Should I?

As I was in the midst of discovering the details of the Essential Journey, I spent a weekend at a seminar called “The 5 Minute Mentor” put on by my good friend Kerry Parsons. Attending that seminar at that same time was a friend of mine. I still remember JT saying in that seminar “I need to stop ‘shoulding’ on myself!'” How true is that? How many of us “should” on ourselves and on others every day?

It brings to mind a conversation my wife Kendra and I have, largely as parents, about the toxic nature of three specific words … SHOULD … NEED … MUST. I’ll refer to that as SNM here on in. As we use them in a conversation, they can be innocuous … “I should go for a walk” … “I need to eat” … “I must call my sister”. But when we apply them to others, they take on an edgier tone. For example … “you should take more care when you do that” … “you need to pay more attention to your family” … “you must spend more time on the details”.

Can you think of a recent event where someone said something like that to you? How did you respond to SNM? Is it a positive “Well I’ll be! I will totally follow your advice!” Or is it more along the lines of “How could you possibly know what ISNM do?. Do you have any idea of what brought me to this place? How much thought I’ve given this situation? How many alternatives I’ve considered?. What dilemmas I’ve faced? And here you are after x minutes of conversation and you are telling me what I SNM do?” Sound familiar?

Why do we do this to each other? Is it because we truly believe that we’ve solved the problem and we are certain of our friend’s or colleague’s next steps? Or is it because we want to sound knowledgable … impress people … feel important? Or is it our old friend FEAR at work? We worry about our friend or colleague, or perhaps if they do make a mistake that it may impact us, and so we try to help by SNM‘ing…

I think this latter element is more true than any of the others. I think we fear for people close to us and we express those fears through SNM statements. When we say to someone that we NEED them to take a certain action to address a risk, I think what we are really saying is that we need to know either that people we care about are okay … we don’t actually need them to do anything. We just need to trust that they are capable of taking care of themselves.

A secondary motivation can also be how the actions of others might impact us. We want to steer others actions so as to minimize any perceived consequences to us. And hence we express things defensively. Perhaps we could rephrase these worries in a different way … when we say “you should …” could we replace it with “I would feel better if you …”? And can “you need to …” become “I need you to”?

Does this apply to us as leaders? Probably more than anywhere else other than parenting (come to think of it, isn’ t that the ultimate form of leadership?). Can we step away from using SNM as a part of our coaching and instead lean towards questions like those we discussed above? Can we phrase our thoughts more as questions than commands?

“I know you’ve been thinking about this … can you share your thoughts?”

“What do you think we SNM do?”

“Can you describe the dilemma to me more fully?”

“What are our alternatives?”

“How can I help?”

Above all though can we please stop “shoulding” on each other? 🙂

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Ian Munro @

Ian Munro is a leadership and vitality coach with a primary passion for working with senior professionals who wish to improve their connection to and vitality in their career, or who wish to make a transition to a meaningful and rewarding retirement. His methods are focused on helping clients understand why they present as they do in day-to-day life, discover their authentic self and give themselves permission to build a meaningful and rewarding future, both professional and personal. Ian’s love for this work has developed naturally as he built his career as an executive and leader in the IT services industry, serving in many roles and facets of this industry over 25 years. As he reached the pinnacle of his career he began to search more deeply for meaning and alternate rewards from his own career and to begin to plan for his own “first retirement”.

16 thoughts on “Should I?

  1. My mom brought this up while a group of us were vacationing in tropical parts one year. It was an interesting conversation in that I’ve never taken offense at those words – not that I can remember, I just have done what I think needs to be done…but since that group conversation I try to remember not to say those things. 🙂 I agree that maybe at times those words come from a desire to keep the other person safe or know that they are able to handle a situation…

    1. Thanks Diana. I think it is a testament to your ability to remain present that these words have less of an impact. I know that when I hear them and am properly centered, I can manage them just fine with questions like “is that true for me?”. When I am out of sorts in some way, I find that is when I might react a bit more to them.

      1. It’s my German upbringing! (smiling) I’m sure there have been times I’ve reacted as well … but most times I just see it as someone trying to be helpful.

  2. The ‘S’ in SNM is the one that struck me personally the most, though there are lots of NMs I could also work on. The S was most powerful for me because of my utter disdain for the word ‘regret’.

    I’ve often said of all the words in the dictionary, this would be be one I could happily see removed. Regret is so disappointing. Regret holds people hostage, keeps them from envisioning a better future and weights them down with guilt. It often even over-shadows the many great things they have accomplished only to remind them yes, but don’t forget you should have …

    Thank you for reminding us not to should on ourselves

    1. Thanks for the great addition Andrew. I’ve not drawn the connection between ‘should’ and ‘regret’ and I think it is a powerful one! Probably one worth an entry of its own … stay tuned!!

    2. “not to should on ourselves” – this made me smile.
      Great write, Ian. Worth the read.

  3. I can hear myself now …’I should do….’, ‘I must start to ….’, ‘I really need to…’. Little pep talks to myself. I agree that when applied to others these words can be hurtful and deflating; and we really should (there is goes again) try the kinder “I” word approach, which is kinder, more encouraging, and often empowering.

    In regard to the comment by Andrew above, I think the ‘I should do….’ (future = pep talk) is different than the ‘I should have…’ (past = regret); and a totally different concept.

    1. Some excellent thoughts here, Elizabeth! I think it is important to understand these two aspects … first am I shoulding myself or someone else. When we do it to ourselves it is important to then look at the second aspect … future vs. past. There is no sense beating ourselves up for past events … only to look forward to what is possible in the future!!

  4. I agree. I received an email at 5 pm last night and thought and thought about my reply ‘I should say….’, ‘I must write …..’. But I didn’t. It is now 3 am here because finally at 2 am when the ‘I should write….’ would not let me sleep, I got up and wrote the reply email that ‘I should have ‘ written at 6 pm. Now I regret my procrastination as I am very tired…… (but at least the email is done).
    Enjoyed your post 🙂

  5. Nice post Ian! I have recently been thinking about the things that I “have” to do versus the things that I “want” to be doing. What I’m finding is that I don’t “have” to do anything. The things that I am accomplishing in my life right now are ALL because deep down I really want to do them. So I’m trying to re-train my thought process in this regard but sometimes it is tough. It also relates to another of your blogs regarding our perception of things around us and how we can see things differently if we just look a little deeper.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts Adil. I totally agree that we always have choice, and that sometimes the way we have learned to be points us towards a choice that isn’t something we really want to do. So I like your comment that “deep down” or who we are at our core will point us towards things we are passionate about or really want to do.

    2. Thanks for the comments Adil. Great perspective. I agree that sometimes the adapted self (the person we have learned to be) sometimes points us towards things that we don’t really like to do but “should”. So I like your comment about “deep down” or our essential self guiding us towards things that we really want to do. The trick is learning to understand which “self” is speaking to us so we can understand our motivations better.

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