“Should” is a devious little word. It seems so useful on its surface, but it complicates communication and impairs relationships whenever it appears.  Take the sentence, “You should have notified me about this.” In this example, the speaker tries to indicate what someone else ought to have done, which is not as helpful as it could be.

“Should” does several sneaky things that encourage ineffective communication. First, when paired with the word “have”, the word “should” situates the conversation in the past, as in, “You should have had the marketing department review the brochure.” In doing so, “should have” steers away from future-focused planning where improvements can be made. If the current situation is unresolved, it would have been more helpful to say that “You need to have marketing review this brochure.” If the damage has already been done, it might be more helpful to plan for the future, as in, “The next time you make a brochure, you need to have marketing review it.” Unfortunately, “should have” does neither and instead keeps the conversation grounded in what has already happened.

Second, “should” attributes blame. Whenever it appears, “should” is a shorthand way of saying what someone ought to have done but didn’t do, as in, “I should have checked for typos.” While it might be important to acknowledge who is responsible for the current situation, blame can feel heavy even when you attribute it to yourself, and especially on its own when it is attributed without a path toward resolution. Rarely does blaming someone or their behavior motivate change or get them to do better next time. Rather, blaming often triggers feelings of regret, helplessness, or defeat when instead, positive change needs to be fueled by a belief that next time can be better.

Third, “should” disguises the fact that the speaker isn’t making their own intentions and sentiments clear. When someone says, “you should have come to me first”, what they really mean is, “I wish you had come to me first”, or “I would like you to come to me first,” or “I’m disappointed that you didn’t follow the protocol of coming to me first.”

Here are a few tips to avoid the blame trap that “should” sets up.

  • Remove pronouns. If you must describe what ought to have happened, say, “This should have been checked for typos” instead of “you should have checked,” or “I should have checked.” Removing pronouns helps describe what ought to have happened without attributing blame to a specific person.
  • Suggest a solution. After removing the pronouns, offer a way that the situation can be rectified. Say, “This should have been checked for typos. In the future, please be sure to double-check everything you submit.”
  • Eliminate “should” & acknowledge your own feelings regarding what did or didn’t happen. Good relationships are built on open and honest communication. Even better than simply removing pronouns, try eliminating “should” altogether, and express what you want and how you feel. This is a better approach then generically describing what ought to have happened. Say, “I was annoyed to find so many typos in your report. In the future, I would appreciate it if you will double-check everything you submit.”

Check out our previous entries in this series, here, here, and here. We will continue to highlight Words and Phrases that Transform Conversations on our blog.

Rick Buccheri
Director of Programs