Can vs How Can

Most Saturday mornings I lie in bed listening to Krista Tippett’s radio show, On Being. These mornings usually involve me drifting in and out of sleep, so I have the luxury of grasping small bits of the show and working them through in my own mind. One of those Saturdays, I heard an interview with a social psychologist, Ellen Langer. My mind heard and held, “can verses how can.” You have the link to the actual show in this article, so you can draw your own conclusions, but here are mine for you to ponder.


My mother taught me that “can,” speaks to ability, not permission. “Can I go to the park?” is very different from “May I go to the park?”

Can vs How CanWhen I go deeper than basic grammar, I realize can is usually answered with a single word. One word can be powerful, but what about situations involving metaphoric false positives (or negatives)? Sometimes yes or no comes too easily. Sometimes it comes from habit, tradition, past experiences, or fear. We’re not asking permission, we are trying to attain some perceived truth. Once we receive the answer, most of us stop asking the question. That can leave us stuck.

How Can

Adding the word how introduces process, troubleshooting, and possibilities. When we ask how something can happen, we force ourselves to examine the parts of the issue at hand. “How can I go to the park?” invites us to consider transportation, available time, wardrobe… We break down a simple situation into its component parts. This process introduces alternatives. “I don’t have enough time to walk to the park, but riding my bike will get me there faster.” How invites us to look again, to see the small options that could make or break a project. How gives us the chance to evolve with our environment.

Scientific research is full of how can. How can is the driving force in health care, automotive design, marketing, technology, and entrepreneurship. How can has the power to replace what no longer works with what does. Of course, we sometimes come back to the same yes or no, but we have a deeper understanding of why. Try an experiment. If you find yourself, your team, or your company asking the same questions, ask the deeper how question. Ask, “How can we find a younger audience?” Ask, “How can we avoid laying off employees?” Ask yourself, “How can I make this dream of mine into reality?” Go a little deeper, break down what seems simple. You might change your false negative into a positive.

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