Can't

Sometimes when I propose a change, someone says, "We can't do that." I'm not always sure what the person means, because "we can't" could mean a number of things. It might mean, "We're not able to do that." It might mean, "If we were to do that, something bad would happen." I don't always know, from the context of the conversation, what "we can't" means. I want to know, because that will help me understand how to respond appropriately.

Sometimes I have a hunch that "we can't" means "something bad would happen." I check out my hunch by asking, "Do you mean that something bad would happen?" When my hunch is right, the person typically responds by telling me what bad things they expect. Sometimes I need to follow up by asking, "What do you think would happen?"

The answers tell me about the person's expectations. I can compare those expectations to my own to decide what to do next. Many times, the person points out a consequence that I hadn't anticipated, and that I, too, see as likely now that the person has pointed it out. When that happens, I need to adjust or abandon my proposal. Sometimes, the person's expectations differ from mine in some ways. When that happens, I want to have a conversation about what expectations we share, and where our expectations differ. Learning the person's expectations gives me a way to start that conversation.

Sometimes my hunch tells me that "we can't" means "We're not able." In those cases, I ask, "What would stop you?"

Again, if my hunch is right, the answers tell me about the person's expectations. Sometimes those expectations are about the context. Perhaps there is some obstacle that would prevent people from doing what I've proposed. Perhaps my proposal requires some resource or support or permission that the person does not expect to acquire. Sometimes the expectations are about people's abilities. Perhaps my proposal requires some skills or knowledge that people do not have.

The person's expectations gives me some possibilities. Can we remove the obstacles, or learn that they will not be obstacles after all? Can we test whether those unavailable resources are really necessary? Can we find a way to acquire the resources after all? Can we find a way to help people acquire the needed skills, or to implement the proposal in a way that requires only the skills and knowledge that people already have?

When I don't have a strong hunch about what "we can't" means, I'll ask either, "Do you mean that something bad would happen?" or, "Do you mean that something would prevent us from doing that?" The answers give me a clearer idea of what the person means by "we can't."

Whatever "we can't" means, my general approach is the same: Discover the person's expectations, compare them to my own, acknowledge the similarities, and try to reconcile the differences.

Experiment: For one week, notice each time you say "I can't" or "we can't." In each case, what does "can't" mean? Does it mean "unable?" Does it mean "something bad would happen?" Does it mean something else? What expectations lie behind "can't?" What patterns do you see in your answers.

Experiment: For one week, notice each time other people say "I can't" or "we can't." Ask questions to discover what does "can't" mean? Does it mean "unable?" Does it mean "something bad would happen?" Does it mean something else? What expectations lie behind "can't?" What patterns do you see in the answers.

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