You Can't or You Don't? There's A Big Difference.

It took me until the 4th grade to fully understand why I should start a question with, "May I..." instead of "Can I..." People I didn't even know would respond to my "Can I..." with "I don't know, can you?" Very annoying and clearly not an effective teaching mechanism. 


Yes, the difference between "Can I..." and "May I..." is subtle, yet meaningful. But more recently I've noticed a significant difference between the use of two other similar words: "can't" and "don't."

A few weeks ago I overheard a woman ordering  lunch mention to the server, "I don't eat cheese." This caught my attention because most people would say, "I can't eat cheese." Did you catch the difference in meaning? When I heard someone say they can't eat cheese, my mind inevitably thinks, "Yes you can. It's like eating anything else. It goes in your mouth, you chew it, and swallow it." However, when I hear that she doesn't eat cheese, my mind simply thinks, "That's an interesting choice. I wonder why?" 

When someone says they can't do something that they clearly can do, their psyche says the same thing I was thinking when I heard it. "Yes you can. You're lying to yourself and I can prove it!" 

Here's the thing about your psyche. It's lazy. It prefers saving energy, resources, and effort. When the psyche knows you're lying about something that requires effort, it sets out to prove the lie. Now the psyche goes to battle with willpower. Willpower might win for a while, but eventually, the psyche starts gaining ground.

Suppose you're trying to remove bread from your diet. Over time, "I can't eat bread," turns into, "I can't eat a lot of bread." And then you know what slide right back to square one. 

Now imagine you're out with your friend, a basket of warm bread is delivered from the server, and your friend offers you a slice. "No thank you, I don't eat bread." Here you're communicating to your friend - and your psyche - that you have made a choice. Making a deliberate choice aligns your psyche and your willpower, and they can work together. Your psyche now says, "I CAN eat bread, but I WON'T eat bread because that's not something I do." You've made a deliberate choice, and you are now choosing to stick with that choice.

There is incredible power in making deliberate choices.

Let's say you want to wake up at 6:30 instead of 7:00 to spend dedicated time on a project. At night you apprehensively set the alarm and tell yourself, "I can't sleep in past 6:30; I'm getting up to work on this project!" You get fired up about it. And your head hits the pillow.

In the morning when the buzzing begins, your lazy psyche wants you to stay in bed, so it tells you, "Yes, you CAN sleep longer, see? Give it a try! Trust me, you CAN wake up early tomorrow and the work will still be waiting for you." Almost instinctively, your hand reaches over and hits the snooze button.

Instead, deliberately choose to wake up early. "I get up earlier to work on my project. It's what I do." Stating it this way removes natural excuses. When the alarm goes off in the morning, your psyche will kick in and say, "Hey - you have to get up because this is who you are! You're the person who wakes up early to work on the project. So get up and get to work because you are a person of your word!"

The small business leader can apply this in a lot of ways. Maybe you've been hesitant to talk to an employee about some performance shortcomings. In the past you thought, "I could talk to him about it, but let's see how today goes. I can talk to him tomorrow." But now you think, "I'm going to talk to him today because that's what I do. I coach, train and develop my team to be their best."

Is there something you've been putting off? Do you have a difficult goal you want to achieve? Change the way you talk about it with others and with yourself. 

Armour Martin Consulting LLC provides premium online content to help business leaders grow confidently in their business and see results in 90 days.

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