Decoding The But

I’m a former Queen of But.  I used to use this word frequently until I had the realization one day that it is not an exception, it really is an invalidation.


The words we chose are an important clue to our underlining message.  Communication is a funny thing. What we say and what we mean can literally have two completely different meanings.  But is a key word in the “nice guy syndrome” – not being sexist, women employ this strategy just as much as men.


We all know what this is, trying to be the nice guy in saying something the other person does not want to hear so we soften it up or mislead.  It happens in personal and professional settings all the time.  The real message is actually coded within the sentence, for example:


“I really like you but I don’t know that I want to get serious.” Translation:  I’m just not into you, don’t expect to hear from me again.


“We think you are doing great work but there are a just a couple of things we would like to see improve.” Translation:  You work sucks or has been sucking lately we need you to step it up because now it is affecting us.


“Oh I would really like to attend with you but I have this other thing that night.” Translation: I really don’t want to go with you – period.


“I would have included you on that project but we had so little time to get it together.” Translation: You’re work isn’t good enough for us to think of you immediately.


Once I realized that by using the word “but” I was actually invalidating any words or message before that word I immediately stopped.  And I started to really listen to others.  A little alarm goes off in my head whenever I hear someone use the word but in their explanations. 


Dealing with the but can be difficult – as the recipient of it or the person delivering it.  If you need to break bad news do not use but, remember it is an invalidation of anything that comes before it; instead try using “however” or just a short pause.  That is if you truly mean the first part of your sentence.


“We think you are doing a great job; however, there are just a couple of things that we would like to see improve.” 


“We think you are doing a great job; there are just a couple of things we would like to see improve.”


Still need to step up your game, however the message is less sever and the compliment is more sincere. (See how sneaky I am that I put it in my explanation – yeah, I’m cool like that.)

This is extremely important with speaking with co-workers or those that you lead; they need that validation of the good before they get smacked with the negative. 


If you are on the receiving end of a but then it is a good idea to ask clarifying questions, acknowledge the positive, invite discussion and not go on the defensive.  For the above example you can begin this strategy by responding like this:


“Thank you, I’m glad you are happy overall with my work and any way that you can offer in order for me to step it up is appreciated.  Do you have some time to go through this with me?”


This is an example of you reaffirming the positive and being open to suggestions to improve; most importantly you are OPEN to listening and changing something.  This is huge.


By inviting them to have an conversation about the issue will allow a much better flow of communication.  You will also be able to discover throughout the conversation if they really are happy with your work overall or if was just something they said to soften the blow.  Listen carefully, continue to ask clarifying questions.


Don’t use the but to make excuses for the other person.  The example of not including you in the project is a prime example.  Before you start rambling excuses such as, “I know they have been really busy” etc stop and think about what they said.  Remove the personal feelings and take a cold hard look.  If your work was really that great you would have been top of mind no matter what the deadline.  Yes, there may be an exception to this, however those exceptions are few and far between.  (Yep, did it again!)


Take control of your own actions and the actual things you can control.  Use that but as a way to have that conversation offline with the head of the project and ask if they see any areas in which you can improve to give more value to the team.  Perhaps you have a weakness that you were not even aware of and opening this difficult line of communication will allow you the opportunity to make necessary changes to ensure you are indeed top of mind next time.


I can speak from the business standpoint as a coach and former manager.  As far as the personal, I’m not an expert and much less gentle.  The best thing I can say is take off those rose colored glasses.  I love Justin Long in the movie “He’s Just Not That Into You” and his scenes with Ginnifer Goodwin.


She keeps making excuses for why a guy isn’t following through and he keeps shaking his head and saying, “Nope, he’s just not that into you.”  Poor girl keeps saying, “But, but…”  to be countered with “Nope, he’s just not that into you, if a guy is interested he’ll make it happen.”  If you have to work for him to work to work for you – it’s too much work!


Bottom line is if you get the but in the professional setting take it as an opportunity to get to the real issue, the underlying message that could help make you a valuable employee instead of a step along the exit strategy.  If you get it in the personal setting – get your butt moving. 


Lisa K. McDonald, CPRW

Career Coach-Strategist

Certified Professional Resume Writer

Career Polish, Inc.


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