Words are unbelievably powerful. It’s a fundamental principle of both Scripture and life in general, yet is one that’s all too easily overlooked. Recently I had an experience where I was challenged on the words I use in my leadership that deeply impacted me. The experience grew me greatly as a leader, and I share it with the hope it may do the same for you.
I knew that I was in trouble almost as soon as the conversation started. It was the end of a long work day and I was in a meeting with a colleague where we were discussing a particularly sensitive issue. Emotions were running high, as the subject being discussed was one that had proven to be a pain point for this individual in the past. Against my better judgment, I chose to continue the conversation instead of recommending we pick it up when we were both a little calmer, and things quickly took a turn for the worse.
Somewhere in between the raised voices and hurt feelings the critical moment took place. I had just attempted to calm some of the emotion in the room by assuring my colleague that she was doing a great job in a certain area of her ministry, but there was another that needed work. It was then she cut me off. “There’s always a BUT!” she yelped.
Of course being the extraordinarily cool, calm, and collected leader that I am I handled the unexpected interruption like a champ. I wish. Actually I let my emotions get the best of me and nearly lost it. “Of course there’s a ‘but’!” I challenged back. “You’re doing great in one area of your job but not so great in this other one, there’s no getting around it.”
Ouch. The tension in the room was palpable and I could tell my words had a profoundly negative impact on my colleague. The meeting wrapped up without any clear resolution, and plenty of frayed feelings. We went our separate ways.
Later that afternoon I had an appointment with my counselor where I happened to bring the conversation up. As I share with him about the frustration of the encounter he listened patiently, before offering the following advice.
“Grant”, he said, “in my experience ‘but’ is a word that escalates, not de-escalates conflict. Instead of using ‘but’ in your conversation, perhaps next time you can consider the word ‘and’ instead.”
As much as I trust my counselor I’ve got to be honest, I thought the advice was silly. Could swapping the word “and” for “but” really make that much of a difference? Definitely not- or so I thought.
As God would have it, later that evening I found myself reading the first chapter of Susan Scott’s Fierce Conversations, a manual for having the difficult conversations like the one I had engaged in earlier that day. It’s a required text for my conflict resolution course I’m taking this summer through Gordon Conwell’s Charlotte campus as I continue my Masters in Christian Ministries degree with them.
In the opening chapter Scott has this advice for communicating in a high-stakes situation where you’re trying to assess reality without assigning blame.
To help you improve at describing reality without laying blame, a simple and effective shift you can make is to remove the word but from your vocabulary and substitute the word and. ‘I like what you’ve done here, but . . .’ will be better received if you say, ‘I like what you’ve done here, and..’
I was blown away. All I could think was, “I wish I’d read this earlier today!” Maybe the power of “and” is something you’ve heard about before, but I never had.
Having been sufficiently convicted by God having led me to the resources that He did, I got in touch with my colleague to offer my sincere apologies for how I’d been communicating. As we communicate in the future I’ll be careful to not use “but” when “and” can work just as well.
One of the original ideas for a title for this site was “From the Trenches.” I’ve always wanted to be able to use it to provide leadership, life, and ministry lessons “from the trenches” as I learn on the job at Faith Baptist, and I hope that I’ve been able to do that today.
The next time you’re in a critical conversation pay special attention to the words you’re using and take special care to avoid the word “but.” You just may be surprised at the results.