Use Your Buts Well!*
by Steve Andreas
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
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 to you.
When people are cautious or wary, they often tend to respond
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 don't
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 be likely to 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 discuss
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.
*Canadian Assn. of NLP (online)