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Don’t tell me what you don’t want

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“You shouldn’t answer the phone that way. It doesn’t sound professional,” Heather told her co-worker as she approached her desk. “Stay away from using words such as ‘can’t’ or phrases like ‘not able to.’ It’s not good customer service.”

If you want people to change their behavior, tell them what you want, rather than what you don’t want. Heather would have been more effective if she’d said, “When we’re unable to fill a client’s order as quickly as he desires, tell him what we can make happen versus what we can’t do.”

First, phrasing requests this way helps the listener remain more open-minded and less defensive. Nobody likes being corrected.

Second, when you spend time telling people what they did wrong, you appear negative and look like a fault-finder. When you phrase requests positively, the listener is more apt to hear the message and you appear more solution-oriented.

Third, you help the listener paint a picture with your words. By giving examples of what you would like to see done, you provide a verbal and a visual cue, which helps the individual focus on the real goal. Depending on the situation, it wouldn’t hurt to write up a procedure or process card for someone to reference should the situation occur again.

And last, early in my career, I attended a seminar where the speaker related that our brain doesn’t process the word “don’t.” It got me thinking, and I became the rare mother around the pool yelling, “Please walk” versus “Don’t run!” Instead of “Don’t play with your sister’s toys,” I would say, “Play with your toys, please.” Can you hear the difference in the request? One sounds demeaning, while the other method sounds encouraging.

When someone feels overwhelmed and drones on and on about his or her frustrations, stop the person and say, “Tell me what you want” or ask, “What do you want to see happen in this situation?” This phraseology forces the person to focus on an outcome that would make him or her feel happier or more satisfied. Then you can help make things happen.

Begin telling people what you do want, rather than what you don’t, and start seeing more of it today!


Author: A former admin, Colette Carlson is a motivational speaker who specializes in assertive communication and is founder of

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