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The Hidden Problem with “No Problem”

March '14

Is the phrase “no problem” cropping up more frequently in your life? When you reach for your order at the counter of your local coffee shop and say “thank you” to the barista, does she reply, “no problem”. Or does the phone tech who helps you resolve a computer problem respond with the same, “no problem, when you thank him at the end of the call?

The meaning of this phrase was readily apparent when I first heard it – “It is no problem for me to have helped you and you are welcome.” But it left me feeling mildly disconcerted and I wondered why.

I found the answer to my puzzled reaction in one of those musing-in-the-shower moments when I remembered a concept introduced in an NLP training program I attended years ago. There I learned that the human brain cannot process negative responses, or more plainly doesn’t hear ‘no’ and ‘don’t.’ The brain simply records what it can see, hear or feel, and ignores sensory-deprived words like ‘don’t’ and ‘no.’

According to this theory, when you use ‘don’t’ or ‘no’, you signal your unconscious mind to go ahead with whatever follows that word. One example used to explain this phenomenon is the proverbial,  “don’t think about a pink elephant.” Most folks will conjure up a pink elephant on hearing this injunction.

On my first encounter with this theory, I related it to my own experience of navigating active toddlers through a grocery store when my “don’t touch please” requests rarely worked. Little did I know I was actually signaling my boys to grab the packages on the shelves. The theory also explained why my “hands in your pockets please” comment proved to be more fruitful.

Recently, it helped me understand my confusion on hearing “no problem” in response to my “thank you’s”. My unconscious mind actually was hearing “problem,” or more formally, it was a problem for me to have helped you.”

How about you? Did you find “no problem” a bit puzzling when you first heard it? And more importantly, can you find ways this theory could improve your days? Do you tell yourself, “I should not eat this,” as you bite into a candy bar? Or silently pound your desk moaning, “I dont want this job any more.” 

You can turn those negative expressions into positive statements. Instead of the unconsciously self-sabotaging, “I don’t want this job any more,” simply pound away with, “I want a job where I’m happy at my desk.”

If you experiment with this approach, I’d love to hear about your experiences. How are you using, ‘don’t’, or ‘no’, or ‘not’ ineffectively? How might you change these expressions? Why not give it a try?





  1. Cherie said on March 31, 2014:

    I like using the phrase “my pleasure” when responding to someone’s acknowledgement of my assistance. I get lots of smiles and second glances.

  2. Bonnie said on March 31, 2014:

    Hi Cherie!
    What a wonderful way to respond to acknowledgement for work well done! I can see why you get lots of smiles and second glances.
    Such a happy, clear message to others,

  3. Lucy Kluckhohn Jones said on April 1, 2014:

    Hi Bonnie,

    Love this month’s contribution. You are so right. This makes me think of a lecture that was given at my college quite a while ago (1990s).

    Students from the nearby middle school were invited, and they were overfull of adolescent energy. I have to admit I did holler, but what I hollered was “Walk!!!” instead of “don’t run,” which is what I was thinking. To my surprise, the tide slowed, and the students, surprised, actually walked to their seats.

  4. Bonnie said on April 1, 2014:

    Hi Lucy!
    What a perfect example of this theory!
    Great to hear from you,

  5. Margaret said on April 15, 2014:

    Great post, Bonnie. Now I understand why my English teachers drummed into me to “avoid using negatives.” Using positive expressions gives writing so much more traction.

  6. Bonnie said on May 3, 2014:

    Hi Margaret!
    Great comment! thanks for sharing,

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