The Terrible Word We Say Everyday

Good leaders understand that communication is critical, and that word choice is key…key to every discussion, every email, every connection we make.

Throughout the years certain words have risen to the top for me…words I love, that both stand for something positive and roll off the tongue. Words like magnanimous and beneficence.

And then there are those that I just hate, that I feel I should never use. Some of them are obvious, simply because they define something terrible –words like racism and cancer and plague.

But then there are the sneaky terrible words. Words that appear to be so innocent, so benign…but are in fact dangerous, filled with toxic meaning.

The worst of them all is so dangerous for the exact reason that it seems so mild, so insignificant. But in truth it is loaded with destructive negativity.

It’s so sneaky that it infiltrates into our sentences all the time, dozens of times each and every day. In fact, I’ve already used it in this blog.

The word?  Should.

In just the past few weeks I’ve noticed several people using this word without any level of awareness of the damage they caused as a result.

Which is why I bring it to you today. Because it does cause damage.

And that damage happens in two very different ways.

#1 – We should on other people

Let’s face it. In many, many situations we think we know best. In fact, we are absolutely, 100% certain.

  • We are certain that global warming exists…or doesn’t.
  • We are certain that taxes need to go up…or be cut.
  • We are certain that homeschooling is the best thing ever for children…or isn’t.

We are so certain in our beliefs that we just know the others somehow got it all wrong. And we are baffled, wondering how they could believe something so strongly when it is so clearly wrong.

 And that’s when we should on them.

  • Our bosses should understand that our workload is too heavy and not put so much pressure on us.
  • Our colleagues should know they need to respond to our emails immediately, and check their spelling when they do.
  • Our siblings should cook better meals for their children.

We say these things and we shake our heads, often with disdain, sometimes with disgust, always with some kind of tone.

The truth is that the word should is all about judgment. We judge other people all the time for all kinds of reasons. Often we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

The real truth? Sometimes it’s really about feeling better about ourselves.

Because if they’ve got it wrong, then we’ve got it right.

Which means we’re better. Which means we’re not as bad as we thought we were deep down.

But know this. Shoulding on people is a pretty ugly trend. It makes us more cynical. It makes us less tolerant, less patient. It hampers our ability to connect with others.

And in the end, it just makes us less happy. We find we’re more and more frustrated, more and more irritated, more and more displeased by this world.

Do I should on others? Yes. But I’m working on it.

Because I should.

Which leads me to the second way we cause damage with this terrible word.

 #2: We should on ourselves

The executives I coach do this to themselves all the time. It drives me crazy, because I know how great they are, and because I know how effective they are, and because for some reason they are prone to beating themselves up. Regularly.

They do this by shoulding on themselves.

  • I should have done this differently. What was I thinking?
  • I should have known better. I’m so stupid!
  • I should have prepared more for that board meeting, worked out today, made sure my boss knew about that donor situation.

When people should on themselves they are judging themselves, often harshly…and often about something that is already done, already behind them.

Now, don’t get me wrong…reflection and introspection are both important. In fact, I think they are incredibly strong characteristics of great leaders.


Know that if you’re using the word should as part of your reflection, chances are you are beating yourself up. You’re going further than learning from a situation to judging yourself about it.

Chances are your shoulders are slumping. Chances are your energy is low. Chances are you’re saying other things to yourself, too…mean things you would never say to others.

That’s not a way to keep your confidence going. That’s not a way to stay focused. That’s not a way to reflect your strength to others.


Now that you know the truth about this terrible word…I challenge you to notice this week how many times should sneaks into your word choice (and it is a choice).

I challenge you to reflect on what you’re really saying, what the real message is, and if you’re judging yourself or others unnecessarily.

And then…I challenge you to stop it.

Because you’re better than that.

And in the end, it’ll not only make you a better leader.

It will just make you happier.

Now, go do good…and do it well.




11 responses to “The Terrible Word We Say Everyday”

  1. Jeanne Schmelzer Avatar

    Yes, “should” is a very insidious word. Bad for you and bad for everyone around you.

  2. Karla Avatar

    Yes, I recognize I do this all the time. Thanks for the kick in the butt, Deirdre.

  3. Patty Costa Avatar
    Patty Costa

    Some very wise words. Thank you Deirdre. What a better world this could be!

    Patty Costa

  4. Barbara Haines Avatar

    Thanks, Deirdre,
    This has a practical and spiritual tone to it… I shall pass it along.

  5. Elizabeth Castillo Avatar

    In addition to minimizing my use of “should”, I am also working to eliminate my use of “but”. My experience is that “but” promotes either/or thinking and tends to negate whatever positive came before it. Instead, I am trying to use “and.” “And” enables me to hold two seemingly opposing views simultaneously. This takes some getting used to. I find the difference is subtle and powerful.

  6. Carol Lease Avatar

    Hey Deirdre – How are you doing??? I should (oops) write you more often and keep up with what is going on. I am hot on the trail of becoming a Medicaid provider – a big field due to heath reform redirection of funds. Take Care – excellent work.

  7. Kitty Bailey Avatar

    Great reading, can’t wait to apply it! Thanks for the insight and wisdom.

  8. Dee Wind Avatar
    Dee Wind

    Hi Deirdre,

    I’m a hiking buddy of your mom’s. I found the article on “shoulding” right on. I try hard not to should on myself or anyone else. Thanks for sharing your insights.



  9. Dick Conklin Avatar
    Dick Conklin

    In addition to enjoyingand agreeing the essay on “should” like the comment about the word “but.” I like to explain that “but” is an acronym for “Behold the Underlying Truth”

  10. Connie Avatar


    I’m a friend of your mom’s from high school.

    What a great message. Will certainly try to minimize my use of this word.

  11. janice Miesing Avatar
    janice Miesing

    Deirdre..I like this..I will be more aware of using this word. It is a word that is used too often. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.