I have a word that I’m trying to use much less (with myself and others). Doing so has been really, really hard. It’s a theoretically innocuous word, really. Six letters, one syllable, slips into conversation with remarkable ease… and leaves endless devastation, insecurity, hostility, and resentment in its wake.
It is a word favoured by tyrants, micromanagers, busy-bodies, critics and the internally insecure alike.
That word would be “should.”
I went through an interesting exercise the other day exploring how we use (and abuse) this most interesting of words. I was assisting in the delivery of a workshop for two days, which gave me a unique opportunity to observe both participants and the instructor over an extended period. And so (knowing that this column was rattling around the inner recesses of my brain) I started to pay attention to how often it was used, and in what context.
I didn’t intend to do this, mind you. It started by listening to an exchange between two participants, describing a situation that happened the previous day. The person they were speaking to immediately responded to the circumstances with a sentence that began, “Well, the next time that happens, you should…” And so we were off.
Most astonishing was the sheer number of times and the ways the word was used. Contexts ranged from the deliberately controlling to the theoretically innocent and innocuous. There were participant questions: “When [x] happens, what should I do?” There were instructor guidelines: “When doing this exercise, you should (or should avoid)…” There were feedback discussions between participants: “You really should have done…” And there were side conversations about work where “should” rose to the table far more often than it, well, should have.
So what, exactly, is the problem with should? And why shouldn’t we use it? I’m so glad you asked.
When we use should, we are being implicitly (and often explicitly) critical, judgemental and controlling. That’s true whether our intended audience is ourselves, or someone else. It is usually a result of elevated expectations, which are typically (at minimum) not met, and are more frequently unattainable or at the very least unsustainable. Telling someone they should do something (whether that’s what they should wear, how they should act, what they should feel or what they should work on next) is in some way criticizing their current failure to do it.
This is also shifting the focus of power from the person on the receiving end of should, to the person uttering it. This is where—and how—micromanagement most often emerges. The most effective management strategies are those that define a desired outcome, and provide both freedom of approach and trust in the talents of the individual to get there. Should overrides that completely. Should is where we get specific, prescriptive and demanding. It’s not an approach that people usually appreciate, even when it’s coming from people that we respect and are actively seeking guidance from.
The last situation is an interesting one. For anyone that values self improvement and the opportunity to grow, feedback—particularly feedback from people that we respect and trust—is something that we eagerly seek. How we seek that is fascinating in and of itself. We will often ask: “What did you think? Is there anything I should do differently? Is there anything I can improve?” These questions are all focussed on, and inviting, criticism about what didn’t work.
An entirely different focus—and what really amazing mentors and managers often embody—is on what went right. This leverages not just the language but also the principles of appreciative inquiry. Appreciative inquiry builds on the work of David Cooperrider and others, and approaches change by identifying and building on strengths. It consciously focusses on what is working, and how to continue to leverage those strengths into the future.
What appreciative inquiry suggests is the value of focussing not on what should happen that is different, but what is already happening that is working. In other words, what are the actions that are already being effective, and how can those be reinforced? What are the positive approaches and behaviours, and how can we sustain them? What are the things that we should simply keep on doing?
For anyone that has earned a knew skill, it’s far easier to build on the things that we know and can do rather than correcting for the things that we don’t know or can’t do. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we should never examine, explore or talk about what isn’t working. It is, though, to say that we should be a little bit more cautious and a little less judgemental when we do.
Speaking personally, I have a complex relationship with what I’ll euphemistically describe as constructive feedback. That might be an editor providing feedback on a document I’ve written, a trainer evaluating my form when performing an exercise or a participant providing feedback on a workshop I’ve delivered. Without question, I want to continue to improve at what I do. At the same time, I can be famously prickly when it comes to receiving criticism.
Most of us don’t really respond well when we receive feedback. A presenter giving a speech might receive 58 glowing evaluations and one scathing one. The one that they remember is the one that didn’t like them. Often as not, they will be able to repeat the criticisms verbatim, even if they would struggle to directly quote any of the positive responses. The problem here is not with the criticism itself; it might, in reality, be quite objectively reasonable and valid. And yet, the emotional response to that message is first off disproportionate (we give it a lot more weight than the far larger number of positive evaluations) and negative (we feel hurt and resentful, not welcoming and appreciative).
If we’re going to receive constructive feedback (and yes, we absolutely need to) that means first off, we need to be receptive to it. For me, that means there is a place and a time that I’m willing and able to receive, to process and to positively reflect on what could be improved. That also means that there are instances when feedback is going to at best be a distraction.
Should rides roughshod over the idea of being receptive to feedback. It elbows its way in the door and offers its opinion, whether we like it or not. And for all our willingness to learn and improve, chances are very good in the moment that we’re not going to like it.
How we process information and communicate with ourselves is often no better. Our internal dialogue is frequently fraught with shoulds. We should work out more. We should eat more healthily. We should get back to work. We should read more. We should watch less TV. We should call our parents more often. We should spend more time with our family. The narrative is on-going, endless and exhausting.
A German psychoanalyst named Karen Horney had a phrase for this: “the tyranny of the shoulds.” The essence of this tyranny was the fact that we have an idealized view of ourselves, and we also have a realistic view of our actual behaviour. Any time there is a disconnect between our real us and our ideal us, our inner critic comes out.
To a certain extent, this is a form of magical thinking. If we would only just do what our brain tells us we should do, things would be different. We would be happier. We would be healthier. We would be more successful. The tyranny of shoulds is a litany of actions and self-improvements that we consciously or unconsciously think is going to magically bring us to our desired future.
A fundamental challenge of our over reliance on the term “should” is that there is little room for ownership or agency. That is true whether we tell it to ourself, or we state it to someone else. When we tell someone else what we should do, we are simply dropping it in their lap. When we do it to ourselves, we are implying a controlling influence outside of ourselves.
So how do we tone down our reliance on the use of the word “should?” What could we do instead? Part of this is simply being aware of how often we use—or are tempted to use—the word. As with so many exercises in improvement, self-awareness is enormously helpful. Then we can think about reframing when, and how, we provide feedback. That can—and possibly should—start with checking in on whether feedback is even sought. A phrase that the instructor in this week’s workshop used that I was incredibly appreciative of was, “Is this a listening conversation, or is this a problem solving conversation?” Sometimes, people just want a sympathetic ear to listen.
When feedback is sought or allowed for, start with what worked. Focus on the positive. Use the principles and the language of appreciative inquiry. Try to use phrases that start with “What I most liked…” or “What I enjoyed…” or “What I thought was perfectly effective was…” And then stop. Wait. Let them process the positives. Check for whether someone is receptive for what you think they could do better before they offer it. And by all means share your thoughts about could be improved, and be candid about it; just be sure they are at a point where that feedback is welcomed and valued. And even then, recognize that your perspective is your perspective. Perhaps offer the feedback as “I would…” rather than “You should…”
As for ourselves, that is a much harder challenge to confront. The tyranny of shoulds of our internal monologue often seems like an endless train of imperatives and improvement opportunities. Getting in front of that train and stopping it takes some work. Even changing directions can be challenging.
Part of it is a problem of diagnosis. Our inner train of shoulds come from many sources. Some of those internal demands are a product of how we were raised; the shoulds we hear may be the voices of parents and teachers. They may be a product of what we think is reasonable, or appropriate, or acceptable, based upon feedback from colleagues, friends, partners, family or other “well meaning” individuals. And some of the shoulds may genuinely be a product of our internal wants and needs.
It’s getting at the last ones that is important. Once again, it’s a language problem. We can reframe “I should…” as “I want…” or “I choose…” That simple adjustment in vocabulary also leads to a significant shift in power and agency. We aren’t responding to external forces and expectations; we are actively making and framing choices for ourselves. If we can say it and believe it, then it’s something we can deliberately and consciously choose to take action on.
And if reframing something as “I want…” or “I choose…” doesn’t resonate, then perhaps its not something we value, care about or choose to take on. In which case, it might just be something that we need to be dropping from the endless tyranny of expectations that our brain is helpfully offering us.
We have a choice in how we engage with others, and in how we treat ourselves. Surrendering to the tyranny of shoulds is remaining mired in criticism, judgement and feedback. Finding ways to connect that are constructive, positive and meaningful is a far more effective strategy.
We should really stop using “should.”