By: Lynne M. Radiches
Self-Care Coach, UNITED STATES
You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own, and you know what you know.
And you are the one who’ll decide where to go.
“Can” means being able to do, make, or accomplish something. Conversely, “can’t” means lacking the ability to do, make, or accomplish something. “Will” is defined as “the mental faculty by which one deliberately chooses or decides upon a course of action.” The reasonable interpretation of “won’t”, therefore, is that one has the ability to do something, but chooses not to.
People often say “I can’t” when what they really mean is “I won’t”. Sometimes a person will say that he or she “can’t” do something because it then absolves him or her of the responsibility for making a choice about whether to do it. For example, the person who says “I can’t tell my friend that I know her significant other is involved in another relationship” is most probably technically capable of doing so, but may not want the responsibility of being the bearer of such news or of experiencing the repercussions that accompany it. Saying “I can’t” instead of “I won’t”, right off the bat, is a short-cut which relieves the person of such responsibility, but also eliminates the opportunity for that person to engage in an analysis of the facts so that an informed decision can be made about whether or not to break the news.
Another motivator behind saying “I can’t” when what one really means is “I won’t” is the relief from responsibility to continue trying to do something that he or she has not yet been able to do. For example, one might say “I can’t lose weight.” In extreme instances this may, in fact, be true. Generally speaking though, one should technically be capable of losing weight. That is not to say that such an endeavor is not without its challenges! But saying “I can’t lose weight” without investigating methods in addition to those which have been tried unsuccessfully to date, prevents a person from engaging in an activity over which he or she could have control. That person may need the help of a coach, or even a doctor. What that person does not need is the extra weight of an “I can’t.”
Sometimes, one might just feel so strongly about not doing something that he or she will say that he or she can’t – as though there is no choice. An example would be the statement, “I can’t allow my teenager to go to a party where there will be no adult supervision.” Of course, technically, one could in fact make the decision to allow the teen to attend the party at which there will be no adult supervision. The parent, however, is making the choice not to allow it and is, perhaps for emphasis, using the term “can’t” instead of “won’t”.
We are the choices we make.
There are certain consequences to saying that you “can’t” do something when what you really mean is that you choose not to, or “won’t”, do it. One such consequence is the forfeiture of your power to make a choice. Consider the following statement: “I can’t learn a new language right now because the class is only offered at the community center on Tuesday nights, and I take my child to scouting on Tuesday nights.” Imagine if all of our choices were limited by our present circumstances! The opportunity exists to exercise your power to change your circumstances by brainstorming options. Are language classes offered at any other venues? Is Tuesday the only night that the scouts meet? Is there a language course available on-line? After exploring your options, you may discover that you, in fact, can learn a new language right now. Whether or not you will do so becomes a matter of choice. Whatever your final decision is, it is not as important as the fact that your decision was born from your power to make it.
Of course, saying you “can’t” do something (that you actually can) could just be a means of emphasizing your unwillingness to do something. But the overall effect of saying that you “can’t” do something when, in fact, you can but choose not to (a/k/a “won’t), is that you are dishonoring the values upon which you may very well ordinarily rely to make choices in your life. Values such as honesty, directness, and self-respect (by not saying what you mean) are discounted by such imprecision. The imprecision of saying “I can’t” when what you really mean is “I can, but I choose not to, or won’t”, further affronts upon additional values such as communication, accuracy, credibility, and respect for others.
Stating (even if only to yourself) that you “won’t” do something because you have weighed your choices and decided not to, not only fosters each of the values identified above, but also honors additional values such as accountability, freedom, empowerment, and expression.
- Is this something I want to do?
- If this is something I want to do what, if anything, would prevent me from doing it?
- Is the ultimate decision to do this, or not to do this, within my power?
- Am I looking for a way out of making a decision by saying that “I can’t” do this?
- For what reason(s) would I say “I can’t” if what I really mean is “I won’t”?
- Am I expressing myself honestly?
Arguably, there will be occasions when a client’s use of “I can’t” instead of “I won’t” will amount to a distinction without a difference, that is, with no change to the ultimate outcome of a situation. The client may just want to say that he or she “can’t” to avoid any negative connotations associated with the word “won’t”, or to be relieved of the responsibility of making a choice to do something. Saying “I can’t” suggests that the client had no choice, but often that is not the case.
As coaches, we are responsible for providing a safe environment for a client to make choices. As coaches, we are to reserve judgment, and focus instead on helping the client examine an issue based upon the client’s value system (not our own), as applied to the facts in a given situation. Word choice, i.e., “can’t” versus “won’t” may not be something a client has even given thought to in the past, and may ultimately make no difference to the client. That will be a choice for the client to make however, and the client should recognize that he or she has the tools to do so.
As coaches, we can provide an avenue for the client to discover how an accurate representation of one’s choice is empowering. “Owning” one’s choice is an opportunity to communicate one’s true position effectively, and acknowledges the value system upon which a particular choice is made.
- What are some questions you can ask the client to help the client discover whether he or she really means that he or she “can’t” versus “won’t”?
- How can you support the client’s truth about “can’t” versus “won’t”?
- Are you also listening to what the client isn’t saying?
- Do you have steps in place to keep you from judging the client’s choice of “can’t” over “won’t” or vice versa?
Free Online Dictionary, Thesaurus and Encyclopedia
McGrath, Patrick B. (2011). Don’t Try Harder, Try Different! (Psychology Today). Retrieved June 21, 2011 from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/dont-try-harder-try-different/201102/cant-versus-w…
Schimmer, Tom. (2011). “Can’t do” vs. “Won’t do”. Learning-Leadership-Life. Retrieved June 21, 2011 from http://tomschi,,er.com/2011/02/10/cant-d-vs-wont-do/