“But we can’t do that.”
Not my best opening line, but Jake had caught me unaware. I tried again. “Look, using the Saskatchewan office to do the testing is a great idea, but it won’t work because we haven’t set up any network infrastructure with them.”
Jake gave a shrug. “Well we just need to get that set up then.”
I nodded, “we could, but that means working with IT on prioritization. You know how much fun that is.”
Jake asked, “Isn’t this project the key corporate goal for the year? We just need to explain that to IT, right?”
“Yes it is. We absolutely can explain this to IT, but I don’t think it will help much. They’ve already planned out their infrastructure work for the next four quarters.” I don’t think Jack was getting just how hard what he wanted to do was. The number of hoops we (I’d) have to jump through was staggering.
“Okay, I understand.” Jake was staying remarkably relaxed through all this. “We can still make the request though, right?”
I gave a shrug, “Sure we can, but they won’t say yes.” Jake nodded but kept silent. “Okay, Saskatchewan is off the table, any other ideas?” I looked around the table hopefully but no one said anything. Sigh it was going to be a long meeting.
“And why do you think there are no more ideas?”
Sigh, the only thing worse than a long meeting, was a long meeting with Hogarth kibitzing at me. “I don’t know that. Ask the engineers, they’re supposed to be the brilliant ones.”
“And didn’t you just ask them?”
“Yes, but they’re sulking because their pet idea didn’t fly.”
“They are disappointed, I agree. And do you think your negative response might have contributed to that?”
Sigh, “Yes I suppose it could have, but you know how unlikely IT would be to agree.”
“Certainly, IT has been a bit rigid of late, and if you don’t ask, you will never know, right?”
Sigh, “Yeah, you’re right.”
Hogarth nodded, “Isn’t it so much easier when your not being butted to death?”
Blink, blink… But, but, but… And, “Oh my.”
The power of “But”
Have you ever stopped to wonder at the power of this simple little conjunction? With three simple letters you can entirely negate everything that came before it and utterly replace it with what ever you say next.
“Certainly it looks like a beautiful day, but it’s nighttime right now with no moon so I can’t see a thing.”
See the power? If alchemists could harness the power of the mighty “but” then surely they would learn the secrets of turning lead into gold. After all, we all know that “but” really stands for “Behold the underlying truth!”
This one little word has the power to destroy communication.
And I believe that communication is one of the cornerstones to any team. Good communication will make the team better. Bad communication can completely ruin a project. “When you said blanco I thought you said you wanted the walls painted black. I didn’t know blanco meant white.”
Good communication also relies on collaboration. Nothing breaks a collaborative environment faster than a lack of trust. And how much are you going to trust the guy who keeps shooting down your ideas? “That’s a great idea, but I don’t think it will be practical to implement.”
Are you a but-head? Grab a pen and a piece of paper. Go to your next meeting and listen to everything you say. Every time you say “but” make a hash mark. You may find yourself very surprised. Now have a friend do this exercise for you. Odds are, there will be even more hash marks. We are so ingrained in the use of the word that we don’t even hear ourselves saying it. I’ve been aware of the dangers of this word for years, and I still catch myself going to this word at least three times a day.
The power of “And”
Let us take in contrast the power of the lowly “and“
“We could go to the beach, and after that grab a bite to eat.”
“I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
“That sounds like a good way to boost DB performance, and if we use pair programing we can reduce bug count also.”
It is simply amazing how much more open your communication becomes by substituting one three letter word for another. You take a conversation from a conflict, to a collaboration. From an either/or decision point to a “cake and eat it too” cooperation.
Which do you think is more positive?:
“We were going to go to the movies, but we decided on going to dinner instead.” – This makes it sound like a bad thing.
“We were going to go to the movies, and we decided on going to dinner instead.” – Was there conflict?
Simple Team Exercise: Try this simple and fun exercise. It’s called the “Yes, and” story game and actors use it a lot for practicing improvisational theatre. Seat the team in a circle. Tell everyone you are going to tell a story together. The rules are simple. The first person says one to four sentences of a story. Then they stop and hand it to the person to their right (or left, but pick one direction and keep going that way). The next person continues the story. Only they have to start their story by saying “Yes, and.” They then continue the story from there for one to four sentences before handing it off to the next person who starts with “Yes, and.”
We have the power to change communication. With a simple substitution we topple even the biggest gorilla in the room.
The Gorilla Talker
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP
Who is Hogarth? Read Blog 001 to find out all about my personal gorilla.
A Month Passes Addendum: I’ve spent the last month paying attention to the use of “but” around me. I’m absolutely amazed at how common the word has become. In one recent coaching session, my client used “but” two times in a “sentence,” creating a very conflict laden run-on sentence. I was editing some writing and found no less than three “buts” in one short paragraph. The writer had meant it to show how flexible something was, only the end result was to create a series of conflicts of what something could do. Reminded me of the old Ginsu steak knife commercials, “but wait there’s more!” Are you a steak knife or a can opener? Make up your mind!
And I noticed another word, that is insidiously creeping up to supplant “but” while being no less controversial. When someone says “Actually, it’s white, not black” do you have the urge to smile and agree or reach out and smack the offending words from the person’s mouth?
There is enough conflict in the world without adding to it with the use of such ineffective words. So take the pledge with me. “I will actually make an effort not to say but.”