Top Tip to Transform Difficult Conversations
Two never-married parents in a child custody mediation despise one another.
They chose child custody mediation to push themselves to improve their communication and co-parenting.
They are practicing some classic communication strategies. Reflecting back what they are hearing to make sure they understand one another. Listening without interrupting. Even trying to validate feelings.
The problem is they are incredibly defensive, getting caught in a vortex of claims and counter-claims.
It took me some time to figure out the reason for the continued defensiveness despite reflecting, validating and listening.
But figure it out I did!
And the culprit in this child custody mediation was…
Can you identify the culprit in these sample comments?
I understand you were sick. I really do. We all get sick. But you’re not only late when you’re sick…let’s be honest.
I appreciate that you’re stressed out by our arguing. But how do you think Johnny feels having to listen to you scream at me on the phone?
Both statements led to raised voices, blood pressure, and tension.
The culprit is a tiny thing. Three itsy-bitsy letters.
Yes, but nothing!
Using BUT as your conjunction when giving someone feedback rarely works.
- BUT places the focus on the negative
- BUT conveys that the issue of concern is the most important part of what is said.
- BUT is a buzzword. It raises antennae. It draws attention. It does this because we know that it is setting the stage for a negative message.
- BUT often leads the speaker to a direct and confrontational style of communicating.
BUT what else am I supposed to say?
The solution is also a tiny thing. Three itsy-bitsy letters.
Sounds too good to be true, right?
Let’s take our examples from the child custody mediation and first imagine what kid of reaction the father receives using BUT.
Father: I appreciate that you’re stressed out by our arguing. But how do you think Johnny feels having to listen to you scream at me on the phone?
Mother: How dare you bring Johnny in to this! You didn’t hear anything I had to say, did you?
Now let’s replace BUT with AND see where it leads us.
Father: I appreciate that you’re stressed out by our arguing. And how do you think Johnny feels having to listen to you scream at me on the phone?
Sounds kind of weird, doesn’t it?
Worry not! The beauty of changing the conjunction is that it will lead the speaker to alter the rest of their sentence.
Here’s a more realistic replacement of the conjunction.
Father: I appreciate that you’re stressed out by our arguing. And I’m also worried that it’s also stressing out Johnny.
Mother: I’m worried that it’s stressing him out too. Of course it’s stressing him out!
BUT sounds like a rebuttal.
AND sounds like a continuation of the discussion.
Using AND forces the speaker to phrase ideas in a more open manner. It leads to “I statements” more than “You statements” (more on this in a future post!). And it generates far less defensiveness in the listener.
Sounds so easy but…I mean and…
I can tell you from personal experience that it is difficult to replace BUT with AND. Using BUT is ingrained in the way most people communicate. It is a habit, and habits can be hard to break.
A couple of suggestions:
- As an exercise, think through what you want to say using BUT. Then replace it with AND see how it affects what you say.
- Use “AND, AND, AND” as your mantra during difficult conversations until it becomes natural or automatic.
- Practice during inconsequential conversations. If you catch yourself using BUT, correct yourself. Make a mental note.
AND finally…how do you think changing conjunctions might help you?
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