When I was in my 20s and working on my Masters degree in counseling, a visiting professor said to me (after I had questioned her repeatedly), “Ah, you’re a yes-but-er”.  I had a vague sense this was not a compliment, and it made me go away and think.

But is a loaded word to use in a coaching or counseling conversation-or any situation in which you’re trying to establish empathy and trust.

At its most neutral, but is used to introduce a statement that will contrast with what has been said.

At its best, the use of the word but clarifies and builds on what has been said.

At its worst, its use negates what another person says, and may indicate a sense that the ‘yes-but-ter’ is trying to establish some sort of one-ups-man-ship with a superior analysis or idea.

When the word but is used in active listening (even if it is meant kindly), it can feel emotionally to the other person like a negation of how they feel or think.

What do you do instead?

It can be very helpful to re-state what the other person has said (to validate what they’ve said and that you’ve truly heard it).  Then if you have concerns, you can ask permission to pose a separate (and non-leading) question.

“I’ve heard you say that x, y, and z is going on, and that you feel x about it.  Is it ok if I ask you a question?”

One further tip-don’t get tricky with yourself and substitute another word for but in situations where you’re trying to demonstrate or establish empathy.

As a wise person once said, however is a but in a tuxedo…

May we pursue our paths, getting off our ‘buts’ 🙂

Best wishes,

Elizabeth