Workplace communication can be derailed by a bad case of 'yes, but'

Matthew Tarpey,
Successful communication in homes and businesses alike is being impeded by the growing national habit of "yes, buts." "Yes, buts" are statements that begin with a tentative agreement, followed by a completely different idea altogether, and they've become so commonplace in American life that we sometimes aren't even aware of them.

For the most part, people use "yes, buts" in an effort to sound more polite or thoughtful. However, there are several reasons why "yes, buts" are detrimental to communication. In his book "Conversation Transformation," Ben E. Benjamin, Ph.D., discusses three major ones.

1. "Yes, buts" send a mixed message
People are often concerned that their body language or tone of voice might send a mixed message, but people can usually count on their words to convey a consistent message. "Yes, buts" are the definition of a mixed message; they allow people to offer two opposing ideas in a single sentence. While you may think you sound polite, you're making it more difficult for the other person's brain to process what you're saying. When given two conflicting ideas, the brain will have to focus on just one.

2. People only hear "but"
In a meeting, if your boss says, "That's a good idea, but I think we should keep brainstorming," do you think your boss liked your idea? People tend to notice differences more than similarities. When faced with a "yes, but," most people will focus on the part that disagrees with their own point rather than the part that agrees with it. People may also think the other person doesn't respect them enough to speak directly. If there's too much negative energy, eventually any conversation will break into an argument.

3. Any difference can become a conflict
"Yes, buts" beget more "yes, buts." If you're talking with someone who is even remotely competitive, he's likely to start firing back his own "yes, buts" to counter yours. Before you know it, a civilized conversation can careen off course and become a veritable tennis match of "yes, buts" being batted back and forth. Eventually it seems like one person must be right and the other must be wrong, even if both people's initial points weren't necessarily mutually exclusive. "Yes, buts" have created an argument where there once was conversation. It may not be a shouting match, but it is just as ineffective at resolving conflict and it wastes just as much time.

Curing your "yes, buts"
The first step to kicking this bad habit is to recognize it. When presented with ideas that you don't necessarily agree with, keep track of your train of thought. If you're only thinking of counter arguments, you're in danger of using a "yes, but." When your mind is full of them, some are likely to spill out into conversation. It can also help to ask friends or family members to speak up when they notice your "yes, buts." Odds are they'll be thrilled for the opportunity to call you out.
There's more to it than just catching yourself in the act. You can't simply stop talking and walk away; you have to continue the conversation. Benjamin suggests a strategy called "build and explore. "Think of the 'build' as expanding the 'yes' part of your 'yes, but' by putting more meat on the bones," he says. Rather than offering a generic agreement, point out what you like about the other person's idea, or build on her idea with some points of your own. Adding three specific builds to an argument ensures that you're taking the time to consider the idea, and it shows the other person that you've put some thought into her suggestion.
Once you've built upon the other person's idea, the next step is to raise your concern without phrasing it negatively. This is where Benjamin's "explore" technique comes in: "A good way to do this is to incorporate your concern into a broad -- open-ended -- question." Rephrasing your concern as a question facilitates a considerate conversation just as a "but" facilitates an argument. For example, instead of saying, "I'd love to, but I have to go to work," try saying, "Do you have any ideas about how I could fit a two-week vacation into my work schedule?" This gets the concern out in the open. It also steers the conversation toward exploring solutions, rather than focusing on the roadblock.

Dealing with the "yes, buts" of others
You've dealt with your own "yes, but" habit, but you're still going to find yourself in conversations with people who use "yes, buts." You can defuse the potentially volatile conversation using the "build and explore" technique. Building on their concerns, then defusing the situation with a broad question may not prevent others from using "yes, buts," but it is one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of frustration.

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