Thursday, December 1, 2016

Three words that poison every conversation

Nearly a decade ago, my Change Leadership trainer already taught me a valuable lesson: How a few simple words can destroy meaningful communication: "You're right, but ...", "Yes, but ..." "But you need to see ...", - the memo stuck: "Get your But(t) out of my face". Not until I read Marshall Goldsmith's "What Got You Here Won't Get You There" did I start to become conscious of how often this phrase and others are used.

A small dose is enough to poison the conversation.

But, No, However

Marshall pointed out all three terms as ways to turn any conversation into some sort of war. When I first read this, I remembered the good advice I received so long ago - and started to monitor these terms and how they are being used.
They are toxic because all three of these terms have the same meaning: "I know something you don't - I am better than you." The healthy exchange of ideas on face level becomes blocked as soon as one person starts elevating themselves above the other. What follows is often a toxic vindication of standpoints.

Why do we say these words?

Few people actually mean to poison a conversation. When I first started looking at myself, I became conscious of what I was doing. Maybe you want to re-read my blog articles with this in mind. You can pinpoint fairly exactly when I started reading Marshall's book. Before that, I was simply unaware of my own use of language. I never meant bad. I was simply un-aware. So, when you realize you're but-ted out of a conversation, the next thing you should realize that this is most likely happening because the other person is unaware of what they are doing.

What to do about it?

For me, it became a tedious exercise of monitoring every single sentence I wrote. Whether it was a blog post, a LinkedIn reply or even a simple mail response, I started double-checkeing. I re-phrased every sentence I had poisoned. I am still doing this today. Do I still use these words? Yes. What I do try is to use them consciously, when needed. Does it make sense to avoid answering a binary question directly? No. See. You got me. I did it on purpose. I know what I did - and why I did it. I had a chance to reflect on my own words to improve my own communication.

How about spoken language?

Written language is significantly easier to monitor than spoken language. When I first started observing my own speech behaviour, I was all full of the first and second, resorting to the third in a feeble attempt of evasion when I caught myself. Learn to think twice before speaking. Form your answer in your head. Be a bit more constricted on the words you let out of your mouth. Change is hard. You will fail. More than once. Getting better requires being conscious of what you do - and not being too hard on yourself. Just sufficiently hard to avoid falling back into old habits.


Do your conversation partners a favor. Eliminate the toxins of "No", "But" and "However" from your vocabulary. Start becoming a more amicable communicator today!

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