Why Saying “I Can’t” or “No” Won’t Help Change Your Behaviour

Some time ago I was following up with a coaching client about his challenge of saying “Yes” to too many opportunities. He was getting bogged down in commitments which were distracting from what was most important in his life and career. He felt very uncomfortable saying “no” to someone who asked for his help or advice – which on the one hand is a compliment – but on the other hand, he needed to say “yes” to his own needs, before anyone else.

I’ve spoken about this before in the episode, Saying Yes to Everything Will Get You Nothing You Want – LOP068. I wrote,

Say YES to get your own needs met first. Say YES to what you love about yourself that makes you feel that you are enough. Find ways to say YES to yourself first, when others are used to you saying YES to what they want.

My client and I discussed how to deal with the short term discomfort of saying “no”, versus the long-term regret of saying “yes” to an opportunity or a request for help. It can feel easier and less emotional to say “yes” to someone; they won’t feel bad, upset, or disappointed – if that even bothers them at all. But if you commit to something you don’t want to do or don’t have enough time to do well, you will feel the pain of regret; of having not been able to bear the discomfort of saying, “no”.

Shortly after our exchange, I read a helpful article on the more successful outcome of saying, “I don’t” versus “I can’t” or “No”. In The Simple Neuroscience Of Saying No, Dax Moy explains why saying, “I don’t” is more powerful in the mind.

“I don’t” is a form of self-definition.

Saying, “No” is the other side of saying, “yes” and saying, “I can’t” potentiates self-judgement, weakness, limitation, and denial of something you still believe you want.

While this article is written about the choices you make for yourself, we can expand the use of, “I don’t” into social, academic, or work environments when you face the immediate pressure of someone asking you directly for your help or involvement.

In my client’s case, I suggested what we have previously discussed: know your schedule, your current commitments, and what matters most to you. With that knowledge, practice knowing and feeling what you “don’t do” or “don’t have time for”.

A mentioned in Moy’s article, simple is best. No detailed explanations are required. For example, “Hey Randal, I think you’d be a valuable addition to our board of directors. We just lost a member and we all want you to take her seat.” To which you could respond, “Thanks for thinking of me. I don’t have the time to help this year.” Then change the subject, perhaps asking about their next project or something that immediately deflects into another discussion.

To what have you been saying, “I can’t” in your life? How different would that feel for you to instead declare what you “don’t” do?

Image credit: “Don’t” by Paul Sableman

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