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How to Say No Persuasively

Being able to say no is essential for good day-to-day negotiating. Yet it can evoke anxiety about appearing obstructive, unkind, or unhelpful. If you want a way to keep yourself from saying yes when you really do need to say no, pack this research-supported technique in your toolkit.

During a meeting, a friend said, “I’m looking for a volunteer to create the registration form. I don’t do forms.”

The statement was clear and decisive. She said it with a little laugh, not rudely or unkindly. No one questioned that she doesn’t “do forms,” even though it struck me as a slightly odd statement at the time. She’d actually thought out that she doesn’t “do forms”?

It turns out she was onto something.

A series of studies reported in the Journal of Consumer Research found that responding to temptation with the words “I don’t” instead of “I can’t” helps set us up for success.

For instance, “I don’t skip exercise” helps resist temptation better than “I can’t skip exercise.” In one of the studies, women who were working toward a specific health or fitness goal were encouraged to use either “I don’t” or “I can’t” language when they were tempted to lapse. Of the women prompted to use “I can’t,” only ten percent lasted through the study without lapsing. But 80 percent of the women who used “I don’t” were still persevering toward their goal at the study’s end.

The researchers surmised that “I don’t” invokes a stable, unchanging internal state, which makes it more empowering than “I can’t,” which invokes a focus on external impediments and implies wiggle room if the circumstances change.

Wrote the researchers,

This insight is based on the notion that saying “I can’t” to temptation inherently signals deprivation and the loss from giving up something desirable. For instance, when faced with a tempting slice of pumpkin pie, one’s spontaneous response, ‘I can’t eat pumpkin pie’ signals deprivation. Saying ‘I don’t eat pumpkin pie’ is more effective.

Though not a focus of the study, it’s hard to miss how much more persuasive “I don’t” is than “I can’t” when used aloud with others.

Had my friend said, “I can’t do the registration form,” it seems entirely possible that the conversation would have veered down a side street about why she can’t, how someone could help her, software choices, (blah blah blah).

Instead, “I don’t do forms” put a clear line in the sand and we immediately found someone else to do it. No side streets, no kerfuffle, no drama, and no impression that she was being disagreeable.

Her language choice persuaded us that she had clarity about this little decision and we then directed our energy where it mattered.

As I once heard Peter Block (author of the best consulting book ever) say in an interview, “If you can’t say no, your yes is hollow.” Getting to yes is a worthy goal when we’re negotiating at work and home, and to get there may well require some decisive no’s along the way.


Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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