• “You should do it like this”
  • “I shouldn’t have been so stupid”
  • “We should ___ shouldn’t we?”
  • “Don’t you feel like you should ____?”

Should is a word that carries a heavy load of presumption with it. Saying or thinking ‘should’, even and especially when it’s how an idea is being framed, usually implies an objective right & wrong. Blame, a clear antithesis of empathy, masquerades behind the word frequently.

Why is this so counterproductive? ‘Should’ statements point outward at the world, expecting it to change, relinquishing our responsibilities to others. When we ‘should on ourselves’, we lose the perspective of opportunity, choice, and growth that presents itself to us in any given situation. ‘Shoulding’ disarms our Creative Brain and habituates our Reactive Brain. (To Me vs. By Me)

Let’s look at a few examples and explore their alternatives:

Should Statement
“I should do my homework now.”
“I want to,” or “I am going to do homework now.”
“You should think about what you’ve done.”
“What kind of consideration have you given to your actions here?”
“We should go to the Thai restaurant”
“I prefer the Thai restaurant.”

Can you hear the difference? The statements on the left sound like commands. The ‘should’ statements resonate with a sense of “I/you/we/they need to do this thing/think that way or else they are wrong.” They seem to imply that there is no choice in the matter, when in fact there is choice in every situation.

We write about ‘should’ statements, together with Foe Feelings, in our section on Forgiveness. This explores further into how guilt can be implied with the word should. When we say “I feel manipulated,” we come across as saying “You should stop manipulating me.” Manipulated, a foe/faux feeling carries an implied should.

“Musterbation” is a term coined by famed psychologist Albert Ellis to describe the phenomenon whereby people live by a set of absolute and unrealistic demands that they place on themselves, others and the world. For most of us, these rules come out in a series of should statements that we repeat to ourselves over and over again. These “should” and “shouldn’t” statements leave us feeling bad about ourselves because they set up standards that we cannot realistically meet. They also leave us feeling frustrated and hurt by others when they inevitably fail to fulfill our expectations. Recognizing this habit to set rules for yourself, others and the world gives you the opportunity to relieve some of the stress these messages cause. When dealing with “should” statements, it is important to keep in mind that while it may be nice to reach your goals and be treated the way you want all the time, we are human and live in an imperfect world.
The pressure to be something all the time is more likely to cause harm than good.

Implied Shoulds

You don’t need the word ‘should’ to ‘should on somebody’ or yourself.

The implied right and wrong, guilt / blame, and judgment that the word ‘should’ can carry can come hitchhike on other statements too. Some words are different, but often say the same thing: Would, Could, Need to, Wish, Ought, Supposed To, Want, Gotta, and Probably.
See if you can spot the ‘shoulds’ being implied in the following statements:

  • We’re meant to be doing this right now.
  • Come on, we’re all doing it.
  • Lighten up!

‘We should do this’, ‘You should too’, ‘You should take this less seriously’, respectively.

The important thing is to catch when we are expressing a judgment, without intention/action. Too often, we speak from a position that uses regret, guilt, obligation, shame, or distain to distance a perceived threat “to me”. If the phrase is used to point out a “wrong” in others or yourself, then it is a negative judgment.

Bonus: Examples of Implied ‘Should Statements

“If you just didn’t do the painting today, you could go on a hike with me.”
You shouldn’t paint today
“You’re going for the mini-Cooper because you like the style and gas mileage, eh?  You know the Prius gets twice the miles per gallon.
You should buy a Prius
“Oh geez, look at that guy with the teepee tattooed on his arm!  He’s a white, yuppie guy with no business trying to invoke native spirituality.”
He shouldn’t have a tattoo of a teepee on his arm.
“You don’t want to ________, do you?”  (do that, work there, talk to her, etc.)
You shouldn’t do that
“What?  Oh my god, I can’t believe you said that to me!?”  (wanted me to do x)
You shouldn’t say that to me
“Why would you say such a thing?”
You shouldn’t say that
“You know I want you to . . . (do the dishes, be this way, just do it my way, etc.”
You should be/do . . .
“You’re a ________, huh, really?”  (intent is that you don’t approve / like that)
You shouldn’t be . . .

Intentional Should

As you start removing the “should family” from your vocabulary, see how your intentions and actions change. Make a specific, positive choice of your own free will that includes intentions/plans with traction.

Should has plenty of innocuous uses, and is a valuable word to keep in one’s lexicon. Using should as a guess at the future, without referencing people, is harmless, but substitute “expect” for should to train your mind initially. If you can substitute “shall” for should, it is likely a genuine question without judgment or negativity. “Need” instead of should can be used in instructional situations without judgment or negativity, but otherwise it likely carries a negative judgment. Rarely, “oops” can be substituted for should without implying judgment, but it is a razor’s line to walk:
“That should (I expect) happen around 3pm.” “Sam should (I expect him to) be home by then.”
“Should (shall) I pick up some milk at the store?”
“You should (need to) be on page 36 now.”
“Oh! Ha, ha, I should have (oops) put the oil in before the flour.”

“Why” Questions

The only real response to an inquisition “why?” is “Because . . .” Because is the beginning of a defensive stance. The word “because” may not be used, but the sentiment of “because” is. In answering the “question,” one must reference the past, and seek justification for one’s actions. People shrink and get angry/defensive/passive when focusing on the dark and past. They respond positively to moving toward the positive/light/solutions and future.

“Why?” is a poor question if any of the following makes sense in the reply (via specific words or their intent):
Because I’m: Wrong, stupid, mad, bad, sad

Try making a little sing-songy phrase of the five words, and that answer can identify the intent of the question and possibly lighten the mood. The more inflamed the situation, the less likely this response is to work.

All “why” questions can be rephrased, usually with better results. “Help me understand.” “Tell me more about…” Still, we need to watch out for the intent of “why!” “What were you thinking?!” has the same effect as “why?”. Similarly, “How could you do that?” or “When did that crazy thought enter your mind?” focus on how the person is wrong/stupid/bad, and the speaker is just and right. Consequently, any response must delve into the past to seek justification or incrimination.

Below are some “Why” questions . . . some are easier to hear with inquiry than others. What do you think?

Why does it work this way?
Why is that our goal?
Why did you say no?
Why are we treating people differently?
Why is this our policy?

Why don’t we enter this market?
Why did you change your mind?
Why are we having this meeting?
Why not?
Why is everyone talking over one another?

Test with this question: Am I asking for inquiry, or inquisition? The former is healthy due to the clarity it seeks in connection, and the latter unhealthy due to the attempt to withhold or deny what is presently alive.

Inquiry, not Inquisition

“Yes/No” Questions

There are three common uses of a yes or no question, with the third being offered as a strategy, and the first two being largely healthy uses. The intent of the speaker is key, as is how that intent lands/feels. Generally, more expansive questions, requiring more than a simple yes or no, land with clarity and are more empowering to all. Open-ended questions invite people to open up and disclose, instead of limiting the connection and disclosure with a yes/no or limited-choice question.

Any question that has a “right” answer, or seeks to make the other person wrong is not beneficial.

  • Confirmation
    • “We’re leaving at 3 o’clock, right?”
    • “Did you say you were going to stop by the store on your way home?”
    • Caveat: Don’t use when asking a question of more than, say, 50 people. What would you do with the “answer?”
  • Request
    • “Would you mind doing the dishes tonight?” (you know it isn’t telling when you’re open to hearing “no”)
    • Request what you do want specifically, rather than what you don’t want obliquely
    • Requests come from positive action language
  • Telling (couched as a request / confirmation / rhetorical)
    • “Didn’t I tell you that was going to happen?”
    • “Did you think about that before you did it?”
    • “Come on, you know the answer to that, don’t you?”
    • “You didn’t go to the bathroom when I told you to, did you?”
    • “Did you have to say/do it that way?”
    • “That’s what you say to me?”
    • “Don’t you think it would be better if you did your homework first?”

Notice the implied ‘shoulds’ in these statements?
You can also hear in some Yes/No questions an unwillingness to hear no: “You know better than that, don’t you?” “Did you think you were going to get away with that?” “You’re doing the dishes tonight, right?”
And there is the limiting of choice: “Were you going to clean this up today or tomorrow?” (dual choice) “Do you want something to drink?” (instead of asking, “what are you wanting/needing?) “Would you like tea or coffee?” (dual choice)

Likely beneficial question openers:

What would happen if…
I wonder…
Tell me about…

What do you think about…
In what way…
What would you do…

How can we…
How did you…
How are you…