There’s Always a “But”

But.

One of the most necessary words in the English language.

But.

Also one of the most hurtful.

“I love you but…”

“Your skills and experience are very impressive, but…”

“You did a great job, but…”

“Everything was great, but…”

“No offense, but…”

How many of us haven’t heard some variation of one of these statements? Feeling pretty good after the first few words, then….but. And the dread hits, not knowing what is coming after the “but.”

I spent most of my junior high, high school, and college years studying piano. My teacher through high school was Russian. A truly amazing woman. Maybe someday I will tell her story here. She was an amazing, once in a lifetime teacher. She truly made me most of the musician I am today.

The most important thing she taught me? How to take direct criticism and not buckle under it. She didn’t lead with “you did such a great job!” There was never a “good effort, but…” from her.

Usually, if I played badly, there was nothing. Silence. More terrifying than any word. Then I’d turn around and look at her.

“Poor Mr. Haydn. He is rolling in the grave.”

The next hour was spent on 8 measures of music.

The point here is you always knew where you stood with her. When she gave praise or a compliment, it was 100% and I knew I had earned it. When she dictated my college admission recommendation letter (her written English was not the best) and she said I was one of her most gifted students ever, I knew she meant it.

Imagine those same words coming from someone who gave lots of praise always followed with a “but.” Personally, I don’t think that would mean as much.

Given straight up, no sugar coating, I take criticism extremely well. I’m ready for it, my mind is ready to consider it, my spirit to not be crushed by it. I’m able to take it objectively and for what it is.

Given in a pretty package or wrapped in candy, I do not. I was never taught how to power up on the compliment and let that sustain me through what comes next. I was taught it is one way or the other. They do not coexist. I still feel this way to some extent.

Once, I had a boss who was the king of abusing the “but.” Their favorite usage was “I want you to succeed here, but…” And you knew a character indictment that had very little to do with your job was coming. This taught me to fear the word.

However, several years ago, I also had a boss who had a better way giving the “but,” and it’s the way I use when I teach piano to this day. (After learning that my very direct way, the way I was taught, was crushing my students.)

“What went well? … Ok. What could have gone better?”

By allowing me to first identify what I did well, it gave me the opportunity to, almost by process of elimination in a way, figure out what could have gone better before the second question was even asked. Then he could expand upon that. That is where criticism becomes coaching. That is how I teach now.

Unfortunately not many people know how to do this. They think they are being sensitive and caring by leading with a compliment, and then launching into their real meaning after a tidy three letter conjunction. Almost like saying “no offense” and expecting that it will excuse whatever you are about to say next. (Or, as we say down south, “bless their heart”)

We all know “but” is not just a word—it’s also a concept. It’s when you go out on a date with your boyfriend, and you think everything is fine, then this weird air hits and you know he’s going to dump you. It’s when you have a performance review at work and you think things have been going ok, then they bring in “but” and it all goes downhill from there.

As I said at the beginning, though, I know that “but” is sometimes necessary. Sometimes you do need the person to hear the positive first, because you know if they don’t they probably won’t hear it at all. Especially if you are delivering bad personal news.

“But” is necessary. “But” has, and is, teaching me to toughen up when someone is trying to be nice. “But” is teaching me to look for the intent and meaning the person delivering it has, knowing that the vast majority of the world does not view the word as I do.

I am probably unusual in feeling this way. Most people I know would probably rather hear something positive and then whatever comes next. Most people probably don’t view things as straight line as I do, where the criticism coming after degrades the sincerity of the compliment preceding it.

But (ha!) when asked how I best take criticism, this has become my response. Just tell me straight up. Don’t try to lead into it, don’t try to make me feel good then ruin it, just come out with it. Then we get it over with faster and move more quickly onto making it right.

So instead, maybe the next time I hear “You are so great, but…” I’ll just add another t to the word. Isn’t that what every woman wants to hear?

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