Lose the “Buts”

“That’s a good idea, but…” “That’s an interesting thought, but…” “Your report was fine, but…” “I should spend more time with my family, but…” Have you heard any of these statements before? Maybe you were the person saying them. Either way, the but in each phrase causes a problem because it cancels out the good things that precede it. When people hear you use the word but in a sentence, you’re telling them to discount whatever came before it and pay attention to what follows. Instead of using the word but, try using the word and. For example: “That’s an interesting thought and here’s something else to think about.”

The word but can also cause a problem when it is used to make an excuse for something you didn’t do. For example: “I would have made the phone call, but…” This is an excuse and communicates that the phone call you should have made wasn’t that important.

On the topic of excuses, Peter Ueberroth, chairman of the 1984 Olympics, used a sign for the planning committee that read: “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute a crisis on my part.” That puts excuses into perspective. It simply says don’t make excuses; take action. We all have the same amount of time in a day. Only dead people have no time and only living people say, “I don’t have time.” That doesn’t make sense. So stop making excuses for poor use of time or poor planning.

A much better way to handle the situation of a missed phone call is to say, “I’m sorry I didn’t call you. I wasn’t watching the time so I didn’t get it done.” Unlike the first response, this is an honest statement that communicates you’re taking ownership for not making the call. It just sounds better and is more honest.

I feel strongly that the place this word is overused the most is in our families. If we use it too much at work, we may get fired. If we use it too much with our friends, we may lose our friends. In those situations we know that there are consequences. However, when we use it with our families we tend to think it will all work out OK. Although most people will tell you that their families are top priorities, their day-to-day, month-to-month activities may tell a completely different story.

Jennifer James, a former Seattle columnist, once pointed out, “When we’re moving fast, sometimes the relationships we care most about get short-changed. We think those we love will forgive us if we spend most of our time on other things. But a child may grow up before we notice that hours of being too busy have extended into days, weeks, months, and years. This is a bit of what happened to the boy who recently divorced his mother. She always thought there would be time to get back together.” She was wrong.

My wife does a great job reminding me of this. There are times when what we are doing may seem the most important thing at that moment, but it may really be stopping to listen to a child, or hugging your spouse, or calling a friend. One of the biggest reasons to stop using the word but is because it de-values others and makes them feel unimportant.

We didn’t always make it to the dinner table together as a family so we made breakfast a priority. When I was president of the college and out of town most weekends, going to Village Inn for breakfast together on Monday morning was set in stone. Not only did we strengthen our family, we developed a great friendship with our server, Lisa, which lasted many years. (And our kids found out about chocolate chip pancakes!)

So when you find yourself using but in a way that discounts what others have said, or to make an excuse, change your approach and focus on your words. A simple word like and can make such a big difference. If you are using and more than but, keep it up. Why? Because you’re building connections to the hearts of others. If you aren’t… just and over the buts!

And these are just my thoughts on a Monday morning!

Steve Siemens, CSP