No ‘Buts’ About it: Building Relationship with the Power of ‘And’
Try these on for size:
“I love you, but…”
“That’s a really great idea, but…”
“I’m sorry, but…”
“You’re a wonderful friend, but…”
Would you like to hazard a guess as to what sort of thing completes the sentences above? It’s a good bet that all of them list a criticism of the person being spoken to, or an unpleasant truth (or lie), or some other bit of negativity that will be hard for the listener to swallow. How is that going to help the relationship?
Often those sentences with a ‘but’ in the middle are chosen carefully by people who love, or care about, the person they are trying to let down gently. It doesn’t work. The moment that ‘but’ shows up in the sentence, it serves as a cue to the listener that whatever comes after the ‘but’ is more important than the good will of the person being addressed.
‘But‘ serves as a see-saw for the sentence. Your attention bounces from one side of the sentence to the other, putting the side after the ‘but‘ in high relief. The relationship you are trying to preserve suffers. Here are some sentence completions for the fragments above, to demonstrate.
“I love you, but I just can’t stand the way you snore.”
“That’s a great idea, but I don’t think it’s in the budget.”
“I’m sorry, but you really should have known better.”
“You’re a wonderful friend, but I’m not interested in a romantic relationship right now.”
Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.
The word ‘and‘ isn’t magic, exactly, but it’s close. (See, there are appropriate uses for the word ‘but‘).
The word ‘and‘ in these sentences leaves an opening, allowing you to stand with the person you’re addressing rather than lifting them and then lowering them. Less like a see-saw and more like a game of catch, and much healthier for your relationship.
“I love you and I just can’t stand the way you snore.” Do you see how it leaves open the possibility that you are willing to work with the other on finding a solution? This a conversation opener, not an ender. Perhaps the next sentence could be “Maybe we should try those Breathe-Right strips,” or “Let’s make a doctors appointment to get you tested for sleep apnea.”
“That’s a great idea, and it’s not in the budget” opens the conversation again. Can the budget be changed? Do you have another idea? The person who says this to you might be open to suggestions. If you say it to others, you are clearly open to suggestion, and you preserve or improve the work relationship in question.
“I’m sorry, and you should have known better” acknowledges your own part in whatever conflict you just had without letting the other off the hook. Shared responsibility, rather than denial of responsibility. This sentence does three things. It acknowledges your role in the conflict, it holds the other accountable, and it acknowledges a relationship between you that gives context and history to the conflict.
For instance, if the fight is because I flew off the handle because my husband poked at a sore subject for me, it acknowledges that I shouldn’t have flown off the handle, holds him responsible for poking at me, and points out that we have enough history and knowledge of each others’ personalities that this was an expected outcome.
“You’re a wonderful friend and I’m not interested in a romantic relationship right now” is pretty awesome, actually. It is deep and complex and open. “I value you as a friend. You are important to me. In addition to that, for whatever reason (which may or may not have anything to do with our relationship) I am not currently looking for romance.”
This is a huge conversation opener, if not immediately, then over time. This opening allows good friends to explore their friendship and its boundaries without (at least immediate) fear that the friendship will be sacrificed.
As I said, not quite magic, but almost. ‘And‘ builds a bridge between both halves of the sentence, allowing both to be true, and sometimes equal, simultaneously. It creates conversation openers, not stoppers.
Using ‘and’ to link sentence halves that typically use ‘but’ leads us to the concept of radical acceptance. Radical acceptance is the idea that people are doing the absolute best they can, at every moment, whether or not that best is good enough in context or in general. It is best encapsulated in the phrase “I am good enough just the way I am, and I can improve.”
Radical acceptance is not about the other person, necessarily, but about your own peace of mind. When you are truly able to accept another person’s actions, whether or not they were ‘okay’ or ‘acceptable’, as being the best that person had available to them given their context at that moment, it frees you from anger and hate and envy and all kinds of negativity.
Using ‘and‘ as a bridge between ‘I never felt truly loved by my ex girlfriend’ and ‘she was doing the best she knew how to do’ allows you to let go and move on to the next phase of your life. It’s even more powerful when you are addressing your own behavior. “I lost that job because I lost my cool about that situation” and “I was doing what I knew how to do at the time” helps you to learn from your past without beating yourself up over it.
…Putting it all together…
But. But. But. I can hear your objections. It isn’t magic. It doesn’t apply 100% of the time. It doesn’t work 100% of the time. It’s silly. People don’t talk that way.
Try this: Think of a situation you’re wrestling with. Write five or ten sentences with ‘but’ in the middle that apply to that situation. Now, go back and change the ‘but’ in each of those sentences into an ‘and’.
- Do any new possibilities pop out at you?
- Can you find ways to build relationship rather than conflict?
- Do you find an opening for compassion (including self-compassion)?
- Do you find yourself undergoing a shift in attitude about an old relationship that you are perhaps stuck in (at least emotionally)?
- What other changes do you observe?
Try this exercise every day or so for a couple of weeks, and you’ll almost certainly find yourself substituting ‘and’ for ‘but’ (and benefiting from it) in no time at all.
- I Promise You My Anger (psychologytoday.com)
- What Implicit Processes Tell Us About Romantic Attachment (psychologicalscience.org)
- Relationships: The Most Important Is The One You Have With Yourself (collective-evolution.com)