Distinguishing Can’t from Won’t


by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
In support of the ADD Coaching Skills Series

A fundamental concept underlying the manner in which I coach individuals with attentional spectrum deficits is a result of the distinction between “can’t” and “won’t.”

Distinguishing articulates the differences between words as they apply functionally

When we distinguish one word from another, we bring to conscious awareness the reality that, while the denotation of two words – the surface, dictionary meaning – might be effectively equivalent, the connotations are quite different.

Connotation – subtext and common usage within sub-groups – always rides along with the denotative (dictionary) meaning of a word, whether or not we intend the emotional “spin,” or whether or not we are aware of it consciously.

A Distinction, as it applies to the coaching relationship,  is a psycho-spiritual subtlety of language, used consciously for the express purpose of facilitating psychological and spiritual growth.

Distinguishing hones functioning as well as thinking.

  • It sharpens listening, language and coaching skills.
  • It helps to form vital neurological connections, ” brain-links” in a way that expands your knowledge base exponentially — rather than in the linear fashion in which we are accustomed to learning.
  • It’s a brain-game that helps build positive-minded neural-net — weakening the bonds of “old tapes” so that we can shape new futures.

My goal, whenever I select a distinction and let my brain loose to blog about it, is “to seed a shift in come-from” — to illuminate cherished opinions and unconscious habits of thought, hoping to inspire a reframing of underlying assumptions. 

Can’t vs. Won’t

I want to shine a light on the necessity of accepting the behavioral characteristics of ADD/EFDers as part of the ADD/EFD diagnosis.  

For far too long, neurological ADD/EFD challenges have been assigned to the provinces of behavior or psycho-analysis. The distinction between can’t and won’t lies totally within the province of volition.

Accepting the idea that a person could sincerely try and fail due to dynamics completely divorced from underlying psychological conflicts is fundamental: as long as we look for blocks or conflicts, our view of behavior is indelibly skewed in a way that predisposes us to find them.

Remember – links on this site are dark grey to reduce distraction potential
while you’re reading. They turn red on mouseover.

Loosening the Ties that Bind

The mistaken idea that attention is always within the province of will underlies much of the frustration and shame so familiar to anyone with Executive Functioning Disorders (of which ADD is only one).

It has become part of the problem for a population that
is already beleaguered with problems.

Only when one accepts the idea that an ADD/EFDer has much more difficulty than a non-ADDer with what I refer to as “intentional attending,” are we able to come up with strategies to positively impact the dynamic and shift the balance from struggle to accomplishment.

Thanks to Kozzi

Nobody accuses a blind man of an unconscious attempt to avoid seeing, except perhaps in the most metaphysical sense.

Most of us also accept the assertion that,  within a certain range of distance from the eye, a near-sighted person has difficulty viewing objects sharply — in a manner that can be compensated for by prescription lenses.

Most of us would find it absurd to suggest that a course or two of talk-therapy (or better discipline at home) would mitigate what we collectively agree is a physical anomaly, especially now that we have “proof” obtained by instruments that can measure the “distortion” of an eye.

Yet long before we could demonstrate exactly how vision could be “corrected” with the use of specially ground lenses, we solicited and believed self reports.  “Tell me when you can read the third line from the bottom.”

While it would be impossible for me to read a line too fuzzy to determine, I certainly could claim to be unable to read one that was totally clear.

  • Maybe I just like the way I look in glasses, or
  • Crave continued attention from my ophthalmologist.
  • Maybe I’m looking for a convenient excuse to buy strappy-sandals instead of books!

Utter nonsense, right?

So explain THIS, if you can

How come so many people are unwilling to believe that some of us experience chronic troubles with distractibility.

Difficulties sustaining focus on our objectives is an ADD/EFD challenge reported by almost every single one of the hundreds and hundreds of ADD/EFDers I have spoken with. It has absolutely NOTHING to do with whether or not they are “motivated” toward accomplishment.

Why is that so difficult to believe?

Is it, perhaps, because our detractors don’t want to admit any evidence that might make them question their stand that ADD/EFD is a bogus diagnosis?

It’s bad enough that the public at large wants to ring in negatively, how come we still have psychologists and educators, for heaven’s sakes, who doubt that ADD/ADHD/EFD exists?

They hold fast to their cherished opinions and spew them forth as if they were facts

  • Even with instruments that can capture functional pictures of working brains;
  • Even though those instruments have demonstrated increased blood flow, for example, in the pre-frontal cortex of “vanilla” individuals when asked to accomplish tasks that result in decreased blood flow in those with ADD-flavored brains.

Confirmation bias?
Meaningless data?
Doesn’t matter?

The earth is flat because we took a vote and that’s how it came out?

They have managed to attract a great deal of attention from the popular press, those refuse-to-do-the-research nay-sayers, who publicize their opinions with all the zeal of town criers in days of yore —  with not so much as a mention of the hundreds and hundreds of scientific findings whatsoever.

How come?

Why are we so ready, as a country, as a world, to believe that self-report from those who “claim” to have ADD/EFD only serves to protect a spirit ultimately unwilling, for some crazy reason, to do what is necessary to be able to concentrate at will?

The idea that rigorous parental discipline will result in a child who “pays attention to what is important in life!” presupposes that the child “misbehaves” deliberately.

What’s up with THAT idea?

A kinder view is that there is some benefit the child derives from “acting out.”  Perhaps negative interaction is preferable to being ignored.  Perhaps a sense of personal power comes from disrupting a dynamic the child had no input in creating.  Perhaps  the goal is to create a diversion intended to mask a lack of intellectual prowess.

  • Yet when little Johnny can suddenly sit still and focus with the aid of medication, we are “drugging him into compliance for our own convenience.”
  • When his menopausal mother asks for an increase in her dosage of this same medication she is “demonstrating signs of habituation to these ‘addictive’ drugs,” despite her self-report that she frequently has trouble remembering to take them.

Why are so many people so reticent to believe the repeated reports that, try as they will, some people “can’t” stay on task?  How come they want to substitute “won’t,”  even in those cases where intervention after intervention has proven ineffective?

The underlying premise is one that makes my skin crawl – that the observations and beliefs of another are somehow more “valid” than the experience of the person under observation.  (Unless, of course, they are promoting the idea that people who “claim” to have ADD or EFD as well as those who have spent entire careers researching them are lying.)

How arrogant!

HOW obnoxious!

HOW likely to leave us chasing our tails in our efforts toward effective change.


As always, if you want notification of new articles in the ADD Coaching Skills Series – or any new posts on this blog – give your email address to the nice form on the top of the skinny column to the right. (You only have to do this once, so if you’ve already asked for notification about a prior series, you’re covered for this one too). STRICT No Spam Policy

IN ANY CASE, stay tuned.
There’s a lot to know, a lot here already, and a lot more to come – in this Series and in others.
Get it here while it’s still free for the taking.

Want to work directly with me? If you’d like some one-on-one (couples or group) coaching help with anything that came up while you were reading this Series, click HERE for Brain-based Coaching with mgh, with a contact form at its end, or click the E-me link on the menubar at the top of every page. Fill out the form, submit, and an email SOS is on its way to me; we’ll schedule a call to talk about what you need. I’ll get back to you ASAP (accent on the “P”ossible!)

Related articles right here on ADDandSoMuchMore.com
(in case you missed them above)

Related articles ’round the ‘net

BY THE WAY: Since ADDandSoMuchMore.com is an Evergreen site, I revisit all my content periodically to update links — when you link back, like, follow or comment, you STAY on the page. When you do not, you run a high risk of getting replaced by a site with a more generous come-from.

About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

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