so try something like: "tell me more about that idea..." or..."you must have a good reason for thinking that way...can you expand on that?" Regardless of the words you use, you are trying to get people to open up, and there are many ways to do it. It's the spirit of 'yes, and' that matters. When you engage this way with others (and yourself), you can completely change the dynamics of a conversation from one of negative energy to a very positive experience where collaboration gains momentum. And, you will build better personal relationships. Yes, my technical friends, even the Sheldon Coopers of the world need allies, friends and colleagues to put their plans into action. Build your network of support. That starts with listening.

Moreover, often the worst 'yes, but' instances happen internally: we do it to ourselves. How many times do we talk ourselves out of doing something because of some big but that often isn't even true?

Challenge those internal stories, folks.

Change your language, change your stories, and watch your energy and relationships change.

Or, as Bob Newhart's psychiatrist character in this very funny MadTV sketch would counsel his patients, "Stop it. Just Stop it."


How do you turn your 'big but' around?!


Kathy Klotz-Guest

Improviser, marketer, storyteller, shit-disturber

Founder, Keeping it Human


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