Moral Talk: When should I use “but” in a conversation

One time I was listening to some communication experts talking about the need to avoid using the word “but” in communications. They said it tended to negate conversations and unnecessarily create defensive attitudes and often cut short dialogue.

It would undo both the listeners role in the conversation and sidetrack the speaker. The listener would hear in the “but” something like this: “what you just said I may or may not have been listening to, but regardless of what I heard I am about to undo what you said and I will say something better. I hope I can help you see where you were wrong so I could educate you better. That was the WRONG thinking, but here is the RIGHT THINKING, so listen carefully.”

After they clarified that, I realized why but could shut down conversations.

They noted the speaker was also robbed. By the speaker saying “but” they were subtly convincing themselves that what they are about to say is superior to what they just heard, which already predisposes them to listen more to what they said after the but then before. They are biasing themselves against good ideas by possibly setting theirs as above others. This can be tragic to the conversation than could have additive value to all participants’ knowledge base and ideas.

So the “but” can harmful to truth emergence in a conversation.

They suggested there was better ways to communicate differences that left channels of disagreement more open Just saying “and” would allow someone to affirm what was said and then suggested added ideas that would help in the conversations. Or thinking outload about ones additional perspective. “When you said that, it made me think of….”  What this created is additive environments.

(See Glaser and Glaser Be Quiet, Be Heard and their other work to learn more about this.)

I felt the Glaser’s had given me a golden key for improving my conversations. I caught myself saying but way too many times and creating truncated conversational environments. I realized in my academic environment faculty tended to use “but” way too many times.  Trained to be hypercritical about given information, they often automatically create a negative response instead of an additive.

I started to try they technique.

It worked. It smoothed my own responses to views different than mine and I think it helped others be more willing to hear my added ideas.  I highly recommend it.

BUT don’t stop using “but.”  There are times it is very handy. (Yes, I run the risk that that may negate what I just reported. But bare with him: it is about holding in tension the AND and BUT.)

I came to notice that sometimes avoiding the word “but” prevented a necessary juxtaposing in a conversation. At times individuals were trying to be additive when the “bucket” of ideas or the conversation needed a stark contrast, even a polarizing contrast, even a knock-down verbal exchange that pitted ideas against each other.

A “but” can awaken a conversation to a subtle and at times not so subtle differences at play that participants may be neglecting.

So for years I have wrestled with when to use “but” and when not to. I guess that is the point of conversations, to make judgments while you are having them about listening and participating in ways that are inclusive of ideas. To keep a conversation active and going in a healthy directions takes “staffing” it along the way with every engaged in simultaneous tasks of listening and sharing, and a constant need to redirect the conversations in better directions. Often that requires a “but.”

While it may be best to suggest that a better way to “add” information to a discussion was to just add your ideas without a “but” to juxtapose, sometimes that is exactly what a conversation needs: a kick in the…with a….

While my overall goal and hopefully my trend is to cut down on “buts” and to help make more additive conversations, I still find it useful to launch a “but”. Scripture also gives many examples for doing so, with the prophets earning the biggest role in this area. They were especially big “but” users.

Ezekiel 27: 26 “But the east wind will break you to pieces far out at sea”

This passage comes in the middle of a transition from talking about how great Tyre is to how bad their fall will be. In fact, in comes in the whole Ezekiel section where the divinely ordained prophet is telling a lot of warnings to a lot of nations. Warnings seem to have this “but” reality. This is what it was and is, BUT this is what it is going to be.

Full verse is:

“Your oarsmen take you
out to the high seas.
But the east wind will break you to pieces
far out at sea.”

Yes, Ezekiel is making a huge negation here. He just listed several dozen amazing things about Tyre—almost all materialistic and about the heavy trade, and now he directly turns his attention to how bad it will be for them. They are going down. He is not adding, he is negating.  He is talk about its downfall, final end.  And to make this even more clear, in the next chapter he clarifies this deep transition when talking about the fall of the King of Tyre.  We even get some “judging” language which can also be a conversation stopper. The reason for the downfall appears to be self-adulation among its people, especially the king who has a high estimation of himself: “I am perfect in beauty.” (v 1), which seems to be the big problem created or nurtured throughout the kingdom. He goes on “In the pride of your heart, you say, ‘I am a god; I sit on the throne of a god in the heart of the seas.” (Ez 28:2) and “Through your widespread trade you will filled with violence, and you sinned…Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and your corrupted your wisdom because of your splendor.” (Ez 28:16, 18). It seems self-centeredness is the worse conversation stopper as the other doesn’t even give attention to others. A “but” may also do that, but it may be a needed truth statement that attempts to rescue truth.

So, Ezekiel’s conversation starts with a positive listing “You are great in beauty, power, material stuff” and then gets to the BUT you will be wiped.


That seems like a great place to transition from the past to the future and the word BUT does justice to that stark contrast.

Or the most amazing “but” passages show up in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,[a] and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you…… Matt 5: 21, 22

“But I say unto you, Love your enemies.” Matt 5:44

Jesus had to do some stark contrasting, to wake is up from our lethargic view of the conversation he was having with us. BUT was what we needed.

Another passage that always comes to mind is Paul’s last journey by ship recorded in Acts 27. As a prisoner he was at the mercy of other leaders and they were failing to go the right direction with the right timing. As a seasoned traveler, he warned them not to go the direction they were going.

But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship.” (Acts 27:11).

The shipped ended hitting hard times and would eventually be destroyed. Before that happened

21 After they had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said: “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. 22 But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed.”

I am sure for those who believed Paul spoke for God, that this was encouraging though a realistic assessment of the issue.

There are many other ‘but” passages that remind us that a good “but” can be useful to bring attention and remind us that every conversation may need a shift from where it is at to a better place.

Knowing when is part of the invitation to use moral judgment. Sometimes that is done by adding and sometimes by dividing the future of the conversation from the past. It takes some tought moral thinking to figure out what route to take but it can really make a lot of difference.

May God bless you in the morality of your talking today? Think about when to use or when to reframe from using “but.”


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