Should You?

By Chris Chittenden

“Don't fear failure so much that you refuse to try new things. The saddest summary of a life contains three descriptions: could have, might have, and should have.”

… Louis E. Boone

It has been said that language reveals as much as it conceals. This little bit of wisdom provides one avenue to developing effective interpretations of a person’s way of being by listening to the subtle way in which they use the words they use. This is one of the key skills of an ontological coach and also provides anyone wishing to “read” people better with a tool for their toolkit.

The word “should” is often heard in coaching sessions and is a word that can reveal much about a person’s way of being. As such it is a jewel for a coach. The use of the word, “should” speaks to something that does not currently exist for the person saying it and so provides some insight into what might be missing for someone in a given situation. This could relate to the past, the present or the future. Let us look at a few simple examples.

“I should have done …” is one common use of the word “should” that relates to the past and speaks of a decision that has not gone the way one would have liked. It is often linked with a sense of regret and can speak to a current situation that the speaker does not like to varying degrees. If we get caught up in too many “should haves” we may well find ourselves living in a mood of resentment and the frustration that goes with that. Too many “should haves” may well have us bound in the past and living a life of regret.

“Should be” is another phrase we commonly hear that has a present focus and speaks of something that should be different now. Once again, the words “should be” are often accompanied by a sense of frustration and impotency. The speaker can be interpreted as wanting something to be different to how they see it and not having much capacity to change the situation.

Finally, we often hear people speak about the future and what they “should do” - “I should learn how to do that”. Underlying the use of the word “should” in relation to the future, we can listen to some tentativeness regarding the person’s belief in the need for something to occur or their capacity to make it occur. Generally, we can listen to this as a declaration with a certain sense that what “should” happen, may well not happen.

Behind the use of the word “should”, we find an assumption about how the world ought to be according to the speaker. By being aware of the use of the word, we can listen beyond what is being said and develop interpretations of what is not being said. Coaching is an action focused experience. As a coach or a manager, we will often listen to a person using “should” language. When we do, we can use appropriate coaching techniques to assist them to accept the situation for what it is and find areas where they can have an impact and make a difference. We can then assist them to identify what they will do rather than what they should do. In doing so, we can help them to move closer to productive action.

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© 2005 Chris Chittenden