Public relations, marketing and business people tend to focus heavily on winning rather than understanding. Negotiations with clients can sometimes get frosty and arguments with colleagues can get heated instead of creative. The culprit of all these, is the simple word –‘but.’
It’s hard to think of a word that triggers more reactivity and drains more trust from conversation. Notice how often you hear it (and say it) when you’re negotiating or arguing.
Notice how this one word changes the temperature and tone in the moment. Eliminate this word from your dictionary and see how quickly you will become a more amiable Public Relations professional and an overall better person.
Here are 3 ways to expel the word “but” from your vocabulary:
Focus on what’s said before “but.”
In any argument or negotiation, the other side is likely to make positive offers of agreement or alignment. These are often made spontaneously and usually followed by “but.” (“I like parts of your plan, but it’s not going to work.”)
We usually focus reflexively on what comes after “but.” What if instead we engaged what they offered before?
A Harvard Professor was working with a team selling expensive premium logistics software. One sales rep was closing many more deals than her colleagues. He listened to her calls to learn how she was handling pushback on the price.
Essentially, the sales expert listened attentively to everything said that differentiated the product. When people said, “We like your solution, but it’s just too expensive,” she asked, “What do you like about it?” By accepting the positive offer, she shifted the frame from price to value, and prospects who cited specific benefits proved more likely to buy.
Here’s a similar situation, but this time an exchange between a young pastor and an older man in the foyer after church:
Man: “I’d give money to your church, but I don’t like your politics.”
Pastor: “What’s making you feel generous?”
The pastor’s thoughtful move set up a more intimate and fruitful exchange.
Prioritizing the positive offer reshuffles the conversation. You can apply this principle of flipping the positive in your daily interactions either with clients or colleagues.
Replace “but” with curiosity.
In the typical argument, your opponent says their piece, and you respond with “but” and insert your encouragement.
What would happen if your next move was genuine curiosity instead? What if you replaced “but” with a question or an invitation? “Say more about that. I want to make sure I see how this looks to you.” Or, “Why do you suppose we get so worked up talking about this issue?”
Trying to understand the values beneath the other person’s point of view demonstrates vulnerability and receptiveness. It pre-empts antagonism, in part by offering your neighbor airtime, the currency of debate.
He put the truth on the table because someone saw his emotion as a signal of an unexpressed value and invited him to share it. This move made way for a conversation about new responsibilities for the support team.
If you’ll allow one move to honor the other person’s unexpressed value, you’ll likely have a deeper conversation than you’re used to.
Just Stop talking
At one financial services firm, the visionary CEO and his chief marketing officer were advocating an ambitious digital transformation initiative to keep the company competitive. The other executives refused to support the plan, arguing that they couldn’t afford it.
Finally, the CEO said, “You’re saying the board needs to see how we’re calculating the return on this investment.” He paused. Then he said, “I agree.”
He didn’t add “but.” He simply stopped talking.
This move is powerful and all too rare in debate — and it’s simple: Acknowledge agreement when you see it, and make your acknowledgment your whole turn in the conversation. Signaling that you’ve understood suspends antagonism for a moment.
We’re often afraid that if we express agreement, the other party will press their advantage, when in fact agreement is a magic move that builds the bit of trust that can transform the exchange.