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The Power of “And” and “But”

Nov 16, 2023

Words are powerful. Even changing or adding one word in a sentence can change its meaning or how you interpret it. Sometimes a particular sentence suits you more at that moment. For example, if you are working toward going home on time from your full-time job, you may envision yourself having achieved that goal. In that case, you will say “I am the person who goes home on time from work”. If that does not seem to be something you can fully believe at this time, you may say “I am becoming the person who goes home on time from work”. The former sentence is that you imagine you are already there, at your goal. The latter sentence is that you imagine you are not there yet, and you are going that direction.

What is even more powerful is the word “but”. Although I do not know many languages, I imagine that most languages have the equivalent word or phrase for “but”.

Let us say you are talking to your medical assistant about his/her performance. You start out by saying, “Overall you did a great job today.” That is a praise that is welcoming and encouraging. I would imagine that most people on the receiving end would feel positive about that comment. Then you continued, “…but you can room the patients faster.” Instead of receiving a compliment, the medical assistant is now focusing on the second half of the sentence. The focus is on the implication that he/she was too slow in getting the patients ready. That did not sound like she did a great job at all.

The word “but” is used in objection. It is used to negate and disapprove something. In this example, doing a great job was negated by the fact that the patients were not roomed fast enough. The praise and comment on the room for improvement suddenly become a destructive feedback, as the praise disappears after the “but”.

Or say you are having a discussion with someone about what type of food to eat. If your friend makes a suggestion and you start your sentence with “but”, that may be interpreted by your friend as you are only interested in your own opinion.

“But” is a small yet powerful word. It negates, it disapproves, it may indicate selfishness, and it may shut you down.

What if we substitute “but” with “and” instead?

Let us go back to that same example, “Overall you did a great job today and you can room the patients faster.” This sentence implies that you did a great job, and you are rooming the patients fast. The room for improvement is to get the patients ready even faster. The first part of the sentence remains a praise as you meant it to be. The second half of the sentence now is connected to the first part with “and”. There is room for growth. This is a constructive criticism, and your medical assistant likely will be more receptive to it than the sentence with the word “but”. This sentence also leaves room to open up for questions, suggestions and communication.

“And” is used in connection. It is also used in collaboration. It implies acceptance. “And” in a sentence creates space for more ideas and communication. “And” lets the other person feel more connected and will be more open to ask questions.

I invite you to do this exercise: the next time you want to use “but”, stop yourself and use “and” instead. Notice how you feel differently about what you say. Notice how other people are reacting to you. “And” is a more pleasant word to make meaningful and constructive connections with other people.

(Notice that I did not use “but” in a sentence, except to quote the word “but” itself.)

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