How the Word 'Should' Divides and Disappoints

“Dave should have picked me to be on that special project team. He’s my boss. He should have known I wanted to participate.”

Should. Such a limiting word. It gifts us with frustration and anger.

“I should have been asked to lead the discussion group. They should have known that I’m good at that kind of work.”

Should. It leads us down paths of disappointment and resentment.

“Kathy should have been smarter than to disagree with the boss. She should have known it wasn’t her place.”

Should. It keeps the door to bias and stereotype wide open.

With its sweet smell and stickiness, flypaper attracts and then traps flying insects that land on it. Should is a piece of mental flypaper. Once we unfurl it, our thoughts get gummed up, stuck in place—and usually not a good place. For us or others.

When we think or say should, we’ve fallen into prescriptive thinking, defining the world and people by what we expect them to be and do. We ascribe our perspective onto others and judge them by our standards. That’s a yardstick that can get us into big trouble since we’re deciding and declaring after considering only one point of view—our own.

“Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.” ~Paulo Coelho

Our thoughts, preferences, and perspectives make us unique. They’re our contribution to the endless smorgasbord of differences that make life fun and fascinating. That’s the plus side. On the flip side, our preferences and tendencies can make our world small if we expect others to share them or to intuitively know them, like Dave/they/Kathy should have known.

Whenever we think or say should, internal alarms need to ring because:

  • We’re making judgments when we may have only a partial set of facts. The boss should have known I wanted that assignment. Unless we’ve specifically declared our interest, there’s a strong likelihood the boss doesn’t know.
  • There’s the possibility we’re being close-minded, maybe even believing our own myth. They should have known I’m good at that kind of work. The spotlight effect is a tendency for people to overestimate the amount of attention people give to them. People may not know. Unless we’ve told them, we can’t assume they do.
  • We may be marginalizing others because of unconscious bias or stereotype, which applies generalizations to individuals. She should have known her place.

Plus, there’s a good chance we’re displaying hubris, spreading negativity, hurting others, perpetuating unspoken expectations, sprinkling incivility, and unnecessarily working ourselves up.

Psychologist Robert Hogan notes that people have three needs: to get along, get ahead, and find meaning. When we ascribe our should be perspective onto others, it’s likely these three needs go unmet for ourselves as well as others. By building the should box, we eliminate the possibility of connecting, learning, or growing.

“It’s not what you look at that matters. It’s what you see.” ~Henry David Thoreau

When we catch ourselves using should, let’s think of this insight from professor Peter Elbow: “Our best hope for finding invisible flaws in what we can’t see in our own thinking is to enter into different ideas or points of view—ideas that carry different assumptions. Only after we’ve managed to inhabit a different way of thinking will our currently invisible assumptions become visible to us.” That’s some powerful advice.

Ready to step out of the should box?