The “B” Word

Don't use that B word!“I love you, but your dirty dishes are still in the sink”

“I love you, and your dirty dishes are still in the sink.” 

Each sentence contains a three-letter word that makes or breaks it. The first sentence is completely broken by the word “but.” The second sentence, by using the word “and” instead, keeps the good feeling of love flowing.

That’s because the word “but” negates everything that came before it. Everything – even the “I love you.”

Using the “b” word must be hard-wired in us. We use it from a very young age and rarely stop to think about its meaning or impact.

Start noticing how often those around you use it. Once you do, you’ll realize how often you are using it yourself.  Here are some examples of what we say (and what others hear).

“Good job, but I made some changes.”  (I had to fix your mistakes.)

“What a cute outfit, but those shoes are all wrong.”  (You look ugly.)

“Well, I didn’t fill that prescription, but I read about some new supplements I think will help.”  (Dr. Google is smarter than you.)

“I’m so proud you got an A in history, but you didn’t do so well in math.”  (You’re stupid.)

“Your cholesterol levels have improved, but we’ll still need to start some meds.”  (Bad patient.)


We can all envision ourselves saying at least one of these things, which doesn’t bother us. When we imagine ourselves on the receiving end of such comments, though – ooh. It takes us right back to how we awful we felt as kids when our parents would say something like “You sure are a smart kid, but you sure say some ridiculous things.”

A friend was in counseling with her beautiful, smart, athletic teenage daughter.  Turns out the daughter was having some major issues because she was convinced her mother thought she was a failure as a daughter. So the counselor watched them interact for a bit, then laid it on the line for my friend.

“Every time you use the word ‘but’ Gillian hears only the words you use after it. She couldn’t begin to tell you the words of praise you used before that word. And you use that word. A lot.”

The counselor told my friend exactly what another psychologist had told me years earlier. She offered me the same easy fix my friend heard.

Instead of using the word “but,” use the word “and.”

Simple, right?  In theory. Breaking a habit is hard. To change something we haven’t even considered to be a habit, much less a bad habit? Really hard. At first.

Before you use the “b” word again, remember your inner child – the one who hated hearing your mom say “yes, dear, but…”  That might help as a reminder.

BUT, what a difference when we do switch it up.  Let’s look at those examples (and the reactions) again, this time using “and” instead of “but.”

“Good job, and I made some changes.”  (Ok.  Let’s see those changes…)

“What a cute outfit, and those shoes are all wrong.”  (It is cute! Hmm…what about these heels instead?)

“Well, I didn’t fill that prescription, and I read about some new supplements that might help.” (Tell me about those.)

“I’m so proud you got an A in history, and you didn’t do so well in math.”  (I wish math was as easy as history.)

“Your cholesterol levels have improved, and we’ll still need to look at some meds.”  (Dang.  Looks like the diet changes aren’t enough to control this.)

Now the focus is on the first part of the sentence.  In fact, certain words jump out. Good. Cute. Proud.cute, proud, good

The second part of the sentence starts a discussion – something the word “but” completely obliterates. Let’s look at how those conversations might continue.

“Oh. Looks like I was using last quarter’s numbers.”  
“Yeah, the new ones came in right after you sent this my way. Still might have to re-work some of them.”  
“No problem.”

“I’m likin’ these better.”
“Yes! Those shoes make the colors pop better than the black ones.”
“Ooh. I have just the right beads to bring it all together.”

“They’re supposed to be all natural, and the folks who tried them said on the website that they really worked.”
“What have you read about the meds I prescribed?”
“A lot of people on the forums had bad side effects. I worry about those.”
“You’ve done some research!”
“Yes. It’s my body, after all.”
“Absolutely. I’ve done some research, too, and have talked with many patients who are on the meds I’d like you to try. Would you like to hear about their experiences?”

“Math makes my brain hurt. Did you get math when you were in school?”
“Ha. No. I had a hard time with it too.”
“Really? I thought everything was easy for you!”
“I wish!  You know who is good at math?  Your cousin, Beth. How about if we have her over a few times a week to help?”
“Yes!  She’s so cool!  And she can drive herself over now!”
“Let’s call her.”

“I’m glad my levels are improved because I’ve been working on my diet. It’s a bit upsetting to hear you think I still might need drugs. What meds are we looking at?”

For patients, a real conversation with their physicians is a priority, AND having a real conversation in an exam room with an authority figure is difficult.  We worry about sounding stupid, so any encouraging word is appreciated.

“But” is not an encouraging word.

Patients, too, need to realize the importance of that three-letter word.  When patients deliver it, it can make the doctor feel like he’s spinning his wheels and not being heard.

So, here’s the challenge to both folks in that exam room:  Switch up your vocabulary and then spread that gospel. The more people who ditch the b-word habit, the better we’ll all communicate.

Ha. Those dishes might just get washed too.

When was the last time you used “but” when “and” would have worked?  No judging here – we’ve all done it more times than we can count!


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