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Turning Can’t into a Can do

Dr Jeff Stoker

Can’t is a word I hear almost every day whilst working with patients, can’t (usually as an I can’t) implies that the person saying it thinks that they are unable to do a particular activity, task, or reach a specific goal. I even heard these three examples today whilst consulting;

I can’t go back to work.
I can’t lose weight.
I can’t cope. 

So I have written this article to help you counter that I can’t statement either in your own self-talk, when you are talking to others, or as a reference for anyone with a therapeutic, coaching, or mentoring role. I’ve given you a structured set of responses that can help you challenge a can’t statement to turn that ‘can’t into a can-do’.

To be honest, almost any approach when someone tells you they can’t do something is better than what I call the ’Pantomime approach’ that I see a lot of managers, bosses and even doctors frequently use. The Pantomime approach when responding to a ‘can’t statement’, gets you caught in a loop of;

‘I can’t’…‘Oh yes you can’…‘Oh no I can’t’ …etc.

Not only does this approach get you into direct confrontation it also leads to further polarisation. So here’s an ordered coaching approach with a set of questions that you could ask when you hear a can’t statement, these NLP based methods also have the advantage of pushing clients or patients away from their problems and into solutions instead.

Dispute their World

This questions the reason and negative belief for the can’t statement.

How do you know that? or What do you need to know, to know that’s not true?
Or simply repeat back to them their own can’t statement and add a ‘because’ to look for the reason and then dispute that reason also.
I also like to ask; What are you not telling yourself?

Explore the reverse of their statement.

This explores the opposite of their statement, and looks at would happen if they, therefore, could do it instead.

What’s the most likely thing that would happen if you could?
Perhaps even attach a bit of emotion with, How would that make you feel? And even expand the possibilities with, What else would happen then?

You can even explore how they would do it too, So if you could? How would you? What would you need to do?

Give back control.

One method is to simply replace the can’t with a won’t so that the presupposition is that that the person has control and is actually making the decision not to do something. It also helps the individual think of any remaining barriers that are stopping them too.

So why won’t you…..?
Why haven’t you decide not to do this before?

Then explore those barriers with So what’s stopping you?
What would other people think if you did?
would also bring in that feeling of peer pressure or support from others, (and How would they feel if you didn’t is a good follow up here).

Explode their ‘Can’t’ into something unbelievable.

This works by making what they have said to you not an absolute, and not a general rule and then blow it up it into a myth.

Are you saying that it’s totally impossible to…..that there’s no way…..
Has anyone else ever……..?
What did they do to……?
Can you think of anything else that’s impossible that you can do now?
What other things can you do? and… and…..

Explore their past. 

This works by identifying past success and brings resources, experience and confidence from their past back to the present. Have you ever managed to do this before? then follow up with a look back, what helped you in the past, and can you do that now too? So what is it you need to do now? Then explore their solution a little more.

or even go back to before they made the decision, Where were you when you made that decision and what other options did you have then?

Explore their present.

It’s also important to bring any solution back into now, this approach makes it real, it brings all this exploration back to what you need to do now. In coaching exploring ‘What is happening now? is one of the first things yoy need to know to build belief change.

So what’s happening now? So what is it you are doing about that now? You can also follow this up with the priceless, What are you not doing now? So what else can you do about that? and What’s missing now? helps fill in a few gaps.

What would you need to do (know, feel) now to make this happen?

Explore their future.

This starts to look at their future goals, theses can even be imagined ones, and it can help to takes someone out of their problem mindset too.

So can you imagine a time when you could?, (and what would happen if you did?), Can you imagine what you would do if you could? How does that future look to you? and how do you feel about that?

What haven’t you tried yet?

Explore the solution.

By exploring any solution to a problem it takes the conversation from a one about problems into a conversation about solutions, it also helps a person gain the motivation through visualising all of the different outcomes, and you can explore all 4 outcomes by using Cartesian questioning.

What would happen if you did?
What would happen if you didn’t?
What wouldn’t happen if you did?
What wouldn’t happen if you didn’t?
This last one is called the mirror image reverse, and it tends to get a blank stare most of the time, but blank stares are great opportunities to give positive suggestions.

Make the solution smaller.

This works by breaking up a solution into small achievable steps because it is far easier to believe that small steps are possible, often all you need to do is make someone take that first step and the possibilities build from there.

So what’s the next step?
What’s the simplest thing you can do?
How can you do that every day to make it happen?
There must be something easier than that?
What’s the easiest thing to do that you are not doing now?  

In Summary.

‘Can’t’ and many other absolute statements can all be approached using these methods, trying to do all of these methods to someone all at once maybe a bit too much, so all I really want to do is give you a bit more flexibility in your approach.

I’m also sure I’ve missed a few other methods, so feel free to contribute and get in touch if you have any other approaches that work for you too.

This article was originally posted back in 2014, I’ve reposted it today due to popular demand. Please use the citation below.

Turning Can’t into a Can do
Juvenate. (2019). Turning Can’t into a Can do. [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 Nov. 2019].

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About the author

Dr Jeff Stoker

Clinician, writer, educator, speaker, and problem expert. Helping people to think better, to solve problems, and get their lives unstuck.

Winner of the Coaching and NLP in Healthcare Award at the 2018 ANLP International Conference.

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