This Common Word Makes You Sound More Negative Than You Want To

This tiny word is nearly unavoidable but frequently overused. Everything that follows it tends to make you sound like a downer.

By Judith Humphrey, for Fast Company.

The language you use shapes others’ impressions of you, but there’s a chance that some of your most common words don’t put you in the best light. In fact, I’ve already typed one of them that can do that. It’s the word “but”–a simple conjunction that’s nearly impossible to avoid yet potentially damaging to your brand and reputation, even if in subtle ways.

Typically, “but” follows a more positive statement and signals a note of disagreement, opposition, or confused thinking that’s just around the corner. Of course, you sometimes will need to register your objections at work–that much is inevitable. But (ahem) there may be a better way to do that than to just stick a “but” into your remarks and launch into your critique. Here are a few common situations where it’s better to “but out,” and what to say instead.

 1. When You Need To Disagree

It’s easy to resort to “but” when you take issue with a colleague’s thinking. You might say, “Yes, I get your point, but . . . ” This phrasing, however, positions you as an opponent who’s determined to refute the perspective your coworker just shared. It can generate a subtly tense, even hostile atmosphere.

Does this mean you can’t differ with your colleagues? Not at all. A better approach is to replace the word “but” with “and.” The entire tenor of your remarks will change. For example: “Yes, I get your point, and I’d like to expand upon it.” Or, “I see what you’re saying, and it’s triggered another thought in my mind.”

“And” introduces a more collaborative response and positions you as a positive, friendly colleague who’s shifting the conversation in a different direction, not turning it upside down.

 2. When You’d Like To Add A Caveat

Adding a caveat or qualifier is also easily done by using “but” phrases. You might tell your boss, “I can do the creative for this campaign, but I’ll need more time.” You may be right, but using “but” here undercuts the positive message you just delivered: You would be available if not for this one thing. By the time you’ve finished this statement, you’ve called more attention to the obstacle in the way than to your commitment and support.

It’s possible to communicate your caveat much more positively. Eliminate that second clause and simply state, “I can do the creative for this campaign. I’ll have it to you in a week.” If your boss has a problem with that timetable, she’ll say so. But why raise the issue yourself? After all, you want to sound like a good collaborator.

3. When You’re Dealing With Uncertainty

It’s also easy to use “but” when you’re thinking out loud, weighing the merits of two or three viewpoints. For example, someone at a meeting might say, “We could take that approach with this client, but we could try a different angle, too. What do you all think?” Or a job candidate might tell an interviewer, “I know I have the skills required for this position, but I can see that there will be new challenges, too. I’m confident I can handle them by drawing on my experience, though.” This phrasing makes the speakers sound unnecessarily tentative and confused.

It’s fine to be uncertain now and then; the key is to position your ideas clearly in spite of that. So even if you haven’t made up your mind among several options or ideas, try to show the common thread that ties them together and focus your remarks on that. For instance: “Both of these approaches could be really compelling to our client. Which do all of you think is the better one?” Or, “I know I have the skills and experience to succeed in this role, including tackling the unfamiliar challenges I’ll face.”

4. When You’re Ranking Information By Importance

A final place to avoid using “but” is in joining together two ideas that seem equally important. You might tell your coworkers, “Our gross revenues remained solid this quarter, but our profits declined.” Even a straightforward statement like this leaves your listeners to wonder which metric is more important–revenues or profits.

Better to subordinate one of these two ideas to the other. You could say, “Even though our gross revenues remained solid, our profits declined.” The goal here is simply to direct your listeners toward the most important information, and this new statement leaves no uncertainty about that. Don’t create a false balance by using the word “but.”

It’s a tiny, completely unavoidable three-letter word that says more about you than you might think. In many cases, “but” leaves you sounding a little less positive than you otherwise could. It points toward disagreement and muddled thinking on your part, and it occasionally leaves the door open for negativity and confusion for your listeners. Pay a little more attention to what you say, and you may find yourself using “but” a lot less–and sounding infinitely more positive as a result.

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