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Business Blunder Phrase to Avoid: “I Can’t Do That”

Categories: Business Communication

Financial-MistakesI came across a great article in the June 2013 issue of T + D Magazine titled, “Ten Career Tanking Phrases to Avoid Using in the Workplace,” which is not available online to non-subscribers.

It reiterated many of the business blunders I’ve shared in this blog, starting with this oldie but NEVER goodie: “I can’t do that.”

Whether you are a customer service/sales rep responding to a customer’s request or complaint, or you hold any other type of job, this uncooperative-sounding phrase is a non-starter guaranteed to immediately aggravate the person you’re speaking to.

Basically, this is the same as saying, “no” but with the word “can’t” thrown in for good measure -- making it sound like the situation is completely out of your hands. It comes across as a sneaky way of passing the buck.

If you’re in customer service or sales and your client wants something, simply saying “no” would be rude. We all know that. But saying, “I can’t do that” — even if in fact you cannot do it — is not much better.

Our words frequently have a subtext. Oftentimes, we don’t hear it ourselves but those we speak to hear it loud and clear. Insisting you can’t do something right off the bat, without even attempting to find a solution, makes you sound pessimistic, difficult, argumentative, or even incompetent.

Not what you had in mind?

No one wants to hear what you can’t do.

Focus your answer on potential solutions, and look for ways to tell your client or manager -- or whomever -- what you can do.

Try eliminating the deadly “I can’t” and substituting one of these answers, depending on the situation:

  1. “Let me check on that and get back to you.” Even if in the end, you still cannot accommodate a request, at least now it will sound like you tried. And perhaps, if you do try, you will come up with a solution that can create a win-win for all concerned.
  2. “Here’s what I can do …” or, “Company policy allows me to …” Sometimes, what you can do might be something that the other party has never considered, completely different to what they asked for but entirely agreeable.

Now, if it’s a time-based request, you could say …

3. “I can do that, but it will take me two weeks, not five days.” This starts off with a positive “I can” phrase, immediately reassuring your manager or client that they will get what’s needed if they can wait a bit longer.

If it’s a skill-based request, and you simply don’t have the skill, you have various options. This will depend entirely on the particular circumstances. You could use “let me investigate that and get back to you,” while you find out how to do whatever it is. You could say that you’ll need the assistance of other staff members to accomplish the task.

An entrepreneur friend offered some advice for situations like these: “When you’re an entrepreneur, you always say ‘yes’ first and figure out how to do it later.” Adding a touch of entrepreneurial spirit to your mindset might be the perfect thing to launch your career into the stratosphere.

Remember, in the end it’s all about your attitude.

It will show through your words every time you open your mouth, so choose those words thoughtfully, with an eye on the big career picture.



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