Customer refusals: The difference between “I don’t” and “I can’t”

When talking a customer through their objections, how much attention have you been paying to the way they say no? A recent study looked into the differences a “don’t’ vs “can’t” can make to behaviour, so let’s tune our ears into the implications for business.

“I don’t” vs “I can’t” signal different motivations

Imagine you are trying to eat more healthily. You are offered a piece of cake. Do you say “I don’t want it” or “I can’t eat that”? According to Patrick and Hagtvedt’s “I Don’t” versus “I Can’t”: When Empowered Refusal Motivates Goal-Directed Behaviour (2012) you will be much more effective in dodging temptation if you use “I don’t” and this is because it provides you a stronger sense of underlying empowerment.

In essence, you are more resolved to say no as an extension of who you are. If you say “I can’t” you are really externalising your refusal, inferring that you would except that you can’t for some external factor.

However, Patrick and Hagtvedt also discovered that there are times when “I can’t” can be more effective then “I don’t”. The difference is in whether the motivation behind the goal-directed behaviour is internal (it’s who I am) or external (it’s for a specific reason e.g. wedding). Therefore, if I was eating more healthily to lose weight for a wedding, saying “I can’t eat cake till after the wedding” will be more effective in the short term than “I don’t eat cake (because this is who I am”).

The stronger impact of “can’t” in this scenario was due to it shifting from simply being an impediment to something the person “must not do”, signalling accountability for any breach.

Overcoming your customer’s refusal

So where does that leave you when handling your customers?

Turn “I don’t” into “I might”

A customer who uses “I don’t” is likely to be internalising the decision. No doubt it is scary to have them state “I don’t need this widget…”, and you may feel it is all over. Your best bet to talk them around is to address how their sense of self is going to be affected by your product/service.

Appeal to them as a smart decision maker, as someone who is looking for the best outcome. To get on the right wavelength, imagine your customer saying, “I am someone who decided to buy this widget”. What would it do for them in terms of status, authority, esteem, and/or profile?

It is extremely important in this scenario to give them easy ways out of their “I don’t” commitment, so use language like “similar clients have opted to test using our widget so they could be sure they were getting the best value from their current supplier”. Shifting them from “I don’t” to “I might” is at least a change in the right direction.

Turn “I can’t” into “I will”

For customers using “I can’t”, you may need to delve a bit deeper to understand if they are giving you the “I can’t (but I really can if you talk me into it)” or “I can’t because (external reason)”. Probe them on what is preventing them from proceeding. Is it just an impediment that you can overcome (I can’t because I haven’t budgeted for it) or are they at serious risk of breach (e.g. I can’t because I am currently contracted to another supplier). Your goal is to get them saying “I will” because this infers you are both working to a future state where they have overcome whatever is holding them back right now.

In relation to what is probably the most common objection in business, “I can’t because I just don’t have the budget”, you will know yourself that money can usually be found if the desire is there. It’s therefore your job to flame the desire whilst mitigating budget issues (through payment options, timing, pricing and so on).

So are your ears better tuned into your customers now? Remember to pay attention to the words they are using to communicate their refusal so that you have the best chance of changing their minds. You can do it.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns Pty Ltd, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues. Bri is a presenter, consultant and author who you can find out more about at, or by following on Twitter @peoplepatterns. Bri’s book, “22 Minutes to a Better Business”, about how behavioural economics can help you tackle everyday business issues, is available through the Blurb bookstore.





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