Here’s a strategy to improve dynamics in a difficult conversation: In an argument or tense discussion, replace “but” with “and”.
Lawyer/mediator Susan Ingram describes this in her recent blog. “Typically”, she writes, “When you’re having a discussion with another person, both of you are going back and forth with each of your own proposals, and not really listening to what the other person has just said.”
When we begin our comments in a conversation with “but”, Ingram says, “we are essentially negating and dismissing what the other person has just said. We are not valuing that person’s experiences and ideas and are just focusing on the point we want to make.”
Instead, she suggests, start with the word “and”. By doing this, say writes, “we are acknowledging that we have heard what the other person has said and allowing that there may be value in his or her words. Thus, we are effectively keeping the channels of communication open, encouraging problem solving, and moving the conversation along to a more likely resolution.”
Replacing “but” with “and” sounds easy, but it’s not a simple cut and replace. You have to listen carefully and craft your “and” response in a way that conveys your concerns. You have to think it through and adjust a sentence or more in order for your “and” response to make sense.
It takes effort! But then, so do exercise, healthy eating, music practice, and a lot of other things we do to create the life we want.
Put Your Neocortex in Charge
From the perspective of brain functioning, with this small change you’re revving up your neocortex or “thinking brain”. When we’re stressed, upset or afraid, the primitive reptilian part of our brain becomes more influential. Its concerns are primarily survival and defense and it sees the world in anxious, oppositional terms. Once activated, it shoves aside other brain functions and does not easily let go its control.
But you can change this. When you listen deeply to others and think carefully about how to offer a less combative response, you empower your neocortex and encourage the reptilian brain to stand down. You begin to feel less upset and more capable of creative responses. The lightening of polarization from your side often brings reduced hostility in others. It’s a great example of how attention to something simple can facilitate complex change.