Use your Buts Well by Steve Andreas

One powerful aspect of NLP is to discover what kind of internal experience is elicited by the use of specific language. This enables us to use language in a very directed way in order to get the results that we want. Often the careful examination of a single word yields great dividends, and the word “but” is certainly one of them.

“But” is a negator (Fritz Perls used to call it a “killer”) of whatever experience immediately precedes the word. For me, the image preceding the word “but” quickly slides to my left, disappearing out of my field of internal vision. So “but” is very useful any time you want to (or have to) mention something to someone, but then you want it to diminish in importance or even disappear from their awareness altogether.

Notice what happens in your internal experience when you take any two contents, connect them with “but,” and then repeat this, but reversing the two contents. A tired old joke illustrates this nicely. The mother says to the daughter: “I know he’s ugly, but he’s rich.” and the daughter replies, “Mother, you are so right. I know he’s rich, but he’s ugly.”

So the other side of the coin is to be able to use “but” to defend yourself against a communication that asks you to ignore something that is important to you.

When people are cautious or wary, they often tend to respond defensively, and may oppose whatever someone else says, and find problems with it, no matter how sensible the suggestion might be. In such a situation, often the other person will reply, “Yes, but . . .” (negating the “Yes” agreement) and then responding with an opposite opinion. “Yes, I can see that, but there is a problem with it.” Once someone is focused on a problem, it is easy to get “tunnel vision” and forget that the reason for studying a problem is to find a way to make the suggestion work. Many people then become frustrated because they are stuck with discussing a problem, and don’t know how to get the conversation back to the suggestion that they want the other person to consider.

One alternative is to repeat what the person just said, but replacing the word “but” with “and.” “OK, you can see that, and there is a problem with it.” This keeps both of the two representations (the suggestion and the problem) connected together in the person’s awareness, and the problem can be considered in the context of the possible advantages of the suggestion.

If you expect that your suggestion is likely to be met with a “Yes, but” response, you can make the first move, and state the reverse of what you want the person to consider. Someone who “Yes, buts” consistently will usually feel compelled to reverse it.

In the example above, if the daughter (knowing that her mother is a “Yes-butter”), says, “I don’t know . . . he’s ugly, but he’s rich,” the mother is likely to respond, “Yes, he’s rich, but he’s ugly.” If the mother doesn’t reverse it, the daughter can always follow up with the reversal – and now her position is one of considering both sides of the matter, so she can’t be accused of being stuck in one narrow point of view!

Another very effective use of “but” is as a preemptive move with someone who tends to frequently respond with a “Yes, but,” or someone you expect to respond in this way because of the content, context, etc. Since they unconsciously process with the “Yes, but” pattern, they will also process unconsciously when you use the same pattern with them.

For example, let’s say you want to make a proposal to your boss, who you know from experience tends to find objections, or respond negatively and reject the entire proposal. “You will probably think what I have to say is really crazy, . . . but I’d like to offer you my proposal and see what you think.” If the boss tends to respond in opposition, he will first have to disagree with what precedes the “but” (especially if you pause for a half-second before the “but”), and this will put him into an attitude of agreement with what you will say next. At this point, the boss has already had the opportunity to respond negatively, and then the “but” will tend to push this aside, so he is more likely to simply consider the proposal on its merits. If you’re pretty sure that someone is going to oppose what you say, giving him something else to object to allows him to approach the proposal itself with an open mind.

You can also invite him to find flaws in your proposal (which is something that you know he will likely do anyway). “You will probably think what I have to say is really crazy, . . . but I’d like to offer you my proposal and have you point out the problems with it.” If he is likely to respond in opposition to whatever you propose, he will also oppose your suggestion to find flaws in your proposal, and be at least a little less vigorous in doing this. By inviting him to find flaws, you have allied yourself with what he will do anyway, so there is no opposition. He may still find objections to it, but likely without the defensive and critical attitude that otherwise would have been there.

Then when he finds something to object to in the proposal and says, “Yes, but this (X) is a problem,” you can say, “Yes, I see that (X) could be a problem, but if we can find a way to deal with that, I think that the proposal as a whole could still be worth exploring in more detail, because. . . (of the profit potential, etc.).” This is using the “Yes, but” in response to a “Yes, butter” in a way that can keep the discussion going usefully. Again you are allied with the boss, and together you can consider both the proposal and the problems with it.

When someone says, “Yes (X), but (Y)” you can also include their entire “Yes, but” response as the “Yes” part of your “Yes, but” reply. “Yes, what you just said is clearly important to consider, but I think that (Z) (whatever you want him / her to consider next) is also worth thinking about.” You can continue this kind of move as many times as you want to, in order to keep the discussion going in a useful direction. Since most people have great difficulty consciously tracking even one such move, this can be particularly effective in getting people to continue to pay attention to what you think is important, and continue to consider and discuss it.

These are all very useful ways to keep a discussion on track, and not get caught up in struggling with peoples, habitual and defensive responses. But all these moves, no matter how skillfully done, will not salvage a lousy proposal, no matter how clever you are.

© 2000 Steve Andreas

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