THE POWER OF WORDS ("I Don't" Beats "I Can't")

As seen in the Consultant Connection July 2013 Issue
Dr. Karla Kay Potetz
Dr. Karla Kay Potetz & Associates
"Watch your mouth!" Most of us have heard those three words throughout our lives and on a variety of occasions. It was one of my parent's favorite responses to me when as a child I vigorously registered my discontent with what I perceived to be an unfair situation. Dr. Phil often tells teenagers to watch their mouth when they get 'snarky' with him. We pay attorneys large amounts of money to function as our 'mouth piece' because we fear saying the wrong thing. 
But let's examine watch your mouth from another perspective. What about personal declarations? How many of us have lamented "I should have said_______,” when things didn't turn out the way we wanted? We irritatingly bellow, "I told her I couldn't go, but she kept nagging me. Why don't people listen to me? I said I couldn't."
Why is it that when we say one thing, people hear another? We understand the concept of selective hearing and realize that people hear what they want to hear, but in this case, you specifically said you couldn't. That's very specific, isn't it? This is where 'I don't versus I can't' come in to play.
In four different studies in the August 2012 Journal of Consumer Research, researchers examined the effect wording has on our success with personal declarations. For example, in an attempt to lose a few pounds you decide to refrain from eating sweets and you're quite successful. Then the weekend arrives and you're out to lunch with a friend. After the meal she says, "Let's get dessert," and your response is, "I can't eat sweets right now. I'm trying to lose a few pounds." She says, "Come on, it's the weekend. A little ice cream isn't going to make a difference one way or the other; and I can't eat dessert alone." So you reluctantly eat dessert, feel guilty and then blame your friend for talking you into it. "Why can't people just accept what I say," you ask yourself. "I was doing fine on my diet until I had lunch with her." 
While reading this article you might be thinking about willpower and how if it had been applied could have helped in this situation. We know that self-discipline and will power come into play whenever we're trying to resist temptation. 'It's not what you said, but how you said it' comes to mind as I review this article. Now that I think about it, I frequently heard that phrase as a youngster as well. Researchers have examined the effect of different wording when using self-talk to resist temptation. When participants framed a refusal as "I don't" (for instance, "I don't eat sugar or sweets") instead of "I can't," they were more successful at resisting the desire to eat unhealthy foods.
Vanessa Patrick, professor of marketing at the University Of Houston C. T. Bauer College Of Business, says, "I believe that an effective route to self-regulation is by managing one's desire for the temptation, instead of relying solely on willpower." She also believes that deprivation is an ineffective route to self-control because I can't connotes deprivation which of course increases our desire for that which we feel deprived. Think about it. When we feel deprived, we really want whatever it is that we cannot have. It goes around and around in our mind until we give in and do whatever we said we couldn't have or do.
I don't on the other hand is quite declarative, and expressing ourselves with simple declarative sentences helps clarify meaning to us and others. "I don't eat sugar and other sweets," sounds definite. "I can't eat sugar and other sweets," implies that with a little encouragement we might be able to do whatever it is we're talking about. I can't invites an "Of course you can" from well-meaning friends. It implies that with a little persuasion you'll be able to conquer the I can't.
If you want to act powerfully, you must master the power of words. The word can't implies that you lack the ability to do something. Using the word won't implies that you've made a decision and therefore will not do something. Eating dessert or not eating dessert does not suggest an inability; it is in fact a choice. 
Less successful folks substitute I can’t for I won't because it seems to let them off the hook. Because the activity is something they can't do, they can't reasonably be expected to do it. Though this distinction seems pretty clear, many of us fail to grasp the true meaning. For example:  
I'm too heavy but I can't lose weight.
I can't walk very far; therefore I can't exercise.
By contrast, winners, or successful people are more precise. They use I can't as a signal that they need to develop or improve a skill, and they use I won't as a statement that they've made a decision. For example: 
I can't seem to lose weight so I'll adjust my diet. I won't eat sugar and sweets.
I can't walk very far. Therefore after dinner I won't sit in front of the TV, I'll go outside and walk a small amount every evening. That way I can build my stamina.
By using I can't and I won't appropriately, winners take responsibility for their actions rather than making excuses. That's a major reason they're so successful.

To contact Dr. Potetz:
Dr. Karla Kay Potetz & Associates
Cleveland, Ohio
Check out:
Take it Back:  The Personal Power You Give Away Everyday.
by Dr. Kay Potetz
Recently published and available on Amazon Kindle and Nook
Also available at the Baldwin Wallace bookstore (440-826-2900).

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