Eric Karjaluoto

Say This Instead

“But” is a dangerous word that can compromise your message. Imagine, for example, that you’ve just reviewed a young designer’s work. His portfolio is great, and you want to give some constructive feedback. So, you say, “You have a great portfolio, but your typography needs a little work.” The gulf between what you meant and what was heard, might be enormous, though.

The words you use are imbued with weight you don’t always realize. Delivery often supersedes intent, meaning that the tone, specifics, and order of your words matter. Remember the time when you said something seemingly benign to your spouse—only to have him/her respond angrily? These emotions tend to be triggered because what’s heard is not always what was said.

The inability to hear accurately is amplified by what the listener is feeling at the time. So, even though you were trying to be constructive in your feedback, the young designer might have heard your words through a fog of uncertainty and fear.

In fact, what he might have heard was, “Your typography is horrible, but I don’t want you to feel bad, so I’m saying something nice first.” You think I’m exaggerating, but all of us have been in that strange position of having to interpret what was said—and choosing to do so through a negative lens.

The trouble with “but,” is how it can essentially invalidate the statement that preceded it. Consider:

“You’re great, but we need to break up,” sounds like, “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I don’t want to be near you.”

“We like what you’re doing here, but we want you to be more detail conscious,” can be interpreted as, “You’re nice, but sloppy.”

“We love your company, but chose to go with another firm,” well—you get the picture.

Curiously, the whole dynamic can be changed, simply by swapping the order of words used. Doing so with our first example leaves us with, “Your typography needs a little work, but you have a great portfolio.” This is a wholly different statement than the first version, wouldn’t you say? And it does what you first intended: validates the designer’s work, encourages him to continue, and draws attention to a minor weakness.

Albeit simple, this approach works by putting emphasis on the positive part of your comment, instead of the more critical aspect.

Let’s try with the others:

“We want you to be more detail conscious, but we like what you’re doing here.”

“We chose to go with another firm, but we love your company.”

“We need to break up, but you’re great.”

OK—so the last one doesn’t work, but little is going to take the sting out of a break-up. Those rather universally suck.

My overarching point, is that if you care about others, you need to be careful about not only the words you use, but how they might be interpreted. The little trick I’ve highlighted is an easy way to rework your approach and convey your message—without getting sabotaged by your own words.

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