I’ve known for a long time about the danger in the word “but.” Experts in communication, leadership, motivation and relationships all warn about the deleterious power it has. Regardless of what was said before, “but” has the power to undo it all.
“I really want to get healthy, but I don’t want to exercise.”
“I love you, but I can’t make it.”
“I know you’re sad, but these are the rules.”
The word “but” sometimes seems to cancel out anything before it or suggest that it isn’t enough.
“I want to get healthy, but not enough to exercise.”
“I love you, but not as much as whatever’s keeping me from you.”
“I know you’re sad, but that doesn’t matter because these are the rules.”
This little word can do a lot of unintentional damage, particularly if you’re trying to make an emotional connection, or “connect before you correct.” As Erica Reischer, psychologist and parent educator writes in her book, What Great Parents Do:
“But is a negating word. When it follows and expression of empathy (as in, ‘I can see you’re upset, but…’) it has the effect of minimizing what came before. This little word can undermine the emotional connection you just created, and reignite conflict.”
I’ve heard for a while now, that parents—and good communicators in general—should avoid using the word “but” when possible. But (no pun intended) I just haven’t been able to find a suitable replacement word.
Some suggestions have included using the inclusive word “and,” the three-in-one word “nevertheless” or simply pausing between the two segments.
“And” felt insincere. “I know you’re sad, and it’s time to go home.” It felt like acknowledging the feeling and ignoring it all in one sentence. “Nevertheless” just felt too artificial and foreign coming out of my mouth. (Do my kids even know what that four-syllable word means?) And while pausing works in some situations, it can also feel disjointed and disconnected in others.
Then, I read Erica Reischer’s book, What Great Parents Do. Her suggestion for a replacement?
“At the same time…”
Simple and so effective. (And it felt normal coming out of my mouth!)
“I know you’re sad about leaving the park. At the same time, we need to get home before your brother gets off the bus.”
“I understand that you want to play with this toy. It looks really fun. At the same time, it’s not OK to hit our friends. Can you tell me a better way to get a turn?”
As Reischer writes:
“Saying ‘at the same time’ implies that both ways of viewing the situation are valid, and this minimizes conflict about which perspective is ‘better’ or ‘right.’”
I finally found a phrase that feels natural and replaces “but” in a powerful way. Rather than negating and undoing what comes before it, it allows it to stand on its own, fully validated before moving on to another truth that must coexist “at the same time.”
I can’t even count how many times I’ve used the phrase since discovering it as a replacement for “but.” And here’s the really great thing: It isn’t just great for parent-child/teacher-child conversations. This switch will be a huge communication boost with anyone, particularly in charged conversations. (“I see your political point A. At the same time, here’s my political point B.” “I understand your concern about my parenting decision. At the same time, here’s why I feel it’s important to make it.” “I know you want to be helpful. At the same time, I need to you to respect my boundaries.” “I hear you saying X. At the same time, here’s my position Y.”)
Any time you find the need to validate someone’s perspective, emotion, opinion or experience and at the same time, communicate your own, this is the phrase for you. Rather than igniting further conflict by negating or dismissing another’s position, it allows both viewpoints and experiences to stand, fully validated in the conversation, at the same time.