There’s a common mistake we make when speaking with someone who isn’t doing well.  It’s a three-letter word: but.

A recent trip took me to Europe, where I met with dozens of couples living internationally who were concerned about their children.  As we discussed the challenges and solutions pertinent to each of their situations, I began to see a pattern forming in their interactions with their kids.  The more I listened, the more “but” took a central role in the unwitting disservice these parents were doing to their children.

but

Don’t get me wrong—they were committed in their care and desire to help their kids, some of whom struggled with common teenager afflictions while others were mired in the more obscure discomforts and dissatisfactions that come with cross-cultural living.
“How do you address these issues when they come up?” I asked couple after couple.  Without exception, the sentences they uttered included the word “but.”

  • We know this is hard, but we’re here for you.
  • I can see how this is frustrating, but if you could just change your perspective…
  • It’s so hard to struggle in another language, but God brought us to this country for a reason.
  • I know you miss your friends, but you’ll get to see them again in less than a year.

The sentiment that motivated the statements was sincere.  The tears and anxiety I witnessed as I interacted with parents who grieved over their children’s challenges moved me.  Their concern was such a tangible thing.
Yet they used “but” in a mostly unconscious way, not realizing the dismissive power of the word.

 struggling

Imagine being someone whose life has become untenable for whatever reason.  If a well-meaning friend says, “I know it’s hard, but hang in there and it will get better,” the message is “Your current unhappiness isn’t important or notable, because if you just hang in there it’ll get better.”  The word “but” invalidates whatever came before it, as if the very real emotions that precede a turning point have no inherent value.  Only a positive outcome does.
I’ve been despondent enough in my lifetime to know how powerful negative feelings can be.  They can consume one’s spirit and cause irreparable damage.  And by using “but,” we invalidate them—we shrug them off as if the harm they’re causing isn’t worthy of our concern.   We use the word carelessly in conversations that feel crucial to the suffering person, and we send the often unintentional message that “Hey, I know it hurts, but that’s not really meaningful because there’s this other happy stuff you should be thinking about.”

An additional consequence of careless “but” usage is that we, the listener and caregiver, become less concerned with getting to the bottom of what is causing the unhappiness.  “But” shifts our focus to the future and minimizes the source and gravity of the sufferer’s current feelings.

wilted

If you’ve ever been sad, if you’ve ever despaired, if you’ve ever been in a place so dark that you’d lost the will to claw your way back to the surface, you know (as I do) how real those circumstances feel.  Intangible, certainly.  Not always rational, for sure.  But powerful enough that a casually uttered “but” feels like a negation of both the hurdle and our current inability to overcome it.  Our use of “but” is often well-intentioned, an attempt at shifting the hurting person’s perspective from the negative to a more positive outlook.  In doing so, we too frequently leave the hurting person feeling unheard, and our best attempt at cheering them up is sometimes rightfully interpreted as disconnection or lack of empathy.
Can we make a conscious effort to limit our use of “but” in our interactions with those who struggle?  Their despair and anger are very real to them, regardless of the perspective we bring to the situation.  There will be a time down the road when a trusted friend, out of tested relationship with them, will be able to lead them into a gradual appreciation of the good that surrounds them.  But when the person is in the midst of suffering, “but” too easily dismisses the reality of their grief.

Instead, I suggest we use “and.”  Where “but” invalidates the struggle they’re experiencing and tries to force them into another state of mind, “and allows their feelings to exist while balancing them with something beneficial.  In dealing particularly with young minds and hearts, our goal shouldn’t be to eradicate the negative emotions that arise from very real trials, it should be to add to their perspective something that might eventually balance out the pain.  A cohabitation of suffering and hope.

healing

Healing is never a linear thing.  It’s seldom an instant reversal either.  Whatever caused the sadness or anxiety will need to be worked out over time.  Dismissing it with a “but” will only add to its weight.  Balancing it with the hope of an “and” might be the best help we can offer to people who can’t see beyond the darkness they’re steeped in.
So instead of saying, “I know it’s hard, but I’m here for you…”  Instead of that, we can offer, “I know it’s hard—your sadness is well-founded.  And I want you to know that I’m not going anywhere. “  If “but” had been used, the meaning might have been “You’re sad, but I’m here so you shouldn’t be.”  Instead, it became, “You’re sad, and I’m not going anywhere.”  In using “and,” we’ve shown the person that we’re not dismissing them or their grief, and we’ve made a promise that might lend a little light to the darkness that surrounds them.  We’ve balanced real pain with real hope.
It’s semantics and it may seem silly.  But if changing one word in the sentences we speak to those who need us can make them feel valued while receiving a mitigating word of encouragement?  Why not make the effort?

conversation

It can transform our conversations:

  • It’s so hard to struggle in another language, but God brought us to this country for a reason.
  • Understood: you’re struggling, but you shouldn’t be because this is God’s plan.
  • It’s so hard to struggle in another language and God wants to help you get through this.
  • Understood: you’re struggling and God’s got your back.
  • I know you miss your friends, but you’ll get to see them again in a year.
  • Understood: you’re lonely, but you shouldn’t be because you’ll see your friends in a year.
  • I know you miss your friends and I’m so glad you’ll get to see them again in less than a year.
  • Understood: you’re lonely and something great is coming.

rocks

See the difference “and” can make?  It’s subtle, but crucial.  It seeks to balance the despair without dismissing it.
I can’t tell you many times I’ve caught myself wanting to say “but” since the eureka-moment that brought this truth to light—how many times I’ve had to quickly go back and rephrase what I said to avoid making the hurting person feel unheard and unimportant.  And because I’ve been careful in my diction and intentional in honoring the pain these young people are experiencing, I’ve seen trust increase and intimacy deepen.
It’s going to take discipline to make this change a permanent thing…and the benefits (to both parties) far outweigh the effort.  Will you join me?


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Comments

Comments(5)

  1. As usual, Michele, this is excellent. “And” highlights the paradoxes with which we all must live. It is such a key concept in debriefing missionaries and their children. Thank you for articulating it so well.

    • shary

    • 8 years ago

    But Michele it is such a habit. We all do it and we all need to work on it. 🙂 For fun in your article I found one you could have used “And” instead of “But” so I changed it for myself. “It’s semantics and it may seem silly. And if changing one word in the sentences we speak to those who need us can make them feel valued while receiving a mitigating word of encouragement? Why not make the effort?”
    Thank you for the reminder to keep the “Buts” out of our conversations with those who are hurting.

  2. Shary, thanks for your comment! It is indeed a habit that’s hard to break. And I too found myself carefully considering whether to use “and” or “but” even in innocuous places in the article, then deciding there are places when “but” really is the best option! 🙂

  3. As a mom who has suffered the loss of her daughter, I can tell you how much the “but” closes the conversation of grief and remembrance. We are often uncomfortable with tears and afraid we have made it worse. So the “but” seems right………..and I would like to suggest that a common “but” used without the “but” is Romans 8:28 and other cliches such as, “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle”. It is all said with genuine care and concern….I know, I have done it in the past before I felt the sting. I would like to suggest that we do not even use the “and” but ask open-ended questions that allow the person to fully express themselves…..such as, “tell me what you miss most about your friends in the states” or “what are you struggling most with your language study? what do you think might be helpful?” or “tell me about your daughter and what she was like?” Realize that usually, the person or teen just needs to be allowed to be heard…..warts and all. So maybe even asking, “would you like some suggestions or advice about this or do you just feel like you need to vent?” That shows respectful listening and safety for difficult feelings. And will also open the door for future conversations that might include helpful information. I think we try too hard to make the person feel better quickly instead of take the time to listen…..which will actually make them feel better.
    Keep writing and opening these conversations!

    • sarah

    • 8 years ago

    Love love love this.

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