For the past two months I've tried to strike the word "but" from my vocabulary.
It's not easy. I'm not even sure it's a good idea to go 100 percent but-free. Maybe but-light would be better.
My quest stemmed from an interview with Evan Watson where he described how he used improv training to help customer service agents better serve customers. Watson explained one of the main tenants of improvisation is agreement.
The idea is you try to find agreement with the other person to keep the improv scene or the customer conversation going.
The word "but" feels like it stops agreement. It's used when you say one thing and then say something completely different. As in, "I'd like to help you, but I can't help you."
So I wondered what it would be like if I stopped using that word with clients and colleagues. The results have been revealing.
Background on the Challenge
There are times when the answer to a question really is "No."
The natural appendage to "No" is "but" when we're trying to be helpful. As in, "Can you meet on Tuesday?" and you're booked on Tuesday so you might reply, "No, but I can meet on Wednesday. Does that work for you?"
While it seems helpful, there's also something negative about it. This gets amplified in service situations. As in, "Your app isn't working, can you help me fix it?" A reply of "No, but you can check our website" doesn't feel great.
It's somewhat similar to my own concept called trigger words. These words, when used at the wrong time, can trigger a customer's anger. Jeremy Watkin refers to them as "stop words," which I think is the same thing.
Shep Hyken recently wrote a blog post describing how subtle changes to the way we phrase things can influence how customers perceive them.
All this made it seem like an interesting challenge.
Please don't get me wrong. I don't think the word "but" is really horrible. It's not like saying "ain't" which is universally known to cause your mother to faint. My goal here was simply to elevate my game.
It's Hard to Get Rid of But
I quickly learned the word is instinctive, and instincts are hard to change.
People would ask me something and I'd instantly infuse my response with "but." Someone asking, "Can you help me with this project" would generate an instinctive "No, but I have some resources I can share."
It's agreeable, yet disagreeable at the same time.
It's hard to get a take-back in a verbal conversation, though I realized you can take advantage of written correspondence.
For example, I got an email from a prospective client who wanted to have me speak at her company's all-staff meeting in December. My schedule is completely full in December so my first instinct was to write, "No, but please think of me for next year's meeting!"
Stop. Delete. Re-write. I realized she doesn't care about next year's meeting because she's trying to plan this year's meeting.
What I ended up writing was, "I'm sorry to say my calendar is completely booked through December, including the dates of your all-staff meeting. Is there another way I might help you?"
I think I'm on to something because she sent me a very nice note in response.
Say Yes 'Til It Hurts
The word "but" is often triggered by a "no," so one way to avoid but is to say "yes" until it hurts.
I got a call last week from the leader of an alumni group I belong to. She asked me to deliver a keynote presentation at a student conference that was just three weeks away.
My first instinct was to politely decline. I'm very busy with multiple deadlines and extensive travel, so squeezing this in would be difficult.
Yet I realized this was an opportunity to give back to an organization I care about and meet some of its newest members. I ultimately avoided saying "No, but" to this request by saying "Yes."
Obviously, this challenge isn't good for my time management.
The bigger picture is it causes me to pause and re-think whether there really is a realistic way I can say "Yes." Sometimes, the answer still is "No," though not as often as I might initially think.
Apply Mental Flexibility
Avoiding but can require a lot of mental flexibility.
A colleague recently emailed to invite me to a special event he knew I'd be interested in attending. I'm going to be out of town that day, so I was tempted to write, "I can't make it, but I can share this with a few others I know will enjoy it."
There's nothing really wrong with that response. I'm just trying to do better, so I wrote, "I’ll be out of town that day, which is too bad because it sounds like a fun event. I’ll share this with the few colleagues I know in the area in case they’d be interested."
This whole thing is a work in progress. It takes extra effort to eliminate these buts. I think it's worth it.
The idea is to be more agreeable. For example, my wife and I had dinner with friends last night. One of my friends asked, "Are you still traveling a lot?"
I replied, "Yes, but I will be slowing down soon, so we can get together more often!"