One powerful aspect of NLP is to discover what kind of internal experience
is elicited by the use of specific language. This enables us to use language
in a very directed way in order to get the results that we want. Often
the careful examination of a single word yields great dividends, and the
word "but" is certainly one of them.
"But" is a negator (Fritz Perls used to call it a "killer") of whatever
experience immediately precedes the word. For me, the image preceding
the word "but" quickly slides to my left, disappearing out of my field
of internal vision. So "but" is very useful any time you want to (or have
to) mention something to someone, but then you want it to diminish in
importance or even disappear from their awareness altogether.
Notice what happens in your internal experience when you take any two
contents, connect them with "but," and then repeat this, but reversing
the two contents. A tired old joke illustrates this nicely. The mother
says to the daughter: "I know he's ugly, but he's rich." and the daughter
replies, "Mother, you are so right. I know he's rich, but he's ugly."
So the other side of the coin is to be able to use "but" to defend yourself
against a communication that asks you to ignore something that is important
When people are cautious or wary, they often tend to respond defensively,
and may oppose whatever someone else says, and find problems with it,
no matter how sensible the suggestion might be. In such a situation, often
the other person will reply, "Yes, but . . ." (negating the "Yes" agreement)
and then responding with an opposite opinion. "Yes, I can see that, but
there is a problem with it." Once someone is focused on a problem, it
is easy to get "tunnel vision" and forget that the reason for studying
a problem is to find a way to make the suggestion work. Many people then
become frustrated because they are stuck with discussing a problem, and
donāt know how to get the conversation back to the suggestion that they
want the other person to consider.
One alternative is to repeat what the person just said, but replacing
the word "but" with "and." "OK, you can see that, and there is a problem
with it." This keeps both of the two representations (the suggestion and
the problem) connected together in the person's awareness, and the problem
can be considered in the context of the possible advantages of the suggestion.
If you expect that your suggestion is likely to be met with a "Yes, but"
response, you can make the first move, and state the reverse of what you
want the person to consider. Someone who "Yes, buts" consistently will
usually feel compelled to reverse it.
In the example above, if the daughter (knowing that her mother is a "Yes-butter"),
says, "I don't know . . . he's ugly, but he's rich," the mother is likely
to respond, "Yes, he's rich, but he's ugly." If the mother doesn't reverse
it, the daughter can always follow up with the reversal - and now her
position is one of considering both sides of the matter, so she can't
be accused of being stuck in one narrow point of view!
Another very effective use of "but" is as a preemptive move with someone
who tends to frequently respond with a "Yes, but," or someone you expect
to respond in this way because of the content, context, etc. Since they
unconsciously process with the "Yes, but" pattern, they will also process
unconsciously when you use the same pattern with them.
For example, let's say you want to make a proposal to your boss, who you
know from experience tends to find objections, or respond negatively and
reject the entire proposal. "You will probably think what I have to say
is really crazy, . . . but I'd like to offer you my proposal and see what
you think." If the boss tends to respond in opposition, he will first
have to disagree with what precedes the "but" (especially if you pause
for a half-second before the "but"), and this will put him into an attitude
of agreement with what you will say next. At this point, the boss has
already had the opportunity to respond negatively, and then the "but"
will tend to push this aside, so he is more likely to simply consider
the proposal on its merits. If you're pretty sure that someone is going
to oppose what you say, giving him something else to object to allows
him to approach the proposal itself with an open mind.
You can also invite him to find flaws in your proposal (which is something
that you know he will likely do anyway). "You will probably think what
I have to say is really crazy, . . . but I'd like to offer you my proposal
and have you point out the problems with it." If he is likely to respond
in opposition to whatever you propose, he will also oppose your suggestion
to find flaws in your proposal, and be at least a little less vigorous
in doing this. By inviting him to find flaws, you have allied yourself
with what he will do anyway, so there is no opposition. He may still find
objections to it, but likely without the defensive and critical attitude
that otherwise would have been there.
Then when he finds something to object to in the proposal and says, "Yes,
but this (X) is a problem," you can say, "Yes, I see that (X) could be
a problem, but if we can find a way to deal with that, I think that the
proposal as a whole could still be worth exploring in more detail, because.
. . (of the profit potential, etc.)." This is using the "Yes, but" in
response to a "Yes, butter" in a way that can keep the discussion going
usefully. Again you are allied with the boss, and together you can consider
both the proposal and the problems with it.
When someone says, "Yes (X), but (Y)" you can also include their entire
"Yes, but" response as the "Yes" part of your "Yes, but" reply. "Yes,
what you just said is clearly important to consider, but I think that
(Z) (whatever you want him / her to consider next) is also worth thinking
about." You can continue this kind of move as many times as you want to,
in order to keep the discussion going in a useful direction. Since most
people have great difficulty consciously tracking even one such move,
this can be particularly effective in getting people to continue to pay
attention to what you think is important, and continue to consider and
These are all very useful ways to keep a discussion on track, and not
get caught up in struggling with peoples, habitual and defensive responses.
But all these moves, no matter how skillfully done, will not salvage a
lousy proposal, no matter how clever you are.
Steve Andreas © 2000