- You often unknowingly keep yourself stuck because you use the language of limitation and resistance.
- "But" is often the word that holds people back from being able to consider potential solutions.
- When ready, replacing "but" with "and" can help move you from fear and limitation to possibility and hope.
So often in ministry and counseling work, I encounter people plagued by buts.
Here is a sample:
- “I’d like to get out and meet some new people, but…."
- “I’d like to go back to church but….”
- “I’d like to tell my husband/wife/mom/dad/son/daughter, etc., how I really feel, but…."
- “I’d like to quit this bad habit, but….”
- “I’d like to change jobs, but….”
The Danger of "But"
There are many more examples I could cite that touch on various aspects of people’s lives and well-being.
What follows the but is typically a predicate that reveals fear, doubt, or unbelief, such as, “I’m afraid I’ll be rejected,” “I’m afraid they won’t understand,” “I don’t think l can cope,” or, “I’ll never be able to find a better job.”
Or worse, it might be followed with a statement of shame and self-loathing, such as, “I know no one could love me,” “I’m too messed up to be around people,” “I’m worthless,” “It’s hopeless,” or, “I just can’t.”
But is a necessary word in our vocabulary. It is a conjunction that expresses a contrast or qualifies a statement of fact or feeling. But, it can also be a dangerous word.
Sometimes suffering people "but" themselves to death because they are legitimately frustrated due to past failures. They’ve tried many things, many times, and remain stuck. They are afraid to try again. Too often they have been disappointed.
Therapists, pastors, and other caregivers work to instill hope. We ask discouraged clients to try again, this time with our support.
Maybe we can identify potential solutions together. If they will bring even the tiniest seed of hope, we can cultivate and water it, metaphorically, and watch something new come alive.
With such coaching, we hope to arrive at a practical stage where we can brainstorm and evaluate potential solutions to the problem afflicting them.
If every possibility is met with a but—some perceived reason it couldn’t work—we know we are encountering a form of resistance.
Ironically, the helper is then at risk of becoming frustrated. We come to the place where we say to ourselves, “I’d love to help this person, but he won’t let me.” This can happen in any sort of helping role, not just professional ones.
In these cases, it is important to understand, accept, and respect each individual’s readiness for change.
Motivational interviewing (MI) is a strategy developed by Miller and Rollnick and used in a variety of therapeutic, organizational, and educational settings.
There are many tools employed in the practice of MI, but it has at its core a nonjudgmental acceptance of clients exactly where they are in their readiness for change.
MI is a conversational process that highlights what practitioners have labeled “change talk.” By teasing out the fear or resistance lying beneath the presenting problem, an individual can honestly evaluate readiness for change.
This avoids much frustration on both sides of the helping relationship because it doesn’t push or force change before the person is ready. It allows him or her to take full responsibility for the timing, goals, and structure of the change process.
It is at the point when an individual assesses a readiness to take action to change that I propose that the linguistic “hack” of replacing but with and can be most useful.
Practicing this simple switch while talking about a problem can bring tremendous fresh insight. I’ve witnessed it many times and have even used it on myself. Most of the time we don’t realize how the words we choose to tell our stories keep us stuck.
The Power of "And"
See what a difference this could bring in the examples cited at the beginning:
- “I’d like to get out and meet some new people, and I acknowledge that this is hard for me.” This is a statement of self-acceptance and self-compassion in place of the fear of rejection.
- “I’d like to go back to church, and I need to find a community where I will be welcomed as I am.” This states a positive goal instead of self-hatred and self-condemnation.
- I’d like to tell______ how I feel, and I need to learn how to express myself more honestly.” This indicates a readiness to learn assertive communication instead of retreating into passivity and inferiority.
- I’d like to change jobs, and I’d better get started looking because it might take time and effort to find it. This declares optimism and determination instead of pessimism and defeatism.
This is not a gimmick that fixes everything. Certainly not. It must be employed with sensitivity, patience, and ongoing acceptance of each person’s change process.
It is, however, a simple way to begin to shift awareness from limitation to possibility. Replacing but with and as we move toward change offers this fundamental difference in focus.
But can be a conversation-stopper and a growth-blocker. It implies that whatever comes after it has the power to keep us stuck and frustrated.
And acknowledges the reality that change is difficult. It suspends judgment, quiets fears, and allows the mind to consider realistic choices.
After the and, we can end our sentences with words that tell our minds that change is possible.
Miller, W.R. & Rollnick, S. (2013) Motivational Interviewing: Helping people to change (3rd Edition). Guilford Press.