Should can be a very strong word.
It might seem like a subtle part of English language, but I think it’s a powerful word with more impact than we realize. Let’s start with the definition.
Used to indicate obligation, duty, or correctness, typically when criticizing someone’s actions.
Obligation, duty and correctness are all words that relate to an attachment. Something to which we have a responsibility.
And then the last part – typically used when criticizing someone’s actions. This is the part that’s powerful. Another way of saying this is – telling someone what to do.
This is the part that carries more impact than we realize. I call it dropping “should bombs.” As humans who communicate constantly, part of our communication is telling other people what to do. We do it all day long…
- You should do this.
- You should try that.
- You should get in shape.
- You should talk to them.
- You should really think about that.
All. Day. Long.
Great, so what’s the problem here?
Using should can be a major projection.
When we use that word we’re usually projecting an idea of our own onto someone else. We’re feeding them some thought that we’ve come up with because we think it might help or support them in some way. It seems rather innocent.
However, that word can carry so much weight. Using should can plant a seed in someone’s mind that they need to do something. In doing so, it can easily be perceived as a prescription or solution to a problem.
I think this does more harm than help, especially when help is not asked for. It’s one thing if someone asks you right out – “What should I do?” In that scenario, go ahead and unload your should bombs! But outside of that context, I think the word can be used sparingly.
Let’s dig in a bit more…
Should has become a part of our daily dialog. It’s the most common way for us to give advice. We drop should bombs on our friends, family and acquaintances as if we’re all doctors of life with all the answers. We hear them say something and then we rush to give them a suggestion (or projection).
The question this brings me to is – “Who am I to tell anyone else what to do with their life?”
It’s their life and my thoughts are my own. I have no place to dump my thoughts on them. Now I’m just projecting or trying to feel helpful. When in reality, I’m likely just filling their mind with my own baggage and stories.
The caveat here is when we’re coaching or supporting someone. Again, they may ask for direct help, in which case it’s easy to justify saying should. But even here I would caution the use of should bombs. People generally already have the answers to their own questions. I believe we’re truly helping them if we ask more questions to guide them to their own answers instead of prescribing advice.
Should is also a common word we use in our minds. We create the internal dialog of:
- I should do this.
- I should do that.
- No, I shouldn’t do that…
- Should I do this?
We create this this constant thread of debate with ourselves, which can be exhausting. The word is extremely heavy, even if we’re only thinking it. One subtle thought of should can stay with us for long periods of time. Furthermore, we can get hung up on past should’s – i.e. “Man… I should have done that.”
This type of internal narrative can be powerful and hard. However, there is a way to soften it.
Replacing Should with Could
I understand the need and context for the word should. However, I think using “could” is a better alternative in most situations.
Could is a lot softer with more flexibility. It stays open whereas should is very closed. Let me give you some examples –
Someone asks for help with diet and weight loss.
- You should do Crossfit.
This implies that I have the answer for you. I know what’s right for you.
- You could try Crossfit.
This implies that Crossfit might help. I’ve experienced benefits in my life from Crossfit.
Someone asks you for help with a relationship.
- You should go to therapy.
This implies that I know what’s best for your relationship. I’m confident you need to go to therapy.
- You could consider therapy.
This implies that therapy might help. I’ve experienced benefits in my relationship from therapy.
Starting to see the difference?
Should is hard and arrogant. Could is soft and graceful.
To be clear, I’m not saying you should stop saying should. That would be comical after everything you just read 🙂
I’m just sharing an example of how our words are powerful and important. Should is one of those words that can have impact. I’m becoming a lot more mindful of when I use it.
Ali is a creator who's passionate about coaching people through desired self transformation. That's a fancy way of saying he wants to help people do their inner work. He's a father, husband, podcaster, blogger, technologist and many other things that inspire him to stay curious and learn. He's also a huge advocate for nature, hiking, adventure, testing physical limits and experiencing the natural world.