The five real meanings of “I can’t do that”

It’s your negotiation counterpart’s favorite phrase: “I can’t do that.” And it’s a discouraging phrase that most of us take at face-value, deeming our dreams as good as dashed. And sometimes we should, as it signifies the actual impossibility of our request.

But many times, we shouldn’t. Because, many times, it means something subtly but critically different. And here’s where we usually go wrong: We don’t recognize the many subtle meanings of the very same phrase, thereby rendering life less negotiable. So, the next time your negotiation counterpart says, “I can’t do that,” know that they might mean:

  1. I don’t want to do that. “Can’t” implies utter impossibility, total infeasibility, absolutely no way that could happen. Unfortunately, many of our negotiation counterparts actually mean “don’t.” As in, they don’t really feel like it. Since not really feeling like it is far less final than not being able, you’ve just discovered a golden opportunity to pry back the reasons for their reluctance. Are they concerned about the work required, precedents broken, approvals needed? Whatever it is, it’s possible you can address it (once you understand it).
  2. I can do that but don’t want you to know. It’s a sad fact of negotiation, and life more broadly. Sometimes people lie, or at least bluff. So saying they can’t is an exercise in flexible ethics meant to crush your dreams before they ever take flight. Luckily, a simple “Why?” is often enough to catch the underprepared bluffer red-handed and unable to answer convincingly.
  3. I won’t do that unless you do this. Sometimes, “I can’t” is less a lie than a gambit—an attempt to get something out of you before they comply. Luckily, a “What if I did X?” on your end can often turn the most non-negotiable issues negotiable.
  4. I can’t do that, but I can do this. Relatedly, negotiators sometimes say they can’t because they really can’t grant your super-specific request. But that particular can’t says nothing about their willingness to grant other, as-yet unmade requests. To see so for yourself, try an experiment the next time a wily HR negotiator tells you they “can’t” negotiate salary: Say ok, but ask whether they would give you something else you value for the given salary. Often, they will, which means they actually can negotiate salary—and have, by accepting your proposed tradeoff.
  5. I haven’t really thought about it. Sadly, some of our negotiation counterparts aren’t as astute or motivated as we are. We surface an idea, and it doesn’t sound much like the clunking of their mental machinery, so they reject us without really thinking it over. Here, your job as negotiator becomes to educate—to show them just how simple it would be for them to comply. Shown a simple way to say yes, many will, if only to be rid of you.

 The point is embarrassingly simple: “I can’t do that” is a popular phrase that you shouldn’t automatically accept at face-value. Maybe they really can’t—and so be it. But if it’s just that they “can’t,” then chances are you can find a way to eliminate the ‘t.

Negotiating Life’s Non-Negotiables

My posts routinely suggest that life becomes negotiable when we apply some simple scientific principles from negotiation research. But we all know that not everything’s negotiable. The weather (it’s been raining in Maryland for months), our own health (we all face the fickle hand of fate), the state of American politics (nuff said). Some things just can’t be negotiated.

But that doesn’t mean they’re not negotiable!

Indeed, non-negotiable issues often force us to negotiate with ourselves, and those same scientific principles can still make our own intra-individual negotiations more negotiable. To see what I mean, consider the following five principles as they relate to negotiations with ourselves:

  1. Interests: Negotiation research advises you to ascertain your counterpart’s interests (their underlying needs, desires, and priorities). But in the face of circumstances we can’t control—say the perpetual cloud hanging over my home state—we would all do well to examine our own. Is it in our own interests, long-term, to worry about the weather? Probably not. (See health point above.)
  2. Integrative solutions: Negotiation research emphasizes that outcomes don’t need to hurt one party to benefit the other. Likewise, we’ve all heard that every cloud has a silver lining. In the case of Maryland’s many clouds, the silver lining has been my ability to focus on writing rather than the many distractions associated with a sunny day. So Mother Nature’s perverse pleasure in raining on me meshes well with my very appropriate pleasure in being productive.
  3. BATNA: Negotiation research urges to consider your Plan B. In the case of uncontrollable events, that exercise could actually help you realize that the event is a teeny bit negotiable. What’s your alternative to complaining about the political state of our country? Finding a way to get involved and change whatever small corner of it you can, as many people have (recently).
  4. Ratification: Negotiation research teaches us, when we’re deep in the heart of a contentious negotiation, to step away and think about it before acting rashly. Similarly, people who happen to get all worked up about politicians or entire branches of government often find it useful to consider another topic before taking to Twitter.
  5. Negotiating in teams: Negotiation research teaches us that two heads are often better than one at the bargaining table. When it comes to life’s uncontrollable and sometimes insurmountable challenges, two heads are surely better than one. Indeed, finding a way to obtain some social support and tackle the non-negotiable together is probably the most productive way to make it negotiable after all.

These are just examples—and perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek—about the relevance of negotiation research for the intra-individual negotiations that often attend non-negotiable events. But the serious point is that many of us are our own toughest negotiation counterparts. Life becomes negotiable when we realize we don’t have to be.