Why we need to banish the word ‘should’

It’s a term fraught with shame and obligation. Expunge it from your vocabulary, and you’ll probably breathe easier.

Words are the lifeblood of marketers and corporate communicators, yet seldom do we reflect on the positive or negative power that a single word can have on our audience.

Yes, there are plenty of words that scholars and social researchers advise marketers to avoid. For example, the word very rarely adds anything useful to a sentence. Among the hundreds of writing pundits who advise not using very, inbound marketing HubSpot’s Niti Shah says the word has no business being said out loud.

Here’s another: Time magazine suggests that the word hope implies a lack of planning and to delete it entirely from your entrepreneurial vocabulary.

The word I want to focus on in this post is should.

I’ve been trying to eliminate should from my lexicon in communicating with co-workers, clients, journalists—anyone, actually. It’s a lesson I learned from a former co-worker and friend who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

As she struggled with her new physical reality, certain mental, emotional, and spiritual issues also overwhelmed her. Her doctor advised her to reduce as much stress as possible so she could concentrate on coping successfully with her diagnosis. As she navigated the myriad stress-reducing techniques available, one of the most effective was really quite simple: eliminating should from her vocabulary.

“Simple,” however, does not mean “easy.” How many times a day do you utter the word should? How many times do you hear it in conversation? See it in ad copy? Come across it in a strategic plan, blog post, or even a tweet? How frequently do you type it in an email?

Eliminating any word that most corporate communicators and marketers take for granted can be daunting but, depending on the word, can also reap big benefits. Think about it:

  • Should places on our shoulders the burden of others’ expectations, rather than liberating us to live life on our own terms. “I should lose weight,” and “I should be making more money,” are examples of a thought pattern that demands we live up to what somebody else thinks is the proper way to approach life regardless of our own desires. The same holds true for us as professional communicators: “I should be earning an agency promotion,” or, “I should be winning that marketing award.”
  • Should is a shame-based word. Telling anyone—a co-worker, friend, spouse—that they should do this or should not do that is a passive way of pointing out that they are not doing what you want them to.
  • In a work setting, should indicates a lack of respect for the other—an inflexible “father knows best” attitude that can shut down back-and-forth dialogue that could generate better ideas. “You should use this process,” or, “You should work with so-and-so on this project,” may be well-intentioned advice, but phrases like those can deter an employee from searching for a better way.
  • Even in a PR and social media marketing agency setting like ours, telling a client that they should do something that we recommend implies that we know their business better than they do, and that’s not conducive to nurturing a productive agency/client partnership.

I’ve been working at eliminating should from my vocabulary for years, yet I still catch myself saying it occasionally. It’s worth the effort when you consider how negative the word is and how much guilt and shame it generates in all of us. So, please, stop shoulding on yourself.

Lessons learned from my journey to remove should from my daily word diet:

  1. Be conscious—Recognize the power of your words, and continually be mindful of how you use them. Start by just listening for the word, and, when you hear it, make a note of it.
  2. Focus on the benefits—Instead of telling a co-worker or client they should be doing more of something, focus on the benefit of taking that particular action.
  3. Change your attitude—Rather than shoulding yourself to the gym, into saving more money, or into putting in extra hours to complete an assignment, which is sure to generate fear, guilt, or feelings of worthlessness, substitute should with want and see if you’re more likely to actually do those beneficial things.
  4. Realize you always have options—There is nothing, and I mean nothing, in this world that we must do. Yes, the consequences of doing certain things-such as disobeying the law or not paying your taxes-are more dire than, say, not washing the dishes tonight. But it’s always our choice; that realization is incredibly liberating.

Try eliminating should from your daily word choice. It will take time, but be patient; you’ll see improvements in your stress levels. You’ll also discover positive, engaging conversations that can lead to more meaningful relationships both personally and professionally.

Gwen Chynoweth is executive vice president and chief talent officer at Minneapolis-based Maccabee, a strategic public relations and online marketing agency, and a writer for the MaccaPR blog.


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