Tongue Fu!

In the summer of 1997 I was Recreation Director at a well-known music camp in Michigan’s north woods. I was also a young band director with my eyes set on becoming a principal when my camp boss and soon-to-become mentor, Larry Pye, gave me a book titled Tongue Fu!. Larry was a former band director who had recently traded in his baton and tolerance of spit and squeaky clarinets to become a high school guidance counselor. 

Larry knew that in his life, and in the career I had chosen, being an excellent communicator was among the most important skills needed. He was right, and the book he gave me has proven helpful time and time again.

As the title suggests, the book is about verbal self-defense. In it, the author provides several simple lessons on “words to lose vs. word to use,” ways to “respond rather than react,” and how to get more of “what you want, need and deserve.”

As a teacher, principal, superintendent, and even in my current role, the lessons I learned from reading Tongue Fu! have helped me be a better listener and to create genuine win-win scenarios regardless of the situation.

While all the lessons of the book are worthy of further discussion, the one that has been most impactful for me has to do with the word “but.” As the book reads, “But erases, and acknowledges.”

Let’s dig into this…

Think of a conversation you had recently in which you said something and the response began with “but….” How did it feel? When this has happened to me, it has felt as though my statement, thought or idea was being dismissed, cancelled and erased. “But” almost always precedes something negative.

Here are a couple examples:

“I realize how much you need this loan, but….” In this example, the “but” means you’re not getting the loan. Now replace “but” with “and.” Something like this, “I realize how much you need this loan, and I want to talk about three things you can do that will improve your credit.” Or…

“You did a nice job on this parent letter, but you didn’t mention anything about the dance on Friday.”  The response feels like, “who cares if I did a good job on the letter….you’re clearly not satisfied.” Instead, imagine if it went like this, “You did a nice job on this parent letter, and please also add a note about the dance on Friday.”  Ta da…I would feel better with this exchange and the “but” didn’t cancel out the fact that it was an awesome letter. Or….

“This book has some good lessons, but it’s more than 20 years old and is outdated.” How about, “This book has some good lessons, and even though the scenarios are a little outdated, I still learned a lot.”

In all these examples, “but” connotes negativity and bad news, whereas “and” is a connector and allows the same message to be sent without building walls.

My challenge for you is to seek opportunities to replace “but” with “and”, and let me know how it went.

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