Alternatives to saying 'you/we/I should'

Should is a word that we regrettably use on others and ourselves far too frequently in favour of better words.

If I were to collect words one would use to steer themselves and others in another direction, should is a boulder that blocks people's paths in life.

Statements based on should targeted to ourselves and others automatically imply the receiver is doing something wrong. Listen to how it sounds:

"you should stop saying should"

So if you were intent on convincing others to stop saying should, let the rest of my writing here be an example of a more empathetic approach.

While the intent behind should is to assist someone or ourselves immediately with an alternative aim, it has a problem. The person receiving the should statement needs to reframe what is being said by asking "why should I?" to determine any value from it. Otherwise the receiver blindly follows the should statement as truth and risks feeling:

  • Guilt from devaluing what is personally important. The receiver's regular actions will appear to be wrong when compared to what they now believe they should do
  • Doubt from neglecting what is personally important. The receiver cannot act with conviction as they continually ignore their own feelings in favour of what they now believe they should do

The above feelings are not particularly great motivators for change as they are somewhat paralysing. No meaningful knowledge emerges from confusion about how to act. This is perhaps why we tell one another to be true to ourselves and to take it easy.

Bear in mind the speaker and receiver can be the same person telling themselves what they should do. Expect mental onslaught if such thinking patterns go unchecked.

So if should statements are a path blocking boulder, here are examples of statements with words (highlighted in bold) that act like helpful wayfinding signs:

  • Try ...
  • You/we/I have the choice/option to ...
  • You/we/I could try/make/do ...
  • It might be best/better ...
  • I do/don't recommend ...
  • An alternative ...
  • I approve/disapprove ...

The words in the alternative statements above just feel intuitively nicer. I suspect it is because the delivery implies the speaker is taking ownership of their expectations and feelings, instead of throwing the burden on the receiver to change instantly. The receiver can consider the suggestions and act confidently.

Try comparing the alternative statements shown against equivalent should statements.

While shoulds do come from a great place in us that want to make things better in the world, they neglect everyone's need for autonomy. We have very good reasons for being who we are and very good reasons for why we all need to find our way independently.

Taking the position of an empathetic educator over nagging is a much better approach. I feel all people are better at consistently adapting at their own pace and learning from one another, rather than clutching entirely on and spreading ideals to change instantly.


  1. I have gained the knowledge I am sharing because of the pain should statements have caused myself and others. As both server and receiver of many shoulds. My hope is those that read this learn something about maintaining and promoting authenticity. Shoulds are especially unhelpful for anyone having a hard time.

  2. A cognitive behavioural therapy chatbot app called Woebot inspired me to think about this topic. One of the lessons presented by this app is avoiding 'should statements' as a way to manage emotions that come from perceptually distorting reality. I find this effective approach really elegant in how simple it is to follow.

  • Dated: 07 June 2020