But/And: A Psychology of Dualism

Our language shapes our thinking and eliminating your our ‘buts’ also gets rid of unhelpful dualisms

We know our words matter. We might also not fully appreciate just how much.

One of those powerful words is ‘but‘; another is its peer ‘and‘. When we use one, we can’t use the other and considering which of these two we choose can make a giant difference to what we say and how we think.

Psychotherapist Anne Wilson Schaef wrote in her book Living in Process:

I rarely use “but.” I substitute “and.” I do this for two reasons. The first and easiest reason is that often everything before the but is either discounted or a lie – for example – “I really like you but….” The second and more important reasons is that “but” sets up a dualism of either this or that.

Co-existing Realities

Try substituting ‘and’ for ‘but’ next time you speak with someone and you’ll immediately notice a difference.

What ‘and’ does is allow us to recognize uncomfortable truths that can co-exist together. In times of great complexity, the word ‘and’ becomes critical to allowing us to see contradictions, paradoxes, and conflict through eyes that are more understanding.

Speaking with a friend recently, we noted how people are appearing to be less conscientious and compassionate with each other in public life. Unsure whether that was actually true or not, we turned to using ‘and’ instead of ‘but’ to consider that perhaps people are acting less compassionately and they still are still capable of demonstrating kindness just as before. Our hypothesis remains untested and our interest remains.

What ‘and’ also does is get us living with questions and, as Anne Wilson-Schaef suggested, living with process. When things are dynamic, unsettled, VUCA-like, and difficult to navigate it is our questions and attention to process that will allow us to create the coherence we need to make sense of the world and act better upon and within it.

We also could benefit from listening, understanding, sharing, and truly being with others rather than simply acting toward them if we’re engage with multiple co-existing realities that we see.

Getting accustomed to uncertainty, asking better questions, and finding new possibilities can all come from some simple word change.

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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