Bypassing the word ‘But’: A Note for Supervisors and Clinicians

Mar 07, 2017

“The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”

Oscar Wilde

Bypassing the word ‘But’: A Note for Supervisors and Clinicians

TISA Description of the Problem: Take a look at the following two comments and imagine how you might respond to each of them:

#1 – “I see what you are saying, but I don’t really agree with you.”


#2- “I don’t really agree with you, but I see what you are saying.”

Many people find the #2 comment more pleasing, yet they are identical comments except that the phrases separated by the word “but” have been reversed. Curiously, the word “but” is often a problem word. People tend to “only hear” what comes after it.

This phenomena has ramifications in both supervision and in therapies (such as CBT and solution focused therapy) where constructive feedback on homework is often given. Keep in mind that particularly sensitive clients or supervisees will often respond poorly to comments such as, “You did a really nice job, but here is something you need to work on.” Only the last admonition after the word “but” is recorded mentally. Sometimes this problem can be mitigated by reversing the phrases as with, “Here is something to work on (describe it), but I really want to emphasize that overall you did a really nice job.”

In the following excellent tip, a different approach is taken that is so simple it might not occur to one to use it, but it really works. See what you think. By the way I picked this tip up in a recent workshop in Canton, Ohio, but the provider of the tip forgot to give me her name. If you see this tip, please let me know who you are.

Tip: I have found that the simplest way to get around the “but” problem is to simply replace the word “but” with the word “and”. For example, one might say, “You did a really nice job in there, and here is something that might be of use in the future.” With this phrasing the lingering emphasis still seems to be on, “You did a really nice job in there”. Somehow it just doesn’t feel as positive if you put the “but” back in there as with, “You did a really nice job in there, but here is something that might be of use in the future.”

TISA Follow-up: This tip is simple and clever. I’ve used it, not only in supervision and clinical work, but also in business letters. It softens the world a bit. Give it a try.

Tip provided by:

Canton Mystery Clinician

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