By Greg Baer M.D.

September 3, 2014

When I’m talking to people, rarely does an hour pass without my hearing the word SHOULD—or variants thereof:

“He should know that I need . . .”

“People should be more . . .”

“I should . . .”

“I shouldn’t have to keep telling . . .”

“I should know better than to . . .”

“We ought to . . .”

“It’s not right that . . .”

We don’t quite realize what we’re saying with the word should. We’re declaring that WE are dissatisfied, unfulfilled, or in pain, and we demand that the world around us—sometimes including ourselves—conform to an ideal that would eliminate OUR pain or inconvenience. Our “shoulds” are almost invariably quite selfish.

Let’s look at just a couple of examples:

Cindy says, “My husband, Bill, SHOULD be more attentive to me emotionally. He should touch me more, talk to me, want to be with me.”

What is the effect of Cindy “shoulding” all over Bill? He feels belittled, criticized, and controlled. Response? He pulls away from Cindy, which is exactly what she hates.

Mark says, “My boss SHOULD be more grateful for all the work I do. I do so much more than he knows, but all he does is complain. That’s not right (variant of should).”

Effect? Mark has a smoldering irritation toward his boss, and although he thinks he hides it, his boss feels it strongly. That feeling of being criticized kills any possibility of the boss feeling or expressing gratitude. In fact, the boss avoids Mark. Who wants to feel another person’s irritation?

When we “should” people, they just feel criticized and afraid and often angry. These feelings do NOT motivate them to do what we want, but rather to avoid us, defend themselves, and attack us. SHOULD is such a waste—of time, of energy, of peace of mind, of relationships. How often have you EVER seen people change in a positive way as a result of your thinking or saying what they should do?

So if “shoulding” people doesn’t work, what “should” we do? (That was a joke.) What would be more effective than should? Let’s use our previous two examples:

I asked Cindy to identify what BILL enjoyed. She began to give him the kind of attention HE wanted, and she discovered two things:

  1. She was much happier herself. Loving people is far more “happy-making” than making demands of them and generating perpetual resentment and disappointment in us and in them.
  2. Bill withdrew from her much less.

I asked Mark what his boss complained about, and he identified the shortcomings at work that were most irritating to the boss. Then Mark asked the boss how he could help with those tasks. He worked at them and gave the boss feedback. It’s no surprise that he discovered—much as Cindy did:

  1. He enjoyed his job more. He was more focused, and felt useful.
  2. The boss was effusively grateful that someone would identify what needed to be done, instead of his having to nag people.

Telling people what they should do is rarely effective. It’s demanding and strident. It’s far more effective for us to make a clear choice about what WE will do to improve whatever condition we find less than optimal. We don’t get to control other people, but we can always make better choices ourselves.


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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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