Does My ‘But’ Look Big In This?


READ TIME: 2m 30s

The Power of the Word But by Lizzie Bentley Bowers of The Causeway.png

I’m ready to get started, a lot to say, a lot to mull over, a lot of conversations I’d like to have, and thinking I’d like to provoke. A good dose of negative self-talk gets in the way. 


That’s how I began my first blog post.

It could have read, …thinking I’d like to provoke BUT a good dose of negative self-talk gets in the way. 

The word ‘but’ would turn something I’m about to do into something I might do. Something that is harder, less likely to happen, and diverts my attention to what is getting in my way, rather than what I want to do.

I first heard about replacing ‘but’ with ‘and’ on Roger Schwarz’s skilled facilitator course. An extraordinary week of my life that has been a major influence in my work, and indeed my life.

I love the change from ‘but’ to ‘and’ for it’s simplicity and it’s power.

‘And’ says you can have both. I did feel nervous, that’s a fact. I often share with clients that the more we try to ignore something, the greater power we give it. And nerves are no exception. The more I tried to ignore that I had concerns, the greater the power and control the nerves had. Accepting them, and choosing to make use of them rather than getting stuck behind them, is far more useful to me and it starts with ‘Yes, I’m nervous, and….

Replacing ‘but’ with ‘and’ had been useful to me and to clients in so many ways:

Feedback for a start. How many times have you heard about something that went well, waited for a ‘but’ and been deflated by what comes after it? Sometimes we hear a ‘but’ that comes after someone says something good, even when no-one has actually said one.

Or possibly you have hidden something you perceive might be difficult for someone to hear by adding a cheery ‘but’ to the end of your sentence? 

‘This was a disaster, but you’re great and I like you so we’re all good.’

So, if we replace ‘but’ with ‘and’, we create an opportunity to deliver, and hear, feedback that more usefully recognises that something that is working can sit alongside something that isn’t. 

‘And’ says we have this, and this. One doesn’t wipe out the other. Both are worthy of noting, and paying attention to what we can learn from them.

Instead of being preoccupied by what comes after the ‘but’, people can choose to pay equal attention to learning from what they want to keep doing, as well as what they want to adapt.

The simplest example of this is what I started to say to my children when I did that course. Where I might have said ‘I love you, but I’ve asked you five times now to put that down and go to bed.’ Since replacing the ‘but’ I say ‘I love you, and stop hitting your brother/I’m not crazy about the way you used that can of emulsion to paint the carpet/insert your own domestic crisis here!’. The point is, when I want to talk my sons about changing their behaviour, I never love them any less. There’s love, and an expectation that they change their behaviour. They get both.

It’s a useful little method to have in mind when there’s a disagreement too. You see it this way, and I see it this way. That’s only a problem if we use a ‘but’ to emphasise the potential to be adversaries. Using ‘and’, particularly when it’s in conjunction with a reminder of agreed common purposes and goals, helps with accepting difference of opinion, and getting curious about how to keep moving towards what you all want.

‘And’ helps us to accept another view that’s on the table, and be more curious about it, and less defending of a position.

A final example comes from a client I worked with some years ago who gave me permission to share her ‘but’ story.  She had noticed as we worked that she often gave a reason, or several reasons, for not doing something that was worth trying. In other words, there was always a ‘but’, a reason, or reasons, why not to bother. So, she started to use a phrase for testing whether she was avoiding something out of habit, or there were good reasons for the choice she was making: 

“Does my ‘but’ look big in this?” 

Brilliant! I catch myself using it a lot.

Over to you. Has your ‘but’ looked biG in anything recently?