Thinking Out Loud

You Really Should

“You really should find a way to . . .” Kim never completed her sentence or expressed her enthusiasm about an idea Josh had because he bristled when he heard the word should.

Using should is often dangerous. Like using “I” statements and reflecting back what someone has said before responding (to insure understanding), caution around using should is part of a generally accepted set of communication skills. In fact, we often chide one another for using it. The idea, of course, is that one may be (or perceived to be) robbing the other of their agency—the assumption that you know what’s right for me.

Kim, however, was not making a presumption for Josh. She was simply excited about what he was saying and thought it would be great if he . . . Josh only heard the word should and not the complete thought and reacted: “Why are you trying to tell me what to do when I’m just sharing my idea with you?” Taken aback, Kim responded, “I’m not telling you what to do!  Why are you criticizing me, when . . .” to which Josh replied, “Your controlling use of language is inappropriate.”

Discussing their linguistic process of the conversation derailed Josh and Kim and they didn’t discuss the actual issue. This happens. In fact, it happens more frequently than we’d like in intimate  relationships. Josh is linguistically sensitive. He uses words precisely because they guide his thinking and are critical to establishing meaning and understanding. Hearing Kim say should meant obligation, duty, expectation. According to the dictionary, Josh was right, but not according to Kim. She had no expectation, nor did she see it as his duty or obligation to do anything. Then why did she use the word? Josh wondered.

I could make the case that the relationship would be better served if Kim took more care in her use of language and make the case that Josh could take more care to find out what Kim means when she uses words that he strongly reacts to, like should, before taking issue with her. Our communication strengths can get us into trouble, so it’s important to recognize patterns where this happens and develop tools to mitigate conflict and promote understanding. If Josh and Kim can discuss this pattern, understanding that it reflects communication style differences and carries no bad intentions, they can develop a way to quickly acknowledge what’s happening and have an opportunity to complete the “real” conversation.

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