People are constantly shoulding themselves. As I go through my life and coach more and more clients, I’ve become hyper-aware of the constant self-harm via “should.” You should do this, you should not do that. The use of should has become so ingrained in our everyday language that most of us don’t realize how often we use it and we definitely don’t see the effect it has on the people with whom we are communicating. Shoulds are not only confusing and convoluting messages to your kids, in a business context, they are a way to not actually address what you should or should not do. Stop the madness.
Why is "Shoulding" a problem?
Shoulding is the number one thing about parenting I would stop because of how I see it affecting my children. Let me tell you a story about a recent report card incident. My youngest daughter has been on honor roll all throughout middle school. Which, in all honesty, is more important to her than it is to me. 7th grade is hard, there is an advancement in the difficulty of the homework and tests. This caught my youngest off guard and she started bringing home progress reports that were a clear indication that she needed help. So, I got more involved. I asked her if she needed tutoring, we talked openly about her classes, and discussed what she needed to excel. Though she refused the tutor, I saw her more on top of her work. Alas, the grades came in last quarter and she barely made the honor roll. As this is something that she really prides herself on, she was already fairly upset at herself and her grades. However, in my parental mind, this could have been easily avoided if she had accepted the tutoring I had offered. So, in my infinite parenting wisdom, I said to her, “You should’ve taken the tutor when I offered it.” She proceeded to cry a giant hailstorm of tears on the way home and conversation ceased to exist. She shut down; I felt awful. I wanted to take my question back. I shut her down with my should.
If you’re thinking, “Well, good thing I don’t have kids.” Hold your horses. Shoulding has a detrimental effect in the work environment as well. I had a client tell me about a disappointing result of a long-term project. It all started out great. They did everything right and had very clear project objectives, but one of the team members went off the rails and took shortcuts. She didn’t tell anyone about the decision she had made and this attempt to streamline the project turned into a major issue that the heads of the company had to fix. After the problem had been successfully resolved, the leader made his rounds. When he circled around with the person, he told her, “You should’ve come to me before taking the shortcut.” When that’s the first thing out of your mouth when the person already knows she has screwed up, she automatically goes on the defense. Her ability to hear your wisdom is shut down and she goes into defensive mode. She knows she’s screwed up and the first thing she hears is probably what she heard in her childhood. It belittles her. It forces her into a corner where the only option is fight or flight. In this case, the person was brought before the senior team, and after they shoulded on her left and right, she chose to apologize, accept the mistake, and assure them that it wouldn’t happen again. She then tried to leave the meeting. She tried to flee. Before she could leave, a senior person said, “You shouldn’t leave this room right now because we are not done.” To her credit, she did come back but pointed out to the senior team that she had already apologized and accepted responsibility. What else was there to do? This is where the executive team slowed themselves down and slowly unpacked why the project went off the rails, how it was fixed, and how to work together to move forward. They set up a process and system for the future. The executives’ wherewithal to call the employee back to ensure a productive end and the employee’s courage to return to the Room of Should ensured a positive outcome from a bad start. This, however, is not always the case and many times the conversation ends without a positive or productive end.
What can you do?
Shoulding yourself is right up there with burying yourself in guilt. It does more harm than good. It is a way to keep the conversation from addressing the real issue at hand. I see it in myself and in the executives I coach every day. So, to illustrate our dependence on should, I have developed an antidote of sorts. I have people write the word "should" on post-it notes and surround themselves with it. I tell them to put the word on their laptop, in their wallet, on their bathroom mirror, everywhere, so that they become hyper-aware of the concept of should. I had one client count how often he used the word; 732 times in one week. While that number is mind-blowing it is not surprising. People, leaders especially, also use should as a way to soften their speech. It keeps them from sounding too commanding or dictating. “You should do it this way,” and “you should have come to me,” are soft and short ways to say, “Here’s how you do it and here’s why” and “I have been doing this for years and am here to help. Why didn’t you come to me?” The softness that comes from should distorts clarity and focus by leaving an open-ended statement that is more of a slap on the wrist, and I would argue more insulting, than clear communication that aims to understand the root of the problem and solve it. Stop shoulding yourself and others around you and pledge yourself to clear and concise communication.