There are arguably words in the English language that can be harmful. The ones that come to mind immediately are, of course, racist or sexist or, just generally, mean-ist.
Another one exists. It isn’t called out on politically incorrect lists. And we all say it all the time (sometimes harmlessly). Yet, we’re rarely aware that when used in certain contexts, it can be devastatingly harmful.
The word is ‘BUT’.
I work in a creative industry. An industry that pushes the bounds of what’s been done before. And an industry that involves passionate people throwing their passionate ideas into the ring.
Person A: Let’s open the meeting with clowns!
Person B: That’s an interesting idea, but clowns scare people and they aren’t funny.
Person B might as well be saying ‘but your idea sucks’. It’s implied. It’s…right…there on the tip of the tongue. The ‘but’ is a smack down and it’s usually attached to a trigger finger (or mouth, if you will).
Person B rarely stops to actually consider Person A’s idea before the ‘but-hammer’ comes down. It’s almost like an automatic response. Idea? Smack. Idea? Smack. This hurts Person A, obviously, because he, and his idea, have been shut down.
It also hurts Person B.
Because Person B is missing out on Person A’s possible genius. Perhaps, if Person B listened and paused and stewed in it for a while, she might see that clowns might actually work. (Or it will become obvious to Person A that clowns really won’t add anything.)
There is another side to this.
And that is: when Person A’s idea is really, truly, miserably wrong. Then is it okay to throw in that ‘but’? I say no. I think there is still incredible value in letting that original idea get some airtime. And approaching the situation in a non-offensive way.
Listen, Person B (who, yes, is sometimes me), would it kill you to give the idea and the person who said it a chance? Maybe in a day or two, you can offer your idea. And it doesn’t have to be introduced with a ‘but’. There’s no reason to bring their idea back to the table and point out why it’s wrong. How is that helpful?
All you need here is a simple “Hey, I was thinking about the meeting opener and I thought of this idea…” And if you’re lucky, they won’t
bludgeon ‘but’ you either.
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