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But Nothing

When I had my first direct report as a marketing manager, one of the things I learned was how to provide feedback without using the word “but.” “You are doing well with your TPS reports, but you need to improve your numbers.” Most employees never hear or remember what is said before the “but.” They only hear the room for improvement that comes after the “but” which the employee often remembers as criticism. The same is true outside of the world of business. Whenever we use or hear the word “but,” we have the natural inclination to minimize the positive and only look at the negative.

As I am trying to improve my communication and my relationships, this April I set the goal to stop using “but.”  First thing I realized was how often I use “but.” Whether I was talking to someone or appraising my current situation, I tend to negate the good by adding in a “but.” “Thank you for bringing me flowers, but I don’t have a vase to put them in.” “I love these tacos, but I shouldn’t eat so many.” I began to notice how I was diminishing or rejecting the good in my life by adding in a big “but.” Sometimes, I was diminishing my good because I felt guilty or undeserving of it. Other times I was simply unconsciously focusing on the negative as we all seem to do more frequently these days.

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

In becoming aware of my language, I also noticed how I would use a compliment before the “but” when I felt I could not be direct with someone. “I like your new car, but I wish you didn’t park in my space.” “You look really good in my shirt, but it would have been nice if you asked me before you wore it to paintball.” In many of these cases, my communication could have and should have been clearer and more direct. By hiding my intention after a “but,” I gave away my power and often was not fully and completely heard.

After becoming aware of how my “but” was getting in the way, I am now making a habit of replacing it with “and.” “And” is a powerful tool. Unlike “but” it allows each thought to stand strong without influencing the other.  “And” gives equal weight to both thoughts. It does not give more power to one thought over the other. It does not use one thought to negate the other. “And” gives the speaker more power. It provides more clarity in expression. I find that it also takes out the judgment. Many times, my “but” was a subtle negative attack. When I had to use “and” it made me take ownership for both halves of the sentence. Often having to take this ownership stopped me from adding my big “but” where it didn’t belong.

Take a week to notice your “but.” How often do you use it? When and how? Are you using it to minimize the good? Are you using it for a subtle attack? Are you using it because you feel you can’t be direct? How does your meaning and communication change when you use “and” instead?

Experiencing Life through Language

A friend brought me a blown-glass fish dish from Nova Scotia, Canada. The very next day, I was working downstairs while Mary was cleaning the house. I heard a crash. I knew instinctively it was the dish. Between clients I went upstairs. Mary asked if it was expensive; I said it was a gift. Mary moved on with her day. At the time I was amazed that she had no guilt, no remorse over her actions. Then I re-watched this TED Talk on how language shapes the way we think.

In English, I was fuming. “Mary broke the dish.” The rest of my English moved into Mary is to blame and Mary needs to right her actions. I was focused on the subject, Mary, breaking the object, the dish. In Mary’s Spanish-language mind the conversation was different. The subject in her sentence was the dish. “The dish broke.” She was not involved. It was a fact of life. Looking through my eyes, my perception of always apologizing for my actions – even when it was a no-fault mistake – I was in awe of her ability to remain strong and confident. I was astounded by her cool demeanor. Not one part of her showed shame or guilt over what happened. This wasn’t because she has stronger self-confidence than I do. It is because her language shapes the way she thinks differently than my language shapes me.


I recommend that you listen to the TED Talk and hear first-hand just how our 7,000 different languages shape 7,000 cognitive universes. No wonder we have a hard time understanding each other sometimes. We are not only speaking different languages, we are also seeing the world differently because of those languages. Our language tells us what is important. It helps us learn and become more perceptive of the things we deem important. The language shapes how we see and describe things. How we speak reflects how we see ourselves in the world. Over the last few years I have been exploring this concept through how we express ourselves, how time is perceived, and how new concepts are born in how we speak.

What does your language say about you? 

One of my friends is constantly apologizing. She apologizes for mistakes and is also frequently apologizing for things beyond her control; sometimes she apologizes for just being herself.

Another friend speaks of everyone and everything in how it relates to him. People or things do not exist to him if he does not connect them to himself or his actions.

When I worked for a Taiwanese company, I learned quickly that their language stayed away from confrontation. Many times, we would miss deadlines because my Taiwanese counterparts could not honestly tell me they were behind. It was easier for things to not happen than to be shamed for admitting they were behind schedule.

Living in a different culture has taught me that sarcasm does not translate. I grew up where a sharp tongue was expected and revered. It was the way we bonded and communicated. I now live among individuals who take every word as fact. My sarcasm is not only not-funny, but it is not comprehended. My quick wit causes a lot more confusion than joy.

How do you use language? What assumptions do you make about yourself and the world by the words that you choose and the way you format the sentence? Are you being believed and accepted through your words, or is the way you are expressing yourself turning others away?  Take time this week to watch your words. What do they say about you and how you view the world?

Neil Findlay is Making the World a Better Place – Learn How You Can Too

Neil Findlay says he is just, “An ordinary person out there doing some stuff.” But he is so much more than that. Both Neil and his wife have dedicated some of their working years and now their “retirement” to helping children around the world.  They are both an inspiration for what we can all accomplish.

Neil Findlay
Neil Findlay

One of the groups Neil assists is Project Madagascar. The primary goal of Project Madagascar is to educate street children, starting at age 5, to help them out of the cycle of poverty. The children in this part of Madagascar have literally nothing and especially no hope, unless we can help. Project Madagascar organizes trips where you can learn about this interesting culture while helping those without.

Neil does not only help those in developing countries but also those who need his home country of Australian. Unfortunately there is a very large drug and alcohol abuse issue in Australia, especially with teens. Related to this is also depression, fatigue, violence and suicide. Like many of the underground issues in developed countries like the United States, these are they types of issues that don’t get media coverage.

There are many in the world in situations which are or feel hopeless. The question is, are you being called to help? Perhaps it is time to think about who you are? What do you value? Who are you outside of your job? Is it time to think bigger? Is it time to find out ways to make a difference in the world?

Learn how you can help with Project Madagascar, Red Frogs, and Metro Church Toowoomba. Learn more about Neil: website and The Mentor’s Diary.

What are things you can do locally and beyond to make a difference in someone’s life?