Get Your "But" out of Here

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Summary:

"You made a good presentation at yesterday's meeting," you tell your employee, "but you should have begun with an overview of the key points."

If you give feedback in this form, you may think you're giving a compliment, but your employee may not hear it that way. Why? Because when you follow a positive statement with "but," you're signaling that a not-so-positive statement is next. This type of feedback has two parts: 1. positive feedback followed by 2. forget what you just heard because here comes the important information and it's not so good. After all, it would sound pretty strange to say:

"You made a good presentation at yesterday's meeting, but it was really easy to understand."

This good-but-bad format can trigger resentment and defensiveness that undermines both the compliment and the suggested improvement. Suppose, though, that the not-so-positive part of the feedback is justified; your employee really should have begun with an overview. If you want the person to accept and apply your feedback, make it but-free.

For example, you might say:

"You made a good presentation at yesterday's meeting. A way to make it even better next time would be to begin with an overview of the key points."

You can improve the positive part of the feedback by being specific. "Good presentation" is vague. If you want your employee to continue to give good presentations, explain what was good about it. For example:

"You made a good presentation at yesterday's meeting. You spoke with enthusiasm and held everyone's attention. Your description of the benefits and pitfalls of each of your recommendations will make the selection process easier for everyone. A way to make this type of presentation even better next time would be to begin with an overview of the key points."

Think about the potential impact of "but" when you're giving feedback, and use it judiciously. I could say more, but you are a savvy person who catches on quickly—proving that a compliment can follow the "but".

User Comments

10 comments
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Some people can take the but... very well & still retain the positive feedback. Some people can't refrain themselves from using but at the end of feedback. It's all down to the individual, but they'll go far and be respected more using your suggestions.<br><br>Nice post, thanks for sharing it with us :-)

October 15, 2010 - 2:26am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Thanks, Darren, I agree with you. Individual differences can certainly make a difference. I've seen a few people receive feedback that's harshly delivered and take it OK, and others who seem to break down in response to constructive feedback that's delivered in a kind and caring manner. It no doubt also varies with the relationship between the feedback-giver and the feedback-getter, as well as other factors. Thanks for bringing this point about individual differences to light. ~Naomi

October 15, 2010 - 2:32am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

instead of using "but" people should use "and". try it out, it works most of the time!<br>

October 22, 2010 - 1:58am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

It is true that different people will react differently to the same msg. However, it is easy to translate Darren's response to "if I (Darren) am insensitive to you, and you take it badly, it's your problem, not mine."

October 22, 2010 - 2:00am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Thanks, Naomi. The advice is good, especially the "even more so" example. The "lesser" example is still a bit suspect -- it is still a compliment followed immediately with suggestion for overcoming an implied shortcoming, even if it is found in a new sentence. The "even more so" example is much better.<br>Love reading your articles. Looking forward to reading your new book, as well.

October 22, 2010 - 2:02am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Hi, Naomi... I certainly agree with you that the "But" can get in the way. At times, I am not the best listener and I could easily find myself focusing in on the latter part of the discussion and not hearing anything else.<br><br>I myself prefer the "Sh@t Sandwich" approach when it comes to feedback. I come up with two positives (read: the slices of bread) and the constructive criticism (read: the... well, you know). This way, I've still managed to get my point across as well as telling them more good than bad, ending it on a good note. (Everybody wins, baby!)<br><br>I admit that this way may not be for everyone. With that said, I have found that simply using 'and' instead of 'but' also gets the point across. 'But' can definitely be a word that might cause someone to react defensively, resulting in them not really listening to anything one has to say.)<br><br>P.S. Congratulations on your seventh book.

October 22, 2010 - 2:05am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Completely agreed with your viewpoints Naomi. The "but" conjunction is overused and as you say almost always implies some followup negative "put-down". The "but" conjuction is almost always used by the user to prop up his or her own ego. I tend to read those situations as the user of "but" as actually having a self-esteem problem themselves! Using "and" followed by a constructive comment has far more of a positive impact and in the end everyone wins, even if the suggestion is not acted upon.

October 22, 2010 - 2:06am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Great comments! Thank you, Leigh, Caroline, Cheryl, Melanie, Nils, KM. Your comments made me think of another aspect of this issue. The specific phrasing is likely to be less important if the feedback is by agreement, rather than sprung on the feedback-recipient unexpectedly. In a mentoring relationship, for example, the mentee expects feedback and is presumably open to it, whether it's framed as "and" or "but." And when one of my books or articles goes to an editor, I'm expecting feedback that will focus on what needs fixing. So feedback such as "I really like chapter 1, but chapter 2 lost me in a few places." is valuable and I wouldn't even notice if it was framed as a "but" or an "and" because my concern is on what I need to do to improve Chapter 2. In general, giving feedback that's unsolicited runs a higher risk of being rejected than feedback that has been requested even if it's valid and even if it follows the suggestions above. ~Naomi

October 22, 2010 - 4:55pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

I agree with your points on unsolicited feedback versus desired feedback. This made me think, is a conjunction even required? For example, I could say<br><br>"I really like chapter 1, but chapter 2 lost me in a few places"<br>or<br>"I really like chapter 1 and, chapter 2, that did lose me in a few places"<br>or<br>"I really like chapter 1; chapter 2 lost me in a few places"<br><br>Depending on my attitude toward constructive criticism at the point of delivery (solicited or otherwise) I may draw the same meaning and thus emotion from all 3. However, I suspect in written communication such as email people in general may favour the second as there is an absence of tone. In oral communication 2 or 3 may generally be favoured, this would of course be dependent upon the delivery of the message. In general people with lower compliance personalities (see DISC profiling) are likely not to favour any criticism so tone and delivery are essential and can only be reinforced by removal of the word "but" altogether.

October 31, 2010 - 11:56pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Leigh, perfect timing!I had started contemplating why/whether a conjunction -- whether and or but -- is even needed, so I was really pleased to see your comments. You elegantly put into words what I was still thinking about. I think there's something in human nature, some sort of habit of speech, that leads people to use the "but" approach. Learning to use "and" instead is certainly doable and is usually better than "but." But I agree with you. If we can eliminate both and simply offer the feedback, we might find it better received, especially, as you noted, by people who (whether due to personality or anything else) typically don't take feedback well. ~Naomi

November 1, 2010 - 12:08am

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