Everything Before “But” is Bull$#*t (and Other Curiosity Killers)

7 min read

“Self-awareness is impossible with your head firmly fixed in your arse.” – Scottish Proverb

It’s true that curiosity is the lifeblood of creativity and innovation. And it’s also true that nothing can kill curiosity faster than the words you use. 

While that may sound obvious, it’s worth considering how often you stop to check your own dialogue and delivery to discover where you may be going against the outcomes you want.

Certain phrases and communication styles can unintentionally suffocate curiosity; and this article explores how everyday language can be a curiosity killer – despite your well-meaning intentions – and offers strategies to help you foster a more curiosity-friendly environment.

The Not-So-Subtle Art of Negating Positives

We often use language with good intentions, but the impact of our words can be counterproductive. Take the word “but,” for instance. It’s only a simple conjunction, yet it holds the power to undermine the positive feedback preceding it. 

Consider these examples:

  • “Thank you for your hard work on this project, but I had really hoped you could have delivered it yesterday.”
  • “We need a full company effort on this; however, it would be great for you to stay focused on your core tasks.” (Note: ‘However’ is simply a dressed-up ‘but.’)
  • “I love that idea, but I think we need to change a few things to make it shine.”

These statements might seem innocuous at first, but they can leave the person on the receiving end feeling devalued, diminished and completely shut down. The impact on the recipient not only runs the risk of negatively impacting their ability to hear the first, positive part of the statement, and it can trigger a response that leaves them shut down and focusing on the contrasting point after ‘but,’ generally a more negative or critical part. 

Does this mean to avoid using the word ‘but’ forever? Of course not! I simply mean to suggest that using language intentionally can help you garner the outcome you want.

The Power of “And”

Contrastingly, the word “and” can create a more inclusive and open dialogue. It is used to connect words of the same part of speech, clauses, or sentences that are to be taken jointly. For me, the aspect of “taken jointly” is the power move in this definition! It doesn’t negate the previous statement but instead serves to build upon it. 

Let’s reframe the above examples using ‘and’ instead of ‘but’:

  • “Thank you for your hard work on this project, and I had hoped you could have delivered it yesterday.”
  • “We need a full company effort on this, and it would be great for you to stay focused on your core tasks.”
  • “I love that idea, and I think we need to change a few things to make it shine.”

Say these out loud to really notice the difference. Gauge your own response – which made you feel more curious about continuing the dialogue? Which made you shut down or go on the defensive?

Using “and” keeps the conversation open and encourages further exploration and dialogue.

Now that we have gotten our heads wrapped around the simple reality that the words we use can indeed shut down curiosity in the people around us, I wanted to share some excellent examples that I recently came across on Medium (while being curious myself). 

Beware the Expert Fallacy

In Becki Saltzman’s article “Five Phases That Are Killing Curiosity” she shares these curiosity-killing nuggets:

  • “According to experts…”
  • “Studies show…”
  • “Research indicates…”
  • “Science says…”
  • “It’s a known fact that..”

I love these statements, and I can think of multiple times when I have used them to move an agenda forward or during a speaking engagement where I’ve wanted to influence the audience toward a specific direction or outcome.

They are intended to prove a point and to introduce a third-party expert into the dialogue who is not present. I’d also suggest that these types of statements can be used as a set-up to underscore a point that may or may not be accurate. These statements introduce an external authority, sometimes without context, and can discourage questioning, critical thinking and curiosity.

In his book “Factfulness,” Hans Rosling advocates for a more nuanced and optimistic view of the world. He encourages critical thinking and a deeper dive into data and facts, highlighting the importance of maintaining curiosity even in the face of seemingly authoritative statements to avoid the many thought traps that exist. 

Curiosity-Fostering Questions

To counteract these curiosity killers, and others you may encounter, here are some suggested follow-up questions: 

  • “According to experts…” Ask: Which experts, and what is the depth of their research? How do these expert’s perspectives align or differ from others in the field?
  • “Studies show…” Ask: How was this study designed and measured? What was the study size, and who conducted it? What vested interests might they have in a specific outcome? Has the study been successfully replicated, or has it been challenged by other researchers?
  • “Research indicates…” Ask: When was this research conducted, and by whom? Was it published in a peer-reviewed journal? What are the backgrounds of the researchers, and how has their research been received within the academic and scientific communities?

These questions open up dialogue and encourage a critical examination and deeper understanding rather than accepting statements at face value.

Communication: A Team Sport

“The meaning of your communication is the response you get” – NLP presupposition

Remember, communication is a collaborative effort – not a game to be won or lost. The way we phrase our words has a significant impact on how they’re received. By being mindful of the language we use, we can create an environment where curiosity thrives, leading to more innovative and creative outcomes.

Imagine a world where open-ended curiosity and uninhibited engagement are the norms. It’s a world where ideas flourish, and creativity knows no bounds. Let’s work towards that world, one conversation at a time.

Stay Curious!

Scroll to Top