Shouldy, Wouldy and Couldy

Posted on February 16, 2020 · Posted in blog

My clients know that each time they utter the word “should”, I would react. Very soon after starting their coaching contract with me they would catch themselves “in the act”, and as they use “should” they pause, and rephrase, or rethink.

What is so problematic with the use of that little word?

Well, plenty!

When we use that word, there is a whole narrative that is playing in our mind at that moment, which suggests dissonance. Instead of what IS or what WAS, we would like it to have been different. Let’s quote Byron Katie on the matter:

“I have simply stopped arguing with reality. How do I know the wind should blow? It’s blowing. How do I know this is the highest order? It’s happening. Arguing with WHAT IS is like teaching a cat to bark. Hopeless.
I know that reality is good just as it is, because when I argue with it, I experience tension and frustration. It doesn’t feel natural or balanced. When I recognise this fact, action becomes clear, kind, fearless, simple, fluid, and effortless.”

When we use that sneaky little word, we are thinking and or feeling that someone else isn’t acting the way we expected them to; or that we did not do something we should have done. It is a frustrating feeling – and thought – and it occurs many times every day, causing unconscious stress.

Once you start pausing when you catch yourself using “should” (and its close relatives “would have” and “could have”) – roll back and ask yourself – what’s the belief that hides in there?

If the belief is around someone other than yourself, (as in “Tom should not have said that”) – you can immediately start by reminding yourself that Tom is outside of yourself. Therefore, all you can hope to control is how you respond to Tom; but you cannot cause him to change. You can decide to have a conversation with him, of course. You can choose to express your dismay, but you cannot hope to MAKE him do or think anything else. It is, to borrow Byron Katie’s metaphor, like trying to teach a cat to bark.

Yes, even if Tom happens to be your husband.

I often have conversations that sound like this:

Exasperated client (EC): “But Anne should know that I hate it when she shouts from her desk instead of getting up to chat to the person she needs; it is disrespectful of everyone else’s space!”

Me: “You told her that?”

EC: “Many times!”

Me: “So, what is your conclusion?”

EC: “That she does that to annoy me. She’s definitely doing it to spite me. I can feel it, and it drives me mad.”

Me: “So, what do you want?”

EC: “She must stop. That’s all I want, why is it so hard?”

Me: “Okay, what do you do when you have expressed your feelings to someone, and they seem not to take them into consideration?”

EC: “Ah, I suppose I carry on expressing my unhappiness in the hope it will get somewhere. But it is exhausting. She shouldn’t do this. She should listen.”

Me: And what is the truth, or the reality here?

EC: “that she doesn’t listen.”

Me: “And you believe, you said, that she is disrespectful, that she does it to spite you.”

EC: “Exactly.”

Me: “And what happens each time you believe that?”

EC: “I lose my thread of thought…I become irritated; sometimes, I go out for a cup of coffee to get away…it is affecting me pretty badly.”

Me: “And since Anne is not present here, and did not sign up for coaching, what can we both actually achieve?”

There goes the work that is often done in coaching – pausing to discover our auto-pilot thoughts. Only by that pause and assessment, we can roll back from the belief that has consolidated and causes pain, distress, anxiety. We need to go back and check the facts.
We must remind ourselves that we do not KNOW what is going on with someone else.

We do not know if Anne wants to spite, annoy or upset EC. All we know is that she communicates loudly (relatively, at least).

We also know that EC doesn’t like it. But how she reacts, given she has expressed her dismay and Anne did not change her behaviour, that Anne IS a loud communicator in EC’s experience.

In the coaching session with EC, we tried on several options with the belief that Anne is doing it to spite her. We unpacked it, and EC realised that she tends to attribute “spite” or “indifference” and lack of consideration towards herself as huge red flags. It was happening with others, not just with Anne. Once she knew this was a trigger, she did start to improve on how she dealt with it. Because the metaphoric trigger is out there, and it will be pulled – we can only learn how to duck, dive or avert our gaze; we cannot stop it.

What can EC do?

She can work on how she responds: she can get herself a pair of headphones, she can try to move her desk away, she can work on breathing in and out each time the belief of “spite” comes in.

To try to process your responses to someone or something that triggers you, try to and detect how often you use “should”. Practice that for a few weeks.

Additionally, you can follow the simple steps here – which is a self-led written exercise.