Should Statements

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Should statements are a key concept in Why This Way. Our rules of communication specify:

  • Do not use any "should" statements or statements expressing a similar sentiment (e.g. "ought", "supposed to", etc.).

This rule is both powerful and subtle, in that it can initially seem quite constraining and difficult to follow, and, as one becomes more familiar with the way of thinking cultivated by the rules of communication, one can continue to uncover more should statements that are progressively more indirect and trickier to identify.

We do not believe (and do not intend to imply) that all should statements are harmful, only that some of them can be harmful. Our rule is a conservative rule, intended to err on the side of caution in order to promote clarity in our own thoughts and dialogue. We only require our participants to follow this (or any) rule in Why This Way discussions, not in other aspects of life.

Hidden should statements

There are numerous ways that statements can be made that are equivalent to should statements, without using the word should. Aside from the obvious synonyms and constructions, like "ought" and "supposed to", these can be quite subtle:

  • Deserving - The notion of deserving something often masks a should statement. That is, the statement: "He deserves X." is roughly equivalent to: "He should get X."
  • Wasted time - The notion of wasting time (and sometimes, other sorts of waste) can often be connected to a should statement. For example, "I've been wasting time all afternoon." often is closely related to statements like: "I should have been working on something else."
  • Fairness or Justice - Notions of fairness or justice are often associated with should statements. For example: "That is not fair." implies "It should be this other way.". Because fairness and justice tend to be highly subjective, and, especially in conflicts, there tends to be no consensus about what constitutes fairness or justice, in Why This Way, we de-emphasize these concepts, and discuss them only with great caution.
  • Right and wrong - Discussions of right and wrong often relate to should statements. This is true not only of moral or ethical discussions, but also practical ones, i.e., ones that involve the "right" or "wrong" way of doing things. The idea that one idea is "right" or "correct" often implies or is equivalent to the idea that one "should" take that approach, and one "should not" take other approaches. The labels of right and wrong can create problems in situations where people's foundational moral or ethical beliefs differ, and they can also hinder creativity in practical and problem-solving settings, if people become preoccupied with one "correct" way of doing things rather than exploring other possible approaches. For this reason, in Why This Way, we avoid characterizing actions or approaches as right or wrong, and instead evaluate each action holistically, emphasizing consistency with our values and beliefs, or the results or outcomes of various actions.

Like statements directly involving the word "should", these sorts of statements, and discussion of fairness, justice, or right and wrong, are not necessarily harmful, but we avoid them as a way of being cautious. They tend to become more problematic in situations where people disagree about basic moral or ethical assumptions. We avoid these sorts of statements in order to maximize our potential to bring together people with different values, and to make it more likely that we will have productive discussions.

Phrased alternatively, we could say that we do believe in notions like fairness, justice, and morality and ethics (right and wrong), but we avoid directly discussing these matters using overly strong, direct language, because of its potential to lead people to feel that views are being pushed on them, or to cause escalating conflict and prevent people from listening and understanding each other.

In communicating clearly, it often helps to talk in terms of what we believe certain actions will achieve or mean, rather than their moral value, because it helps us understand the reasoning behind our morals and ethics.

Reading should statements where they do not exist

One of the more common reactions when people learn about the principle of avoiding should statements is to say: "So you're telling me I shouldn't say should?" While this reaction is partly humorous, it highlights a phenomenon that people can read should statements into situations where they do not exist. In Why This Way, we do not specify that people "should" or "should not" do anything, and we are careful to word our beliefs so as to avoid these and equivalent statements. Rather:

  • We have agreed to avoid should statements in our official meetings, on our wiki, and our official literature.
  • We see compelling benefits to avoiding should statements.
  • We encourage others to try avoiding and rewording these statements in their lives.

There is no idea that someone "should" avoid should statements. Participants in our group are not required or expected to agree with all our beliefs or follow all our practices. And using should statements (breaking the rules) can actually be beneficial, because the act of of wrestling with our rules of communication and rewording statements is essential in our process of communication.