Take a minute to picture the last time you said “no” to something—whether you were declining additional work being added to your plate or were gracefully trying to bow out out of a meeting invitation.
Chances are, these two words rolled off your tongue: I can’t.
At first glance, it seems like a concise, effective, and direct way to turn something down. But, as it turns out, it’s actually not the best way to say “no” to something. In fact, changing one small word will make your rejection that much more impactful.
Using “Don’t” Instead of “Can’t”
Think about the word “can’t” for a minute. It implies that—if your circumstances were just slightly different—you totally would agree. To put it simply: You would if you could.
But, what if you mean to offer just a flat out refusal? What if you’re turning down something that you just—plain and simple, regardless of the circumstances—would never do? Is “can’t” really the best word in that scenario?
Nope, it’s not. In those cases, you should use “don’t” instead of a more malleable “can’t”—and research backs this up.
I recently read this article, which talks about a study that was conducted by Boston College and the University of Houston several years ago. In their research, they found that people who said, “I don’t skip exercise,” worked out far more often than people who said, “I can’t skip exercise.”
When you take a minute to ponder that, it makes sense. “Don’t” is a much firmer stance. You’re setting a strict directive for you to follow. “There’s no room for debate,” the article says, “It’s a hard-and-fast rule that you set for yourself.”
In contrast, “can’t” seems to warrant a certain degree of flexibility—meaning you’re much more likely to bend your own rules and ignore your intuition every now and then.
Putting it to Use
After being made aware of the stark difference between the words “can’t” and “don’t”, I started paying closer attention to my own word choice—and, it became immediately apparent how often I interchange these two words without thinking.
Just last week, when someone asked me to do a personalized review of her writing portfolio, I began typing out an email response that said, “I’m sorry but, at this time, I can’t do that.” However, what I really meant was, “I’m sorry, but I don’t review other writers’ portfolios.” You can bet I hit that backspace key and immediately changed my wording.
When I had a client ask me if I’d be willing to manage the company’s social media profiles, I caught myself just in time to respond with, “I don’t offer social media services, but thanks for thinking of me.”
Of course, “can’t” definitely still has its place in your vocabulary. If you need to turn down a request to get coffee because you already have other plans, for example, you absolutely should use that word to get your message across.
But, when it comes to those things that you’re a surefire “no” to? Well, you’re much better off sticking with “don’t.”
Moving forward, I challenge you to pay close attention to the words you choose when turning something down. I’m willing to bet that—much like me—you’re inadvertently sending the wrong message by using the word “can’t”.
If you catch yourself doing just that? Don’t hesitate (see what I did there?) to back up and correct yourself.
Believe me, I know firsthand that it can be a bit of an adjustment to switch to this firmer stance and black and white approach. But, if you can save yourself from filling your to-do list and calendar with tasks and commitments that really don’t suit you in the slightest, you’ll ultimately be glad you were a little more direct.
Photo of person saying no courtesy of PeopleImages/Getty Images.
Kat is a Midwest-based freelance writer, covering topics related to careers, productivity, and the freelance life. In addition to The Muse, she's a contributor all over the web and dishes out research-backed advice for places like Atlassian, Trello, Toggl, Wrike, The Everygirl, FlexJobs, and more. She's also an Employment Advisor at a local college, and loves helping students prepare to thrive in careers (and lives!) they love. When she manages to escape from behind her computer screen, she's usually babying her two rescue mutts or continuing her search for the perfect taco. Say hi on Twitter @kat_boogaard or check out her website.More from this Author