Continuing my series on simple but effective communications phrases, I offer another empowering and mutually respectful line to you: “I won’t be able to do that.”  This simple phrase is useful whenever you need to “excuse” yourself from a request. Let’s take a closer look at it by using an example.

The Setting

Imagine this scenario: a friend asks for help with a weekend project or wants to drop in on you. This presents an awkward dilemma for you, either because you feel pressured to say yes, already have plans, or you’re not really interested.

I used these same situations and suggested the simple phrase “I’ll get back to you” as way to ease the pressure to say “yes” and slow down time to think things over before giving the friend your answer. Well here is a way to say “no” in this situation or in most any other setting. The phrase is, “I won’t be able to do that.”

Simple yet Effective

“I won’t be able to do that,” is very gracious phase to say “no” to most requests. It can be used immediately or after a quiet review of your schedule, and it is gives a direct and softly implied “no” to a family member, friend, colleague or solicitors’ request.

But another feature of the line, “I won’t be able to do that,” is this: it is intentionally vague as to the reasons why you did not say “yes.” By offering no reasons and by not asking their permission, you are gently and tactfully saying “no” to their request.

Explaining Is Optional but May Be Fair

A reasonable explanation for saying “no” may be the right and courteous thing to do.  If so, it is okay to give the other person insight into your previous plans or personal preferences. But do this in a general or informative way, not as an opening to discuss or even debate the merits of your choices.

Asking for Acceptance, Not Understanding

Another implied feature of the phrase, “I won’t be able to do that,” is that you are asking for the other person to accept and respect your decision, not extend the matter into a conversation about your decision.  This unintentionally places the other person in the position of evaluator and judge over your time and priorities. By asking them to respect your decision, both of you are free to accept the importance of your preferences without further debate or veto power by them.

Respectful Boundaries for All

Finally, using the line, “I won’t be able to do that,” is about setting boundaries around your life. The very nature of the request implies a respect of your boundaries; otherwise they would have imposed their expectation on you disrespectfully. So in a very fair way, based on their consideration of your rights in asking the initial question, you are returning the kindness by answering the question with a “yes” or “no.”

Modify this Phrase as Needed

A variation of this simple line can be used in settings where you do not want to explain or justify your position or beliefs to another person, no matter how strong or sincere they may be. Here are some examples:

“Why do you belong to that political party (organization, church, club, etc.)?”

“Anyone who believes or does that is stupid (crazy, ungodly, un-American, etc.)?”

“I can’t believe you bought that (are friends with them, go there, drive, etc.)?”

In response to their question or accusations, you can modify the phrase with some of the non-debating and non-defensive words.

“I like them or that (car, group, club, church, etc.).”

“It’s what I like and believe.”

“You can think or feel the way you do. I can respect that. But I feel differently.”

“I feel ok with my decision about that boat (hobby, purchase, investment, etc.)”

Try this Line

In the future, use this line as yours. Say the words, “I won’t be able to do that,” in any and all situations others make requests of you. For example:

“Why don’t you dropped what you are doing and come over?”

“You don’t want to be his friend or go there?”

“Why don’t you quit that job?”

“Why don’t you go out with us?  Your family will be ok?”

“Why don’t you join my committee (softball team, band, church, etc.)?”

“Would you give me a $1000 loan?”

“Will you lie for me?”

“Can I borrow your car (expensive tools, dishes, boat, cabin, etc.)?”

“If you love (or care for) me, you would do this for me!”

In each setting the words, “I won’t be able to do that,” work well. The line offers a clear and soft “no,” recognizing each person’s boundaries, preferences, values, and dignity. Through an honest answer of “yes” or “no” to their rightful and reasonable question or request, you are respectfully responding in a rightful and reasonable way in return. So, whether in these or similar words, you are saying, “Thank-you for asking me this so kindly, but “no, “I won’t be able to agree to that.”

I hope this phrase is helpful.

Call or email me, Douglas Frey Ph.D. (952-920-2789) for help with your relationships and relationship problems. I am a licensed Christian counselor serving individuals and families in in Eden Prairie and nearby Chanhassen, Chaska, Shakopee, Minneapolis and other Twin Cities Western Suburbs.