Words that Bite You in the ‘But’


Our kids had just departed for a month of sleep-away camp. Michael and I were finally alone, and we were ready for adventure, romance, and connection. For our first night, we had it all planned out, something we had never done before:

His and hers dentist appointments.

As Michael sat in one reclining chair, feet up, bibbed, and suctioned, I sat in the next examination room, similarly bedecked. Dr. W put on his four-lens glasses and attempted to relax me:

“I’m just going to take a look, so this won’t hurt yet.”

Yet? What did he think would possibly be soothing about the word “yet”? Or did he just toss in an extra word the way one might throw an extra hotdog on the grill when an unexpected guest shows up to the barbeque?

In one fell swoop, his three-letter utterance “yet” undermined the entire message that preceded it. As several four-letter words crossed my mind, I braced myself for dental impact.

According to a Jewish proverb, “a bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.” Just like Horton the Elephant, we get one chance to mean what we say and say what we mean. And while we may get a do-over when the first communiqué doesn’t land the way we intended, there’s no substitute for getting it right the first time.

Many of the managers I coach with were trained at some point to give feedback using the so-called “sandwich” technique, which delivers a performance critique in this order: Positive Feedback, Negative Feedback, Positive Feedback . The goal of this approach is to surround the challenging news with comforting news on both ends. While I understand that this method aims to soften the blow for both deliverer and deliveree, it actually confuses everyone involved.

I think of this as a “Big But” Sandwich (which I think they may actually serve at the Second Avenue Deli): Here’s what you are doing well BUT here’s what you’re not doing well BUT here’s what you’re also doing well. It’s a series of counterarguments that does less to improve the performance of an employee and does more to make the supervisor feel less guilty. Besides, what kind of sandwich packs the middle with something unpalatable? Not a Jewish sandwich!

Some people collect Faberge eggs, rare wines or shopping bags. I collect words that undermine or negate the ideas surrounding them. (Believe it or not, I am actually quite fun at parties.) Think of these words like salt: using them isn’t inherently bad for us, and, in fact, can be a healthy part of a well-rounded vocabulary. Overused or sprinkled with abandon, these terms can raise blood pressures and even cause permanent damage to our relationships at home and at work.

Here are some words to use with extra care:

But: As in, “I love you, but…” or “Your work is excellent, but…”. That “but” is a magic eraser that wipes out the gentle, kind and compassionate part of your message, leaving no trace behind. Instead, become so liberal and deliberate with your support and encouragement on a regular basis that you can deliver bad news clearly, concisely and quickly. The cushion should already be in place to give your critique a soft landing.

Everybody/Nobody: Ah, the power of absolute! When my daughter Sophie told me for the tenth time that everybody in her third grade class had an iPod Touch, and could she please please have one, I told her that I had a very hard time believing that everyone had one of these $199 devices. I also reminded her that she was batting 0 with me in negotiating for things that she wanted by using the “everybody has one” argument. A quick study, Sophie tried a new approach: “Mom, guess what? Nobody in my class has an iPod Touch. Can I have one now?” Smart cookie, but I wasn’t biting. “Nobody” falls into the same category as “everybody.”

All you need is one example of a “somebody who” and your whole argument crumbles. Better to stick with Many/Few to keep your credibility intact.

Always/Never: I’d love to say that Sophie’s never getting an iPod Touch. What I really mean is “it’s unlikely”. I learned to modify my unyielding stance on expensive electronics after I had told my kids for years that they were never getting a Nintendo Wii. And then their beloved Aunt Debby bought them one for Chanukah. “Never” was no longer the truth, and my integrity suffered a small blow. Sure, I could have returned the Wii to keep my credibility, but it didn’t seem worth the risk that two children and one sister-in-law might not speak to me again for decades. See, not “never again” – just decades.

The good news is, my dentist didn’t hurt me at all. The bad news is, it didn’t matter because I was already primed for pain. Our words have the power to confuse or clarify, deflate or inspire, wreck or renew.

Let me know what words prime you for pain or pleasure!