There’s No Such Thing As Can’t

Recently, a well-known motivational speaker was asked in The Irish Examiner newspaper what his pet hate was.

His answer was. ‘People who say they can’t. There’s no such thing as can’t.’ I’m sure many people admired his upbeat attitude. I felt alienated by it.

As a writer, I know that human beings are far too rich and complex to be labelled in terms of can and can’t. It seems to me that many motivational speakers on the circuit are missing one vital point. In order to motivate people, you need to figure out where they’re coming from. You need to find out why they feel they can’t and convince them that they can.

Why do people feel they can’t?

There are many powerful reasons, including:

  • A discouraging family environment. Parents, family and friends may have made people feel that they can’t, whether intentional or otherwise.
  • Illness or disabilities. People with disabilities are often made to feel that they can’t. People may also have latent depression, which saps confidence.
  • Disappointments and setbacks. If people often encounter obstacles to success despite their best efforts, they may not have the heart to try again.

If you’re a confident, chest-thumping leadership type, you may have little impatience for excuses. And that’s as it should be. Figuring out why people can’t doesn’t mean condoning bad behaviour. But if you have responsibility for a group of people, whether you’re an employer, a teacher or President of a voluntary organisation, it’s worth investing time to figure out why people feel they can’t. It’ll pay dividends for you, for them and for the organisation.

Instead, you can try a few simple tactics for turning can’t into can.

  • Find out why people feel they can’t. If people know that you understand where they’re coming from and that you have compassion for them, they’ll open up and it will be easier for you to help them.
  • Show them that they can. Share with them what you think their strengths are. Nobody is immune to a bit of flattery and it gives people confidence.
  • Give them strategies to move forward. If they’re having difficulty completing tasks, give them the resources they need, whether that’s mentoring, help from another staff member or literature to read up on.

It may seem like a lot of hassle, but if you take the time to turn can’t into can, you’ll build better relationships with the people around you.

A version of this post was originally published on



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