January 18, 2018

Are You “Shoulding On” Other People? Are Others “Shoulding” On You?

Are you shoulding on other people? - Photo copyright 2011 Rick Sherrell

A little break from the student/professor dynamic and into a little communication strategy! This is a favorite lesson/discussion from my Interpersonal class. Useful for in college and out!

I have a confession to make.

I’m a worrier.

At times, when I tell others about what is worrying me, depending on what I’m sharing, the well-intentioned response is:

“You shouldn’t feel that way”


“You shouldn’t be concerned about that.”

The tone around the phrase is not condescending, but rather a supportive “There, there now…”

Can you guess what happens when someone tells me how I should feel?

White smoke bursts from the ground, swirls around me, and when it clears, I magically feel better (think close-to-end scene from Beauty and the Beast when Beast floats up in the air and becomes the requisite Prince).

So, I’m totally kidding about the smoke…

…and about magically feeling better.

Truth is, hearing how I should feel, regardless of how kindly spoken, negates how I do feel.

In, essence, I’ve just been “should on.”

I don’t like it when other people “should on” me!

(Wonderful readers, can I digress for one moment and ask you to just say that real quick? “Don’t should on me!” It feels sooooo good! Like you’re saying a bad word, but you’re not really saying a bad word… Okay. I’m done now.)

In my Interpersonal Communication and Intro to Communication classes, my students and I discuss the “fallacy of should” every term. Aside from students loving the fun “sounds-like-a-bad-word-but-isn’t” statement, we discuss the underlying messages that a “receiver” could take away from a phrase that includes “should”… (and remember, this is after the “sender” probably shared a feeling or concern that they have, so the person is already vulnerable):

  • My feelings don’t matter
  • My feelings are not valid
  • My feelings are ridiculous
  • I am being judged
  • My communication partner isn’t interested in delving deeper to find out my true feelings
  • (Anyone have any others? Please comment!)

I confess that there are times I’m tempted to “should on” others, too.

Like a fine chocolate, “You should…” rolls around the tongue so smoothly! I am usually well-intentioned when I have these “near-shoulds” because I am truly incredulous that another person feels a particular way.

Case in point: Sometimes, students are worried about extra credit when they clearly don’t need it.

I have to catch myself from saying, “You shouldn’t worry about your grade. You’re doing fine!”

Another example: When students are scared to give a second speech, yet their first speech was absolutely amazing.

My temptation? To say, “You shouldn’t be concerned about that. Look at how well your last speech went.”

But I know that these statements are not productive and not confirming or supportive of what the student actually feels.

So what’s the communication lesson here?

When a person tells you something that is bothering/concerning/worrying them, deal with what the person’s feelings are, not what you believe they should be.

Ask open-ended questions:

  • “Why do you feel that way?”
  • “What’s making you/leading you to feel that way?”
  • “How can I help you feel better?”
  • “Is there a way that I can help?”

Allow me to apply a “do-over” to the statements above:

Student A: Wants extra credit, but they are doing fine.

Me: “What is it about your grade that is concerning you?” or “Is there an upcoming assignment that you’re worried about? Let’s talk about how to maximize your points there.”

Student B: Worried about second speech, aced the first speech.

Me: “Can you tell me why you’re concerned? Are you worried about finding credible sources? Was there something about your delivery you want to change?” or, simply, “You did beautifully on the last speech. I have no doubt that if you repeat the process, you’re going to do beautifully once again. I’m glad to listen if you have some specific concerns or if there are ways that I can help.”

Once your communication partner shares their real feelings, listen to them and respond to what they are saying. You can continue to ask questions, if you feel it is appropriate. Don’t sneak in a “should” later in the conversation, though. It will have the same negative effect and possibly shut the person down from saying more.

By now you may be thinking, “I don’t should on others, but, boy, do they ‘should on’ me! What do I do?”

Tell the person straight out, “I appreciate your confidence in me. This situation is really bothering me, though, and I be glad to hear some advice.” You can also ask the person if they will simply listen so you can vent.

Or, if the person sounds negative about your concern, you can say:

“I’m already judging myself all over the place about these feelings. I realize you are trying to help make me feel better. I’d be open to some actual suggestions or even to you just listening.”

Remember, you can’t get your needs met from a communication partner if you don’t assert those needs specifically and directly. People can’t read our minds! Of course, some people don’t have the capacity to refrain from judgment and will always “should” on you. You learn quickly that those are not your “go to” people when you have a problem.

One other quick note: Make sure the tone of what you do say matches your sincere, open-ended questions. If your inflection sounds negative, the person won’t hear what you’re actually saying–they’ll take away those negative feelings of “should” because that’s the message your tone is sending.

Give this communication strategy a try, whether you are a habitual “should-er” or are the recipient of same. I’d love it if you’d comment and report back on how it went! (No disclosure of the actual situation necessary!).

It’s just not nice to “should on” others or to have others “should on” us.

(I had to get it in one last time. Seriously… say it just for fun. There is quite a satisfaction there!).


About the Author: Ellen Bremen (17 Posts)

Ellen Bremen is tenured faculty at Highline Community College and the author of Say This, NOT That to Your Professor: 36 Talking Tips for College Success (NorLights Press, April 2012). Ellen stops at nothing to help students strengthen their communication skills: Peanut butter and jelly to illustrate problematic messages, pipe cleaners to teach communication models, and Post-it notes to reduce speaking anxiety. Ellen holds degrees in Post-Secondary Education and Communication. As an interpersonal communication expert, Ellen has watched students struggle to navigate their classes, especially their communication with professors. Ellen's goal? To help students correctly--not cluelessly--speak/deal with those who teach them. The outcome? Better student-prof relationships, improved grades, and confident and competent communication skills for college and beyond. Ellen's philosophy: College is THE safe training ground for students to practice and hone assertive and professional communication skills. Then, students can transition this sought-after skill to their professional and personal lives. Ellen looks forward to answering students' simple and complex questions about communication in college, and particularly professor-related challenges.


  1. Once I was attending a one day retreat, and took a short walk during a break. Down the street there was a road construction sign, one I’d seen dozens of times before. But suddenly this one I read totally differently.

    It was a normal ‘SHOULDER WORK AHEAD’ sign, except when I looked at it, I read it as ‘SHOULD-ER WORK AHEAD’

    I should on myself and others a lot. Now I love seeing that sign/reminder.

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