07/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Blowing Smoke

I just drove home from a team coaching meeting and feel like I need a detox bath. For about a mile I was next to or behind a car that sent so much blue smoke out of its exhaust pipe that I thought dancers and a magician would appear on a stage. The smell and toxicity only increased when the driver of this fog machine worked hard to pass me after I tried to leave him behind and my lungs filled with one long blast of smoke before I could shut the windows and put on the air conditioner. A beautiful Spring day polluted by a careless car owner.

I thought of the meeting I had just left and the participant in it who was showing up as a "but head." We were working on removing obstacles and creating breakthroughs and this one participant, no matter what the issue on the table was, started each statement with a "yeah but," "well, but," "we tried that but," to the point that my usually cool facilitator composure was punctured with a "NO more BUTS in any statements for the rest of the hour!" I made that statement to all of the participants in the room, but I intended my statement mainly for just one of them.

Putting the two incidents together, the oblivious polluter driving the Mazda and the "naysayer" in the seminar I began to think of the two as the same.

In the seminar, the group was having a breakthrough; breathing the fresh idea of a new possibility. Even though each of the participants is basically an independent entity and in a sense competing with each other, they'd finally gotten to the point where they realized that they could share best practices, compare strengths and weaknesses and encourage and challenge each other to hit their production goals. We had a frank talk about synergy, their reservations about sharing, the potential risks of collaboration, a volunteer panel was beginning to form and then, "But why should we share leads when . . . ?" But-ing in!

Well just as the Mazda owner was blowing putrid smoke on everyone around them, I thought, we have people spewing their gasses at us daily. Here are a few ways that happens . . .

"BUT" -- this is a word I could just as well do without. It stops more projects before they even hit the planning stage than it creates. A rule I heard once encouraged us to replace the word "but" with the word "and." It became a way to suggest better planning than a discouragement and road block.

"I'm not so sure" -- This is like a "but," only sneakier. "I understand what you're saying. I'm just not so sure I agree". Doesn't this sound like "I really disagree . . ."?

"Conventional wisdom (they) might disagree with that . . ." -- This gives someone a chance to cut your legs out from under you by citing some anonymous source that they seem to know very well, except 'their' actual names, specific articles or whitepapers, etc. It's usually used in a public setting, like a board meeting and can be hard to parry.

"I respectfully disagree . . . " -- Why? What is wrong with just disagreeing? Can't we just say, "Hey, I think you're wrong" and let's have a good old fashioned debate?

"Although . . ."-- Usually said in a sing-song tone, this type of "Although" is a variation of "But." Still sucks.

So now I put it out to all of you -- What are the words you use to "blow smoke" or pollute the clean air of meetings, seminars and gatherings of all types? How do you "but" your friends, co-workers and your own self? I'd love to hear some of your observations and offer a challenge.

Read on if you want to "play" along in this game.

The Challenge: Get one of those really colorful children's band aids and put it on your pinkie finger. The band aid is a reminder to be conscious of your language and speech throughout the day. Listen for the times that you are a subtle, partial or outright "but" in others' lives. "Awareness is key"; the challenge is to really be present to your own demeanor and words. See what you might learn about yourself and others by trying this for a few days or so.

I'd love to hear about what you discover. Leave a comment here or e-mail me at

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