Don’t Say I Can't

Don’t Say I Can't

In her remarkable book The Power of Saying No - The New Science of How to Say No That Puts You In Charge of Your Life, Vanessa Patrick tackles the challenge of communicating an effective no.

But what exactly is an effective no? Vanessa defines it as a no that does "not invite pushback from and maintains your relationship with the asker while simultaneously securing your reputation with them.  


And the best way to accomplish an Effective No? By not being wishy-washy, which means saying no by choosing what she calls Standing Up words like "I don't, I never, or I always, as they affirm our personal willpower and our control in our pursuit of our goals. Note that using these words is equally powerful, effective, and important in our own internal dialogue with ourselves.

Some examples:

 I don't take red-eye flights.

 I don’t take calls between 7 and 10 AM.

 I always start my day with exercise.

 I don’t work on weekends.

 I never take the elevator.    

 I don’t have early morning meetings.

Using the word can’t creates a subterranean mental state you may not even be aware of that is mired in helplessness and disempowerment, causing us to subtly, or not so subtly, adopt being a victim of circumstances. Using can't puts the focus on external impediments. It also opens the door to pushback, from others, or even from yourself, in your head.  

Saying to yourself “I can’t eat that cookie” (usually followed by some lame excuse of justification to yourself like “but I deserve it tonight since I had such a hard day), or saying to your surgical colleague or Department Chair “I can’t make the meeting in the morning” - are both grounded in the moment and one’s immediate mental and emotional state - whereas I don’t eat cookies or I don’t do early morning meetings are responses that transcend our wildly fluctuating mental and emotional states.

The words I don’t also convey two things:

  1. They implicate your identity (I always run every morning = I am a runner, or I never miss dinner with my family = I am a committed father)
  2. They reveal the presence of what Vanessa calls a Personal Policy - rules that we set for ourselves which allow us to respond to asks that are based on our values, priorities, and preferences that are part of our identity.  

Vanessa calls a no using  Stand Up words grounded in your Personal Policies and Identity an Empowered Refusal, and Empowered Refusals give you three monumental gifts:

Personal Power = being in control, having the freedom and autonomy to act independently of others.

Authenticity = walking the talk of your values, priorities, and preferences.

Integrity = doing what you say and saying what you mean (the consistency of an acting entity's words and actions).

But it gets even better because an Empowered Refusal also achieves three things with the asker:

First, it does not invite pushback from the asker. If your No using Stand Up words comes from a base of Personal Policies and Identity, it creates a much stronger conviction than trying to be nice by making excuses or coming up with other bullshit reasons to say no. It is a wall that not only stops pushback but also makes the asker respect you for your firmness and values. The key is to avoid submissive words in an effort to soften the blow like "Umm", or "it’s really hard for me to"….NO WISHY WASHY - because vague or submissive language leaves the door open to the asker, making you seem less credible and even deceptive, as it naturally leads them (and all of us humans) to create a story in our heads to fill the gap. This can mess with your reputation.  

Second, it maintains your relationship with the asker because, ironically, by using concrete language based on your Personal Policies and Identity, you make the asker feel seen, heard, and valued - because it conveys that you are actually listening to them, whereas vague language invites the asker to create a story in their head about what may be going on with your no.  

Vanessa gives this great example: Let’s imagine that your friend Jackie asks you to join her and a group of friends for a luxurious spa day. You decide you do not want to go because it does not fit in your budget at the moment. Embarrassed to mention money as the reason, you might resort to abstract and vague language and excuses, saying for instance, “I just don’t feel like it.” Do you buy this reason? Is it convincing? Do you believe her?

Instead, conveying a more concrete stance such as, “It sounds fun, but I do not have the budget for it,” is more persuasive, making the listener feel that you are committed to your refusal, and it is grounded in something substantial. Do not give them the chance to have an open loop in their head and to create some false narrative about you or the situation.  Plus there is an added bonus - it is the truth.

Third, it secures your reputation with the asker. Vanessa tells the story of Professor William Waterman Sherman from the Newberry Award-winning novel The Twenty-One Balloons. In it, the Professor is traveling the world in a hot-air balloon and it goes down into the ocean where he is found stranded and alone among the debris by a ship and everyone wants to know what happened, but the professor would not spill the beans, to anyone, including the President of the United States who, by the time the ship reached NYC, had heard about the story and wanted to meet the Professor - but the Professor said no to meeting him!

His Empowered Refusal was grounded in his loyalty to his fellow explorers at the Western American Explorer Club in San Francisco. Even though the Professor said no to the president, the president respected him for his loyalty and values, and he arranged for the Professor to be transported by train to San Francisco so he could tell his story to his club members.  The moral of the story is that using an Empowered Refusal, even with the President of the United States, can garner respect and admiration, and it can create an ironclad connection with the asker that would never have been forged by using excuses and justifications that are not aligned with your Personal Policies and Identity.  

It is worth taking the time to reflect on what are your key values and Personal Policies, write them down, think about them, and start to live by them, by using an Empowered Refusal, with others, and with yourself.

It is nice to have a compass to know the direction you are heading!


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