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OWNER'S MANUAL

The Perfect Way to Say No and Make It Stick

Sometimes "no" is the hardest thing of all to say to others ... and to yourself.
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Saying yes to too many opportunities, too many projects, and too many people is a recipe for failure. As entrepreneur Derek Sivers likes to say, "No more 'yes.' It's either, 'Hell yeah!' or 'no.'"

The problem is, when most of us say no, it too often turns into a yes. Maybe a friend pleads. Or a vendor begs. Or a customer argues and cajoles and chips away at our resolve until no becomes maybe and maybe becomes yes, and we wind up agreeing to something we wish we hadn't.

Or--and this is even more likely--maybe you chip away at your own resolve until you wind up doing something you didn't want to do but you eventually couldn't say no to yourself.

So what is the best way to say no? It's easy: Stop saying "can't" and start saying "don't." It works. Science says so.

Here's why.

Researchers conducted a simple study: One group was given a simple temptation and told to say, in the face of that temptation, "I can't do (that)." The other group was told to say, "I don't do (that)."

What happened?

  • Participants told to say, "I can't," gave in to the temptation 61% of the time.
  • Participants told to say, "I don't," gave in 36% of the time.

Pretty cool, right? It gets better.

Then the researchers conducted another study. Participants were told to set a personal long-term health and wellness goal. When their motivation inevitably flagged, one group was told to say, "I can't miss my workout." Another group was told to say, "I don't miss workouts." (The control group was not given a temptation-avoidance strategy.)

Ten days later, they found:

  • 3 out of 10 control group members stuck to their goal.
  • 1 out of 10 "I can't" group members stuck to their goal.
  • 8 out of 10 "I don't" group members stuck to their goal.

Not only was "I can't" less effective than "I don't," "I can't" was less effective than no strategy at all.

Why? According to the researchers, "The refusal frame 'I don't' is more persuasive than the refusal frame 'I can't' because the former connotes conviction to a higher degree…perceived conviction mediates the influence of refusal frame on persuasiveness."

Or in language the rest of us understand, when we say, "I can't" we automatically give ourselves a way out. Sure, I could…but this time I'm choosing not to. Pretty much. At least I think so. But then again, maybe I could…

But when we say, "I don't," we're powerful. We're determined. We're not making a choice. What we do--or don't do--is based on who we are.

Which sounds more powerful, affirming, and empowering?

  • "I can't give you a discount" or "We don't discount our products."
  • "I can't cut corners on this project" or "We don't relax our quality standards."
  • "I can't skip my workout today" or "I don't miss workouts."

"I don't" always wins, because "I don't" leaves no room for argument, compromise, or discussion--especially with yourself.

How many times have you said, "I can't," only to end up doing what you said you couldn't do? My guess is a bunch. That's because other people hear "can't" and automatically think, "Okay…but under what circumstances can you do what I'm asking?"

Most people hear, "I can't," as something they can find ways to get around. (Shoot, most of the time when we say, "I can't" to ourselves, we immediately start thinking of ways to get around it--that's why so few people achieve their personal and professional goals.)

But how many times have you said, "I don't," and later given in to temptation or pressure? My guess is far fewer times.

Most people won't dispute, "I don't," because "don't" doesn't sound like a decision: "Don't" sounds like a conviction, one that offers no room for discussion or argument.

"I can't" sounds tissue paper thin because it's a decision based on external reasons or causes.

"I don't" sounds like a brick wall because it comes from deep inside you. It's part of your identity. It's who you are.

Harness the Power of "I Don't"

When you really need to say no, simply start saying, "I don't."

"We don't offer discounts." Say, you really don't want to offer discounts because not only will your margins suffer, but also competing on price is a slippery slope you can't afford to step onto. Instead of saying, weakly and almost apologetically, "I'm sorry but we can't drop our prices any lower," say firmly and with conviction, "We don't offer discounts."

And then either remain silent and wait for a response or shift the conversation to what you may be wiling to do, like providing a quicker turnaround or extending payment terms or breaking a large order down into smaller shipments.

Use "I don't" to ensure what must be non-negotiable remains non-negotiable and then shift to terms you are willing to negotiate.

"I don't have time right now." Say, an aspiring entrepreneur asks, "Can you give me 10 minutes to give me feedback on my idea?" You'd love to say yes to everyone but that's not possible. Saying, "I'm sorry, but I can't" immediately results in "But I promise it will only take a minute, so here's what we've done..." and you're trapped. Now you either have to hear him out or be rude. Either way you lose.

Instead say, "I'm sorry, but I don't have time right now. Give me your card and possibly we can schedule a meeting." You'll get a card and then you can say yes on your terms.

"I don't care what other people think."

Most of the time, we should worry about what other people think--but not if it stands in the way of living the life we really want to live.

I can't care? Heck with that. I don't care.

You shouldn't care; it's your life, and there's only one option: Live it your way.

More of my posts on professional success:

Last updated: Jul 7, 2014

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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