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The topic of telling other people what they ought to be doing has come up several times recently. In coaching, we call it “shoulding” on people. Shoulding can actually include the word “should.” For example, I might say, “You should get a haircut” or “You should buy that neon purple shirt.” I can up the ante and make myself really annoying if I point a finger at you while I tell you what you should be doing. Irritating, right?

It can still be shoulding without using the word. For example, I could say, “The only way to peel an orange is in strips, top to bottom” or “Burping loudly is always what works best.” I’m not using the word “should,” but I’m still telling you what you ought to be doing.

I have never coached a person who appreciated being told what he or she “should” do. Honestly, do you like it? I don’t! So why do we insist on doing it to others? I am not entirely sure, but I have a guess.

Most of us like things done a certain way. Of course, the right way is my way – in case you were wondering. In my head, I am not thinking, “It’s important that you do this my way.” The internal dialogue is more along the lines of “This is what would be best for you.” There is a true desire to help, but it is underpinned by a belief that I truly know what is best for you. In fact, that is seldom the case.

It’s important for us all to know and keep in mind that each one of us is an expert on ourselves. We know the best solutions to our own challenges. Our solutions fit with our values, priorities, and strengths. My solution for you is based on my values, priorities, and strengths. It might be a terrible thing for you to do.

We may not always know right off the bat what the best solution is. However, people telling us what we should do does not help. What does help is someone asking us questions. Curious questions about what is going on and what’s important are the most helpful.

When I tell people that I am a life coach, they often ask, “How do you know what to tell people to do?” Hmmm. They don’t understand coaching. I know that each of my clients is naturally creative, resourceful, and whole. They may be stuck or confused, but they are capable of creating their own solutions. A good life coach doesn’t tell people what to do. When I’m coaching, I repeat over and over in my head the phrase “Coach the person, not the problem.” Once I start solving my clients’ problems, I am shoulding on them.

Generally, we should on people because we genuinely want what’s best for them. It’s important to know that: [drum roll] We have no idea what is best for them! Each of us is the best creator of our own solutions.

For clients with shoulding challenges, I encourage them to ask at least three questions before offering a suggestion. Many times the problem is solved during the questions, and providing solutions is averted. Questions that begin with, “Don’t you think it would be a good idea if…” absolutely do not count.

What do we do when someone is shoulding on us? We have options. I have several friends who are shoulders. (Ha! In my head, it’s pronounced shooders! But it’s really shoulders – like by your neck. I love words.) One tells me when it’s clear to pull out when I’m driving. Another tells me exactly what I need to do for marketing messages. Another is very smart – a renaissance woman, and not matter what the topic, she knows what I should do.

For the most part, I’ve just decided not to let their barrage of solutions bother me. They are helping in their own way. I’m like a teenager; I nod my head like I’m agreeing but do whatever I dang well please. The important thing is that I can do this and not get riled up in the least.

Often people aren’t aware of what they are doing. I went on vacation with a fellow coach, and she said something about not shoulding on people. I said, “Are you serious? You should on me all the time!” From that point forward, she would tell me what I ought to do, pause, and then say, “I did it again, didn’t I?” Awareness is the first step for everyone!

When I start to get riled up, it’s time to set some gentle boundaries. It’s usually general. I will say something like, “I appreciate you wanting to help, but I’ve got this.” Even when I tire of being told what to do, I still remember that their intentions are good.

We can also tell people what they should have done in the past. That action is particularly destructive to a relationship. First, we can’t really go back and do it differently. What’s done is done. Second, it’s not helpful. The person who tells you what you should have done in the past is not trying to help you and does not have your best interests at heart. It’s a blame game. A play to make you feel guilty. Distance yourself as much as possible from people who should you about the past.

If it’s a relationship that you want to save, gently ask why they are bringing this up. Also ask in a genuine tone what they want you to do. The answer is often “I don’t know.” Sometimes, it’s just an act of frustration. It’s best to bring it into everyone’s awareness and find out what the root motivation is.

The only exception that I can think of is if the analysis of past behavior is an evaluation that will help change future behavior to create success. Still, you rarely hear an exceptional leader say, “Well, you really should have done that differently.” A more appropriate statement would be, “Let’s look at how you could have gotten a different outcome.”

Here are the points to remember:

  1. People who tell us what we should do are generally trying to help.
  2. We are not helping when we tell others what they should do.
  3. Ask at least three questions before beginning to provide solutions.
  4. Telling people what they should have done in the past is really not helpful and can be damaging to the relationship.
  5. It’s only useful to talk about the past in terms of learning from it. Take the lesson and move on.

Next time we will talk about the common practice of shoulding on ourselves.


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