Are You “Shoulding” All Over Everyone?

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Language is meant to help us humans communicate, but sometimes even with our best efforts, we end up with a result we never intended.

Years ago, I took my car into a local service station. My oil light was on, and even I knew that meant I should get an oil change. Duh. The service guy lifted the car up, unscrewed the cap, and . . . thick, black, tarry stuff slowly fell out of the car. He had a truly horrified look on his face. Here’s what he said to me (close enough, anyway): “Ma’am! Look at this! This isn’t even oil anymore! Don’t you know you should have brought your car in months ago? You could have ruined your engine! You should have kept to the schedule. You should have . . . you should have . . .”

“Shoulding” all over me, he was. Was he wrong? Not about the oil — that was so old and thick it almost plopped out of the car. Not about my having waited way too long to get the oil changed (the red light really means GET THE OIL CHANGED NOW!). Not about my having been dumber than dumb. He was right about all those things. But he never saw me at his service station again.

Why? I’m sure you know. Because no one can go back and do it over, and to keep reminding someone of what she should have/could have/needed to have done is pointless and hurtful. But we all do it! We shame others, reminding them of their total failure – and there’s nothing they can do about it.

I had gone into that service station feeling like a perfectly normal grownup; I left feeling like a stupid-as-anything five-year-old. And I never went back.

Of course, I got over it. But as I began my career as a corporate trainer, focusing on communication skills, I vowed to help others learn how to manage language so they wouldn’t hurt anyone else that way.

Two simple words can save the day when we’re trying to correct a behavior. Nothing in the past can be changed; we can only create a new future. And the more we can focus on the future – and use these two little words – the better our interactions/relationships/ results will be.

✔︎ Next time puts the other person into all those tomorrows where changes can be made.

✔︎ Next time takes away shame, embarrassment, and misery at having done something that cannot be undone or corrected.

✔︎ Next time allows a relationship to continue in a positive manner, and isn’t that what we all want?

So, if the service station guy had said something like this, I would have returned. “Ma’am, it looks like it’s been a long time since you had your oil changed. The next time you receive a reminder from us about your oil change, please bring in your car right away so we can keep it running as it should. It will be better for the car and safer for you.” I would not have felt shamed. I would have felt like a grownup who had gotten a valuable reminder.

Let’s be smart and kind with others who may have made an error; let’s help them see what can be done the next time to create a better result.


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Susan Rooks
With nearly 25 years’ experience as an international speaker and workshop leader, Susan Rooks is uniquely positioned to help people master the communication skills they need to succeed. Over 20 years ago, Susan formed Grammar Goddess Communication to help business professionals enhance their communication skills. She creates and leads three-hour “Brush Up on Your Skills” workshops in three main areas: American grammar, business writing, and interpersonal skills. As a copyeditor (and editor of nonfiction only), Susan has worked on projects ranging from award-winning children’s books to best-selling business books to corporate annual reports, ensuring that all material is professionally presented and free from grammatical errors.
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Johnny Johnston

It is very true, those old words, “It’s not what you say but how you say it”

John Dunia

Great article Susan

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