I suggest a corporate drinking game: take a sip of coffee every time someone says “but” in a meeting. Actually, don’t do that or your blood pressure will go through the roof. It’s partly understandable - it's a simple word that doesn't seem to bear much weight. However, I've come to realize it can become damaging (and not to mention annoying) in team meetings, brainstorming sessions and when giving feedback.
I remember that I was once in a meeting and I was so exasperated by the endless back-and-forth replies that were starting with “Yeah, but...” and were leading nowhere, fuelled only by big egos. I began to think what would a meeting in which we explicitly ban this word be like. And if someone accidentally says it, we’d have a button to press, which then starts to play the Crazy Frog (does anybody remember Crazy Frog?!). After a while I believe nobody would dare say the word again.
Anyway, before jumping to conclusions, I will actually give four reasons why the-word-which-must-not-be-named must not be named.
- It invalidates statements. You can say something like “You know, you are such a great developer, always do your tasks right and I think we should build a statue of you in the coffee room, but the last piece of code you wrote was a little bit off,” and the reaction of the other person will be “WHAT did you say about my code???”
It doesn’t matter if what came before the “but” was genuine, people will hear only the last part and think that you were insincere with your first statement. So it’s a double miss: your compliments are not taken seriously and the feedback will not be taken lightly since it is highlighted against all the hard work that you’ve done. All your achievements vs. that one small mistake.
- It is threatening. I cannot count how many times I’ve been in a situation when person A comes up with an idea and then person B jumps in and says “I think it’s a great idea, but…”.
The effect is that person A thinks that their whole idea is invalidated just because of that little remark. It may not have been person B’s intention, but usually the result is a series of strikes/defenses where person A defends their idea with all their heart and person B comes up with reasons why their remark was valid in the first place.
The problem is that people in a team shouldn’t be opponents, they should work together. The enemy is not in the room, yet it feels like it. And I’ve never seen someone’s mind changing in a direct confrontation. If anything, people become even more stubborn and cling even more fiercely to their initial thoughts. Nobody wins and everybody loses time and nerves.
- We say it more than necessary. Just as a reminder, this is the definition according to the Oxford Dictionary:
Used to introduce a phrase or clause contrasting with what has already been mentioned.
However, if you pay attention to the situations in which people are using it, you discover that this is rarely the case. Even in casual discussions, I hear things such as “I love paragliding, it makes me feel so free when I’m up there in the air.” “Yeah, it’s nice, but it’s freakin’ expensive.” Did the first person say anything about the costs of paragliding? No. Are there a million other things you can learn from the person’s experience by not starting with “Yeah, but…”? Absolutely.
Some people even start their sentences by default like this, then they realize that they didn’t actually have any counterargument and either leave it or try to come up with something unrelated anyway.
Of course, you can always rephrase your sentences so that it looks like you’re saying something different. Dale Carnegie in his bible of the corporates tells us that by merely turning the “but” into “and,” the feeling of the statement is changed completely and people won’t get threatened by it anymore. It looks like all of our problems are solved by rephrasing our sentences! Which brings me to the fourth and probably most important point...
- Avoiding the “but” will force us to come up with a different reply than usual. It gets us out of our comfort zone, and that’s when good ideas come.
What if instead of challenging the other person through a counterargument, you challenge your assumption by an open question to the others? Can you learn something through this?
I found that when I force myself to ditch the “but” I can actually embrace the idea that was presented to me and build on top of it, instead of partially destroying it. Then I can focus on the good points instead of the bad ones, which probably won’t survive a team meeting anyway.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t ever criticize anybody’s ideas. Some statements are plain wrong sometimes. Other times, I think we could use more positivity and fewer attacks, especially in team efforts.
I’m not a psychologist, so of course everything should be taken with a grain of salt. You can even call the points above advanced common sense, but…
Common sense is not so common.
(I know I’ve just used the word, shoot me.)
I’d be really curious to see how a meeting without the three-letter word would work. I don’t know for sure that it would be good, what I’ve realized instead is that meetings where buts (single “t”) fly out of everyone’s mouths are sure as hell not productive. It is even worse for brainstorming sessions or other creative gatherings, where you are supposed to build a pool of ideas. If anyone’s actually a boss and decides to give this a try, please let me know how it went. And of course, feel free to go against my advice and shoot the comment section if you don't agree.