Two Words that Will Kill Any Conversation

By Marshall Goldsmith

It doesn’t matter how friendly your tone is or how honey sweet you are in a conversation, when you start your sentences with one of these words (or both), the message to your recipient is “You are wrong.”

What are these conversation stopping words? They are “No” and “But.”

These words don’t say, “Let’s discuss this” or “I’d love to hear what you think about this” to people. They say, unequivocally, “You are wrong and I am right.” If your conversation companion is also dedicated to his need to win at any cost, you will have a potential battle on your hands. The result? Nothing more can happen that will be productive.

Are you interested in a little test to see how competitive your co-workers are? Try this. For one week, keep a scorecard of how many times each person uses “no” or “but” to start a sentence. You will be shocked at how frequently these words are used. And, if you drill a little deeper, you’ll see patterns emerge. For instance, some people use these words to gain power. You’ll see how much people resent it, consciously or not, and how it stifles rather than opens up discussions.

I use this technique with my clients. Practically without even thinking, I keep count of their use of these two little words. It’s such an important indicator! If the numbers pile up in an initial meeting with a client, I’ll interrupt him or her and say, “We’ve been talking for almost an hour now, and do you realize that you have responded 17 times with either no or but?” This is the moment when a serious talk about changing behavior begins.

If this is your interpersonal challenge, you can do this little test for yourself just as easily as you can to gauge your co-workers. Stop trying to defend your position and start monitoring how many times you begin remarks with “no” or “but.” Pay close attention to when you use these words in sentences. For example, “That’s true, but…” (Meaning: You don’t really think it’s true at all.) Another oldie but goodie is “Yes, but…” (Meaning: Prepare to be contradicted.)

Along with self-monitoring your behavior, you can also easily monetize the solution to this annoying behavior to help yourself stop. Ask a friend or colleague to charge you money every time you say, “no” or “but.” Once you appreciate how guilty you’ve been, maybe then you’ll begin to change your “winning” ways!

In the series of video blogs that accompany these articles, I’ve been interviewed byNathan Lyons  Nathan is a high potential from Gen Y who sought my insights on a number of topics from my book Triggers with the critically important angle of “advice I might provide to the younger generations”. I’m excited to share this series of short interviews with you and of course I hope you enjoy my written thoughts on the topics as well!