Building Relationships Through Conversation: Do we Choose “and” or “but?”

Anne Cass (November 2019)

We are pushed and pulled around by language far more than we realize, says Elizabeth Stokoe, professor of social interaction at Loughborough University.  Any school leader or classroom teacher who has entered a meeting and watched it disintegrate is likely to agree. Meetings take planning, and planning takes time – a scarce commodity in our world. However, sometimes a tip comes along that actually makes a difference: choosing and has surprising benefits.

After decades of high-school teaching, administering, and learning how to build a team, improve a culture, and actually get work done, I found myself co-leading two small, public elementary school buildings. One had established an effective Building Leadership Team (BLT). The other had not – and was disinclined to create one. The most frequent argument against (We’re such a small school, why do we need our own leadership team? We all work together) didn’t hold up against the considerable gossip and complaining behind the smiling faces. Slowly, by assuming positive intentions and building relationships carefully, we formed a BLT.

After a few weeks of navigation through the forming, storming, and norming stages, my partner and I realized that the potential for an expanded group existed among the three elementary buildings in the district. Thus, a K2 Leadership Team numbering 13 women arose from many discussions and agreed on norms as we began our journey together. One of those norms, new to me but not to other members of the team, was “Think and rather than but.” Why?

But presents an argument. It usually means disagreement or dismissal of the idea presented. Think for a moment of when you use the word…but it won’t work, but we already do that, but I don’t want to, but I’m still angry…

And, on the other hand, opens the door to more thinking, more collegial discussion, more possibilities. I hear what you said, and I wonder what else we can do; I think that might work, and what about adding this? 

I have since paid careful attention to my conversational and leadership habits; 90% of the time I can shift from but to and with little difficulty; it’s rarely an awkward construction. If it is, that tells me to stop and think about what I am saying or doing – take a little more time to reflect before I respond to the question or statement or argument. It reminds me to look more deeply at what might be going on that I’ve missed.

Try this: Listen to yourself in your next professional or even personal discussion, notice the number of buts in your conversation, and substitute an and or two. I find that it lengthens the thinking time, opens possibilities, keeps the tenor of the discussion positive, and generally introduces more civility into the relationship. And that in turn allows another building block in a relationship to take hold – and isn’t what we do really all about relationships?

Categories: self-determination