The Power of the Word Should

September 23, 2021

By Allison Iantosca

You know the saying “sticks and stones may break…but words will never hurt me”?  I humbly beg to differ. Words have huge power to hurt, especially the words we speak to ourselves.  And I have decided that one of the most hurtful and powerful words we speak to ourselves is the word SHOULD.

Let me tell you that pretty much every coaching call I am privileged to be a part of is a full-on war with SHOULD.  I am invited into the depths of choices being made that seemingly sacrifice a better option. As if there is an either/or to every aspect of life. “I am doing this, but I should be doing this instead.” “I should stop second guessing myself,” “I shouldn’t worry so much,” or “I should work on being better at…”

No doubt, part of being human is a constancy in the desire for more or what’s next or better. The trouble is this kind of negative framing can so deeply damage our sense of capability and progress.

Here’s an idea: when SHOULD pops up, ask yourself “what am I doing instead?” Maintain the optimistic posture that, though perhaps we can intellectualize what we should be doing, we might be better served by understanding that what we are doing may also serve a pretty important purpose.

Here’s a simple example: I have a client who must get published for long term career advancement.  He has always been a prolific writer and has multiple ideas multiple times a day. But weeks go by without a written word and the burden mounts. Our conversations are filled with examples of colleagues who have found their way into key industry journals with attached speaking engagements. They have all offered tips and tools and tricks. He just can’t get it done.

So I asked him, “What are you doing instead of writing?”

For five years he has worked in a family business and is being groomed to take over as CEO. Multiple times a day he is called into meetings to talk with key stakeholders taking on new accounts.  He maintains a running to do list that couldn’t be completed in a month, let alone a week. He has regular one-on-one sessions with his dad, the company founder; a charismatic leader wanting his son to follow in his footsteps sooner rather than later.

Writing, we discovered, conflicts with serving the immediate needs of the company.  Writing takes him off the front line; he might miss something critical. Taking time to write jeopardizes his ability to meet his father’s expectation that he be deeply enmeshed in the details of the organization.

Though writing may be what he should be doing to support the long-term aspect of his career, instead he is opting to be present and accountable to the day-to-day requirements of running a multi-million-dollar enterprise; to bolster the company for its successful future even without his Dad at the helm.  A pretty worthy “instead”.

SHOULD was very busy suggesting to my client that he was doing it all wrong. That in fact he was failing at something that had been a profound part of who he had been as a student and a young professional.  Writing used to come so easily it didn’t occur to him that he needed a cognitive intervention to understand what took him away from it in the first place.  

When we discovered that what he was doing instead was about love and legacy, it didn’t feel so bad and, in fact, broadened the choices he then had to adapt his behavior to create space for both.

And it renewed his energy and enthusiasm for himself.

So maybe stick and stones still hurt, but the words? Just not so much anymore.

Allison Iantosca is a Gestalt International Study Center (GISC) trained ICF Certified coach with extensive leadership and management experience. She is an Executive Coach and is the Owner and President of Boston based FH Perry Builder.

*Photo Credit Eileen Pan

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