Do you begin every sentence with a no, but or however? Marshall Goldsmith explains how to avoid a hostile conversation


An easy habit for people who like to win to fall into, and a sure-fire shortcut to killing conversations, is to start a sentence with ‘no,’ ‘but’ or ‘however.’ It doesn’t matter how friendly your tone is or how honey sweet you say these words, the message to your recipient is ‘You are wrong.’ It’s not ‘Let’s discuss,’ ‘I’d love to hear what you think,’ it’s unequivocally, ‘You are wrong and I am right.’ If your conversation companion is also of the winner variety, you have a potential battle on your hands, and there is nothing more that can happen that is productive.

Are you interested in a little test to see how competitive your co-workers are? Try this. For one week, keep a scorecard of how many times each person uses ‘no,’ ‘but,’ or ‘however’ to start a sentence. You will be shocked at how commonly used these words are. And, if you drill a little deeper, you’ll see patterns emerge. Some people use these words to gain power. And, you’ll see how much people resent it, consciously or not, and how it stifles rather than opens up discussions.

I use this technique with my clients. Practically without even thinking, I keep count of their use of these three little words. It’s such an important indicator! If the numbers pile up in an initial meeting with a client, I’ll interrupt him or her and say, ‘We’ve been talking for almost an hour now, and do you realise that you have responded 17 times with no, but, or, however?’ This is the moment when a serious talk about changing behaviour begins.

If this is your interpersonal challenge, you can do this little test for yourself just as easily as you can to gauge your co-workers. Stop trying to defend your position and start monitoring how many times you begin remarks with ‘no,’ ‘but’ or ‘however.’ Pay close attention to when you use these words in sentences. For example, ‘That’s true, however…’ (Meaning: You don’t really think it’s true at all.) Another oldie, but goodie, is ‘Yes, but…’ (Meaning: Prepare to be contradicted.)

Along with self-monitoring your behaviour, you can also easily monetise the solution to this annoying behaviour to help yourself stop. Ask a friend or colleague to charge you money every time you say, ‘no,’ ‘but’ or ‘however.’ Once you appreciate how guilty you’ve been, maybe then you’ll begin to change your ‘winning’ ways!

If you’ve discovered you have this annoying habit, here’s a little advice on what you can do to change. If you are at work, pause before you speak, take a breath and ask yourself, “Is my comment going to improve this person’s commitment or make this person more committed? At home, do the same. Pause before you speak, take a breath and ask yourself, ‘Is this comment going to improve my relationship with the person I love?’ At work if the answer is ‘no,’ at least half the time whatever you were going to say isn’t worth saying. At home if the answer is ‘no’, it is almost never worth saying.

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