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How to Stop But-ting

When we say “yes, but” in our controversial conversations we can escalate conflict and decrease listening. Last week, I taught about a way to reach a better outcome. Just don’t say what I did!

512px-Goats_butting_headsIn improv, you learn what happens in a story or conversation when two partners block each other. The conversation slows, stops or becomes very boring. The most common way to block a point in a conversation is to use the word “but.”

That’s why improv teaches us to say “Yes, AND” not “Yes, But.”

There are many ways “but” can get expressed without saying the word. In fact, you can even use the word “and” to mean “but” as in “You raise an interesting point – and that’s why I think my idea is better.” Or “Yes, and of course that won’t work” (it’s too idealistic, expensive, etc.)  Other phrases to watch out for are words like “however” and “although” and phrases like “of course, that wouldn’t be feasible” or even the sneaky one, “Interesting, why don’t you research that (to death)?”

And “yes, but” isn’t always a conversation stopper.  A lot depends on your intent. You could say, “I’d love to go hiking with you tomorrow, but I hear it’s going to rain.  Shall we shoot for Sunday?” and your words would advance your plans – and lead to a good time.

In their book, Conversation Transformation (I highly recommend), authors Benjamin, Yeager and Simon offer the following exercise to help when you are beginning to argue opinions with your partner, tension is building, and you’re about to jump in and argue.

Start building rather than but-ting

When you want to encourage listening around a contentious issue, respond to your partner’s argument by first building on it. When you build, you offer true statements that acknowledge points in an opposing argument that you can agree with.

For example, you believe that taxes are needed and justified to make sure that the government can provide essential social services and rebuild our decaying transportation infrastructure. Your partner starts the conversation with:

“The trouble with America is that government has gotten too big. They are wasting our money and taxing the middle class to death. The only way out of this is to cut taxes and force the government to cut spending.”

You gulp and get ready to spring into your argument.

But first you think build…three times

You look for points in your partner’s argument with which you can agree.  And you offer three of them.  (Three can be hard – it requires you to stretch!)

  1. “I know that there have been examples of government waste and excess.”
  2. “Many middle class Americans are feeling pinched and I understand that the effective standard of living has gone down for much of the middle class,”
    and finally
  3. “It’s important to prioritize where to spend government dollars to make our money counts.”


Now the next part. Instead of jumping in with your best arguments, you offer a question about the issues that underlie both of your arguments.

“How can we curb excess federal government spending and make sure our dollars will be used well while also insuring that we have the essential government services that will keep our country strong?” 

The process of building three times and then asking a question is a skill that is easier said than done, especially when our desire to be right is so strong.  But it can keep us away from needless conflicts in relationships and promote a spirit of inquiry and discovery.

Remember to have fun!

In the class I taught on conflict last week, we supplemented these ideas with some fun improv exercises.  I used my version of the exercise “Presents” to promote a spirit of “Yes, And.”  One person gave an imaginary present, the second person named it and the third person made a comment about it.  We also had a fun time playing a “but” game where one person voices an opinion to a partner and the partner responds with a “but statement.”

As we debriefed the exercise, we observed that there are many ways to convey the spirit of “but” without using that word.

But then, I got in trouble.  (Note to readers – avoid this if you can!)

I was addressing all the ways people can say “but” without using that word and I added,

“I have a nose for “buts.”  I can smell them a mile away. “


There was silence.  Then lots of laughter.  Oh dear.  Now they have another, Sally-ism that I am sure to hear about at their graduation. At least they won’t forget the point!

How do you keep from “but-ting” in your challenging conversations?



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