In the News: How to Say “No”

In The Science of Speaking, I present many techniques for persuading your audience to accept your asks. But what if you’re on the other side of the request? What if someone is asking you to do something—and what if the response you want to give them is “no”?

According to a 2012 study by Vanessa M. Patrick and Henrik Hagtvedt, reported by a variety of media outlets, there’s actually a better and a worse way to do this: say that you “don’t” do something instead of that you “can’t.” As Cari Romm explains on The Science of Us:

Saying “I don’t eat X” when tempted by an unhealthy snack, for example, made participants feel more “psychologically empowered” than using “can’t.” The same held true with a scenario about resolving to exercise each day: “I don’t skip my workout” was a more powerful motivator to get to the gym than “I can’t skip my workout.”

As Shaunacy Ferro notes on Mental Floss,

Regardless of whether you’re talking to yourself or another person, “can’t” suggests that you might want to do something, but aren’t able to … The implication is that in another set of circumstances, you could. But when you say “I don’t,” … there’s no room for debate. It’s a hard-and-fast rule that you set for yourself.

In addition to being a more empowering strategy for yourself, a followup study by Patrick and Hagtvegt found that the “don’t” approach is also more effective than the “can’t” approach at convincing the requester that you really mean “no.” Participants who heard refusals using the “don’t” approach rated them as significantly more persuasive and full of conviction than refusals using the “can’t” approach.