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This article was originally published by AlleyWatch
By Dr Amantha Imber
Have you ever tried to change your behaviour? Of course, you have. Every day, millions of people worldwide try to eat less junk food, try to stick to an exercise regime, try to check Facebook less often, and so on.
And at work, chances are you know someone whose company is undergoing a “transformation” or a “change program”. It often feels like change is the only constant.
But change can be hard. And when we recognize a need to change something, whether that be our own behaviour or the behaviour with our workplace, it can sometimes seem like an insurmountable challenge.
We assume that to create a big change, we need a big complex solution.
But what psychologists have demonstrated is that big changes can actually be made by making small adjustments to our behaviour. And in fact, there are three magic words that can help us create huge change.
Can’t versus Don’t
Marketing Professor Vanessa Patrick investigated the impact of the word “can’t” versus swapping the first two letters for “d” and “o”. She suspected that the way we talk to ourselves and others actually impacts our ability to say no to temptation. And let’s face it, temptations are a big reason behind why changing behaviour is so hard. It’s just so tempting to do things as we have always done them.
In one of Patrick’s experiments, 120 university students were recruited and asked about how relevant setting goals around healthy eating was to them. Participants were then taught about a strategy for managing unhealthy food temptations. One group was taught to say, “I can’t eat X,” whenever presented with an unhealthy snack. The other group was taught to say, “I don’t eat X”.
Participants were then asked to turn their attention to a completely different (and irrelevant) task, but then when they got up to leave the room, the crux of the experiment happened: they were offered a choice of two snacks – one was a chocolate bar, and the other was a healthy granola bar. The experimenters quietly noted which participants picked which bar.
It turns out there was a big difference between the strategy people were taught and the bar they picked. Thirty-nine per cent of those who were taught to say “I can’t eat X” when presented with a temptation chose the healthy granola bar. In contrast, 64% of those in the “I don’t eat X” group picked the granola bar.
In other words, changing one simple word increased the chance of selecting a healthy snack by over 50%.
When the researchers delved deeper into this very significant effect, the reason they uncovered for the huge shift in behaviour was that those in the “I don’t” group felt more empowered to say no. Saying you don’t do something sounds like you are the one in control of your choices, whereas saying you can’t do something sounds like someone else is calling the shots.

Saying you don’t do something sounds like you are the one in control of your choices, whereas saying you can’t do something sounds like someone else is calling the shots.

So if you are trying to break a habit or change something about your own behaviour, use the word “don’t” to improve your chances of a successful change by 50%.
The importance of ‘because’
In 1978, social psychologist Ellen Langer from Harvard University led a study in which participants had to ask to jump to the front of the line to use a photocopying machine.
One group of participants were asked to say “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” Langer found that this worked 60% of the time and these participants were able to jump straight to the head of the line.
A second group were asked to make the same request but to add the words “because I’m in a rush” to the end of their request. This addition increased the success rate by over 50%. Ninety-four per cent of the time, these people jumped to the front of the line. And all because they gave a reason.
So if you are trying to change other people’s behaviour, always use the word “because” to prompt you to provide a reason. For example, if you are trying to reduce the time you spend in your inbox, you might say to your boss, “I’m out of my inbox for a couple of hours today because I am trying to get some deep, focused work done”.
Are you willing to change your mind?
Professor Elizabeth Stokoe from Loughborough University has spent thousands of hours in her career reading transcripts of conversations to understand how to be more persuasive.
Her research uncovered a magic word that when used, makes people significantly more likely to say yes to what is being asked of them.
When people were asked whether they were interested in an activity, such as making a presentation on a certain topic, they might answer yes or no. But if the question was phrased “are you willing to make a presentation on X”, people were more likely to say yes. Stokoe also said that “willing” is the best word to use when you are trying to turn a ‘no’ into a ‘yes’.
So if you are trying to change someone’s behavior when they at first might be hesitant, change your language and ask them if they would be willing to try. You’ll be far more likely to turn the no into a yes.