Turning Negatives into Positives


I’m sure we’ve all experienced a situation where someone pays you a compliment which is then immediately negated by the word but. There seems to always be a but. I know I’ve experienced it more times than I can count and have even done it myself more times than I’d ever like to admit. Who hasn’t? There’s one thing that’s for certain, the but hurts. And in my experience, anything before the but loses all its worth and luster.

Recently, I’ve been more in tune to this type of talk and have been trying really hard not to participate in it… (wait for it…) but (you had to know it was coming), sometimes this is really hard to do. I’ve found that I talk this way with my kids, my husband and my friends, but I’m working very hard to correct it. (See what I did there? If not, keep reading and you will).

I love that blouse, but not that color.
You did a fantastic job, but next time do it this way.
It’s a gorgeous day outside, but it sure is windy.

There’s no way anyone feels good after a conversation that ends with any statement like those examples. Kids who are working so hard to build self-esteem are especially vulnerable to this kind of talk. Nothing takes the wind out of a proud kid’s sails quite like the “you did good, but…” sentence.

New employees are kind of like kids

I started a 2 year internship a year ago last November (yay! I’m almost done!). I’m still learning the process for doing my job, which is extensive and requires a lot of writing. The documents I write are signed by my supervisor and put into official record, so they have to be very well written and she has to agree with what I’ve written or it can’t be signed. She returned something to me earlier this week that I’d worked really hard on with the sentence “Good start, but it needs some work. Please see the comments. Once it is revised, we can go over it. It’s important that you understand why it needs to be revised. Take a thoughtful crack at it.” Um… thanks?

When I opened the document, I saw she had lined through 90% of what I’d written and re-wrote it. The only paragraph that remained was one that is standard for our industry – pretty much a copy and paste paragraph from every other document we’ve ever used in our office, with some minor tweaks to fit the situation. It seemed like the entire document was in red. Why did she even tell me I’d made a good start if she changed everything I’d written? Why not just say “this sucked, so I re-wrote it for you. Better luck next time”? It would have had the same effect on my confidence.

My confidence in my ability to do my job took a nose dive at that exact moment. How am I going to graduate out of the intern program and get a permanent position if I have this kind of response to the document I spent an entire day writing? I immediately wondered if this was the right field for me. It was a serious blow to my psyche. I was so disappointed that I didn’t even read her changes or her comments as to why she’d made them. I’ll read them when I recover from this blow, but for now I feel wounded. Is this how my kids feel when I use the word but? I could only imagine so, which means this is something I desperately need to work on.

Switch it up

When I feel myself engaging in this type of communication, I try to remember what I learned during grad school – to keep what ordinarily would be taken as negative feedback, positive in perception. It’s important to remember that everything behind the but is remembered and everything before the but is negated – so unless you want the person to whom you’re speaking to feel low and broken, switch the order in which you make your statements so they feel more positive.

That’s not my favorite color, but I really love that blouse.
Normally it’s done a different way, but I think you did a great job.
It sure is windy out here, but the sun feels amazing on my skin.

In the situation with my supervisor, I would have felt much better about my document and her changes if she had said “there are quite a few corrections I would suggest, but I think you made a great stab at this. Take a look at what I did and see if you agree with my changes. If you have questions, I’m here to discuss/explain it.” I would have felt *much* less defeated after seeing her changes had she prefaced them with a more positive message like this one. (And I might have actually reviewed her comments already instead of putting it off like I have).

Remember, whatever you place behind the but is what is remembered. So, next time you’re in a situation where a but is necessary, try to spin it around so it’s positive. Leave the person with the positive but, not the negative but. Not only will this reversal of feedback structure help the person with whom you’re talking feel more optimistic about the work they’ve done, it’ll make you feel more optimistic, too. Something as simple as this might just be all it takes to make the world a happier place.