Aspects of Saying No Effectively – Don’t vs. Can’t

By Jeremiah Gore

I absolutely hate mushrooms. Not a big fan of tomatoes either. When I’m out to dinner, I usually request that those items be removed from whatever dish I order. Rarely, but at times, the person taking my order will let me know they “can’t” remove it due to either already being in “the mix,” which is a well-crafted way of saying what I am ordering is not made from scratch. The dish I’ve ordered is probably being dumped from a container into a bowl to heat it in the microwave.

Spending almost half my life in the home building industry, I have heard “we can’t do that” as an answer to buyer questions. Each time I hear that answer to a legitimate question, I immediately want to yell the obvious retort, ”but you CAN do it; you just don’t want to!” When I first started in home building, building teams would be encouraged to operate from a position of authority and never hesitate to be firm in their “No” responses. “No cause I said so” became the mantra whenever someone dared to ask about adding a recessed can light at a pre-drywall meeting. 

When we need to say no to a customer’s request, we should utilize a better framework than “No cause I said so.” When it comes to saying no to someone and potentially making them feel upset, it is essential to choose your words carefully. Both “can’t” and “won’t” can be appropriate in different situations, depending on the reason for saying no.

If you genuinely cannot do something, using “can’t” is appropriate. For example, if someone asks you to attend a meeting at a time when you have a prior commitment that you cannot reschedule, saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t make that meeting,” is a truthful response. In this situation, “can’t” expresses a lack of ability to do something and is not a personal rejection of the person or their request.

If you have the ability to do something but do not want to or cannot make it a priority, using “won’t” is appropriate. For example, if someone asks you to attend a social event that you do not want to go to, saying, “I’m sorry, I won’t be able to make it,” or “I won’t be able to attend,” is a polite and truthful response. In this situation, “won’t” expresses a decision not to do something and is not a personal rejection of the person.

In both cases, it is essential to be respectful and polite in your response. You can express regret or apologize for not being able to fulfill the person’s request and offer an explanation if appropriate. Ultimately, the goal is to communicate your response in a way that is honest, respectful, and clear while minimizing the potential for hurt feelings or misunderstandings.

When you think about building a home, you should consider that “can’t” rarely applies, as almost any request could be made at any stage of the home. When a customer asks for something outside of your set deadlines, you should use “don’t” phrases, such as “I can appreciate wanting more lighting in your dining room. We don’t add lights at this stage in a home’s construction….”

Don’t is much stronger language and lets the buyer know that negotiation will not be had on this topic. Reasons why you should say you don’t: untold delays, costs, distractions, unknown ripple effects, inefficiencies, backlog gridlock, team member frustrations, and diminishing the home’s quality.

Saying no to a customer is never fun or rewarding, but it is often necessary.

Begin removing “can’t” from that response and replace it with “won’t.” What if that waiter/waitress had said, “I understand the desire to remove tomatoes from the pasta, but we don’t do that. Our chef believes that the dish is better served as-is, and we do not want to sacrifice the quality of our dishes with customized requests.” Now I will disagree with that response, but I am less likely to fight their answer knowing it is a pre-determined decision rather than the person I’ve asked the question just not wanting to do it.  As for why I hate mushrooms and tomatoes?! I guess we’ll have to cover that in a separate article.

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About the Author: Jeremiah Gore

From acquisitions to development to marketing to sales to construction and warranty, Jeremiah has been a part and led teams in all aspects of the buyers’ home building journey. He now brings that experience to Shore Consulting. Starting with a BBA in Business Management and an MS in Land Development, Jeremiah has been in sales and construction, land acquisition and development, and division management. He sees each role from a comprehensive view and breaks down barriers that can so often be built between departments. Challenging the status quo within the construction and operations teams is his primary focus though you will catch him in front of a sales team when he gets the chance.