The power of language – how to say no

Heart made of pages in a book

Mastering the art of saying No is an incredibly useful life-skill. This is especially the case when you’re seeking balance either in the work-place or your personal life.  It is a skill that I will admit to struggling with in the past and in regards to mastering it, well, it’s still a bit of a work in progress. Interestingly enough one of the biggest downfalls successful entrepreneurs claim as their key mistake is the inability to say no. That makes me feel a bit better!

When it comes down to it, saying no can actually be a very positive experience, even with all of the negative connotations the N-word throws up. Saying no to unrealistic deadlines may help to alleviate stress, while saying no to unnecessary meetings or commitments can allow you to be more productive and give you much needed head-space. One step further is saying no to temptations, which in turn will help you reach you goals (savings, health or otherwise). All in all saying no allows you to focus on things that are really important to you, and is a great way to set boundaries.

If you are like me and are still flirting with mastering this skill, then I think you’ll find this piece of research an interesting read – how small changes can have a significant impact, which in turns gives you a better way to say no. Easy peasy!

In this study, 120 students were split in to two groups. The only difference between these two groups was saying: “I can’t” vs. “I don’t”.

  • One group was told every time they were faced with temptation they would tell themselves “I can’t do xyz”. For example, when offered the temptation of ice cream, they would say: “I can’t eat ice cream”.
  • When the second group was offered the same temptation, they would say: “I don’t eat ice cream”.

After repeating the phrases, each student answered a set of unrelated questions. Once finished, the students handed their answer sheets in and were offered a complimentary treat – either a chocolate bar or a granola bar. Their choice would be noted down on their answer sheet.

The result showed 61% of the students who told themselves “I can’t xyz” chose the chocolate. Meanwhile only 36% of the students who told themselves “I don’t xyz” chose the chocolate. Simple change in terminology significantly improved the odds that the student would choose the healthier option.

Interesting right – well, the findings didn’t stop there! The researchers were also keen to see how the words “can’t” and “don’t” affect our willingness to say no when faced with repeated temptations and distractions. In other words, is there a way to “say no” which is more likely that you’ll stick to it?

The same researches designed a new study. They asked 30 working women to sign up for a “health and wellness seminar.” All of these women were told to think of an important and relevant long–term health and wellness goal. The researchers then split the women into three groups of 10 and told the following:

  1. Group 1 (the control Group) – anytime they felt tempted to lapse on their goals, “just say no” i.e. not given any specific strategy
  2. Group 2 – anytime they felt tempted to lapse on their goals, implement the “cant” strategy. For example, “I can’t miss my workout today” / “I can’t drink coffee”
  3. Group 3 – anytime they felt tempted to lapse on their goals, implement the “don’t” strategy. For example, “I don’t miss workouts” /  “I don’t eat junk-food”

Each of the 30 ladies were specifically told that …

“During the 10–day window you will receive emails to remind you to use the strategy and to report instances in which it worked or did not work. If the strategy is not working for you, just drop us a line and say so and you can stop responding to the emails.”

10 days later the results looked like this –

  • Group 1 – “just say no” – 3 out of 10 members persisted with their goals for the entire 10 days.
  • Group 2 – “can’t” – 1 out of 10 members persisted with their goals for the entire 10 days.
  • Group 3 -“don’t” – 8 out of 10 members persisted with their goals for the entire 10 days.

80% success rate, well that is darn pretty cool if you ask me!


It goes to show you that the words you choose not only help make individually better choices, it also helps you keep on track with longer-term goals.

The question does remain, why does “I don’t” work better than “I can’t”?

Quite Simple really…

you choice of words frame and support your sense of control and empowerment.


[First image – source]

Katherine Bugden

The beautiful Katherine Bugden is a co-founder and contributor to A Conscious Beauty blog.

This English lass is an avid writer, tea drinker, reader and can chat the hind legs off a donkey. She loves to travel and has a serious case of wanderlust, which is providing ample fodder for day-dreams. Love, family, friends and laughter are constant themes in this beauty’s life. When not working, reading or writing, she’s on the beach lapping up the sunshine and letting the ocean wash any worries away.

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