“Traveling in Europe for two months would be a wonderful experience, but we could not afford it.” So much for that idea! Or how about this: “Getting a project with the state DOT would be great, but we don’t have the necessary bridge experience.” Another aspiration shot down. And consider this statement: “Writing a book would be satisfying, but I don’t have the time.” That book will never be written.
The preceding statements, each of which contains a pivotal “but,” are examples of what has been called “but-phobia” or “but-neurosis” (Bach, 1970, Walther, 1991). This is the tendency to make a positive statement and then, usually within the same sentence, follow it with a negative thought, leaving on the balance a pessimistic message. I fear that many potentially great ideas have fizzled, been crushed, or not seen the light of day because of but-phobia or but-neurosis. Reason: What we say or write, that is, the content, when offering an idea or making a proposal is important. So is how we say or write it, that is, the tone and the emphasis which are often determined by our use of “but.”
Author Marcus Bach advises us to consider “the other side of but.” He states that “to reverse your point of view is to start your life anew.” More specifically, he suggests revisiting the way we speak and write to make the “but” part of our statements positive.
Following his advice, the three negative statements that opened this essay could be turned into these positive statements:
- “A wonderful two month European trip would be expensive, but we will start a four-year savings program to accumulate the necessary funds.”
- Bridge experience is necessary to earn a contract with the state DOT, but we will obtain that experience through selected projects with existing municipal clients.”
- The satisfying book writing experience will require a major time investment, but I will schedule one hour of writing per day for the next six weeks to launch the project.”
Notice the change, that is, each statement ends in a positive, can-do manner. Instead of leaving the impression that the trip will never occur, the DOT contract will never be signed, or the book will never be written, we are left with the feeling that all these things are possible and, assuming follow through, will occur.
Another approach to each of the preceding three up-beat statements is to replace “but” with “and.” Some writers and speakers prefer this method because it eliminates any possible negativity. For example:
- “Bridge experience is necessary to earn a contract with the state DOT and we will obtain that experience through selected projects with our municipal clients.”
When I was nearing completion of this essay, my wife and I had lunch at a waterfront restaurant frequented by boaters. My wife, on observing that the single pier was completely lined with boats, noted that the pier should be lengthened to accommodate more boats and, therefore, more diners.
Her comment prompted me to recall another negative way we engineers sometimes use “but.” Assume that the restaurant owner, our client or potential client, says: “I want to make the pier longer.” Our well-intended, but somewhat negative, response might be: “But, you would need a permit, water depth soundings, tide and wave data, etc.” Beginning our response with “but” may be viewed by the client/potential client as suggesting that the contemplated project is ill-advised or may be very difficult. Instead, let’s be positive by avoiding the “but.” Let’s say something like: “Interesting idea! Here are some of the first things we should do…”
Perhaps some of you are thinking: “In addition to what I write or say, I should also think about the tone and other writing and speaking techniques, but that would require considerable additional effort in my already hectic schedule.” Oops, there’s that negative “but” again! Get on the other side of but. How about this: “Improving my writing and speaking will require added efforts, but I will begin by focusing how I use “but.” Or use this version: “Improving my writing and speaking will require added efforts and I will begin by improving the tone of my messages.”
Bach, M. 1970. The World of Serendipity. DeVorss & Company, Marina Del Ray, CA.
Walther, G.R. 1991. Power Talking: 50 Ways to Say What You Mean and Get What You Want. Berkley Books, New York, NY.
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