“She should have known better!”
Jodi was a people-centered leader. She based her decision making on her values. Depending on the situation, her values might align with the consumer or the company, with the employee or the corporation. People didn’t view her as inconsistent, rather they experienced her as a weather vane continuously pointing in an ethical direction.
But people also knew she sometimes cared “too much.” She could be easily wounded and was known to hold a grudge.
About halfway into our coaching engagement, Jodi mentioned she was angry at a young woman named Brit. A few weeks back, she told me, Brit had introduced herself via email and asked for an appointment to talk about her career. It was known throughout the company that Jodi welcomed mentoring meetings with other women. As was her norm, Jodi had said yes to Brit.
“But when she showed up the other day,” Jodi said, clearly still angry, “she didn’t want career advice. She wanted to complain about something one of my vice-presidents had done at a meeting!”
“How’d that go?” I asked.
“Not so well! I listened, but I was pissed! I still am! I feel like I got sandbagged. And I asked her, straight out, why didn’t she just tell me the truth, instead of lying about it?”
“And she said…?” I asked.
“Oh, the usual stuff. She didn’t think it could be explained in email. And she didn’t think I would’ve accepted an invitation with the subject line, ‘Complaints about Carlos.’ Blah, blah, blah.”
“To which you said…?”
“That she should have known better.”
Falsehoods as truths
Twice before in our coaching conversations, Jodi had said someone “should have known better.”
Hearing her use that phrase now for the third time, I asked, “How could she have?”
“How could she have what?” she asked back.
“How could Brit have possibly known better? Don’t you assume she did her best?”
“I hope not! If that’s her best, I’m not sure how much I want to help her.”
“Jodi, what exactly do you think she should have known?”
“She should have known not to lie to me. She should’ve used good judgment!”
“Good judgment? Whose good judgment?”
“Mine!” she said in total sincerity.
I looked up at the ceiling, saying slowly, “So you’re saying she should have used your judgment so she would behave the way you wanted her to behave?”
She looked a little sheepish. “Ew! When you say it like that it sounds completely stupid. Obviously the only person who can use my judgment is me. But, yes, that really is how I feel!”
“Perfectly natural!” I agreed. “I think we all see people do things and think, ‘What’s the matter with them? Don’t they know better?’ That question – don’t they know better? – is a thinking error, but we all do it. To us it feels like Truth.”
“A thinking error? Is that a real thing?” she asked.
“Oh, absolutely,” I said. “The words ‘she should have known better’ are a perfect example.”
She narrowed her eyes as if puzzling it out. “They’re a thinking error because … the only person who can use my judgment is me?”
“Right. They’re a thinking error because the ideas behind the words aren’t accurate. Brit couldn’t have ‘known better’ if ‘knowing better’ means reading your mind. Now, if you had told her the rules of the game and she broke them anyway, then, yes, she should have known better. But she didn’t know the rules. You hadn’t told her. So she couldn’t have known better. You thinking she could is the thinking error.”
She pursed her lips and nodded. “Fair enough. That puts the responsibility on me. I like that. She couldn’t have known better if I didn’t tell her. But I’m still not sure what makes it a thinking error. Is it the word ‘should’?
“That’s an interesting idea,” I said. “How would that work?”
“I thought maybe the word ‘should’ automatically makes any thought a thinking error. My husband says ‘should’ is nothing but a guilt-trip word. He says every time you use it, ask yourself, ‘Says who?’ Whose ‘should’ is it? Where is the ‘should’ coming from? Your mom? Society? God? And isn’t it just a big guilt trip?”
I laughed. “I love the idea of asking yourself, ‘Says who?’”
“A lot of the time the ‘should’ I’m telling myself isn’t really mine. It’s some value system that’s outside me.”
“So are there times you avoid using ‘should’?” I asked.
“I try. Obviously I didn’t do so well in this whole thing with Brit.”
“I’m not sure it’s just about Brit,” I said. “You’ve said someone ‘should know better’ more than just about her.”
“Have I? Ugh! Got any help for me?”
Replace ‘should’ with ‘want’
I nodded, saying, “I often suggest people try to replace the word ‘should’ with the word ‘want.’ It really shifts the focus.”
“Wait. How does that work? Like with Brit. I said ‘She should have known better.’ What would I say? ‘She wanted to know better?’ That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Ha! No, it doesn’t! Turn the single word ‘want’ into a couple words. Like ‘I want’ or ‘I would have liked.’ See if that works.”
She thought a second, then said, “’I would have liked it if Brit had been honest about why she wanted to see me.’ Wow. That’s really different!”
I watched and waited.
She went on. “When I say ‘I would have liked,’ it gives the choice and responsibility to me. Using ‘I would have liked it if you had,’ makes me a lot less angry at her, that’s for sure!”
“Thinking errors happen with ‘should’ when the ideas shift into right-and-wrong, good-or-bad, all-or-nothing. With that sort of fixed thinking, at some point, the idea behind the words won’t be accurate.”
“And that’s the definition of a thinking error? The ideas behind the words aren’t accurate?”
“Right. If you stop and logic it out, the idea doesn’t hold. There’s an error in it. Usually because there’s a big assumption in it somewhere. For example, could Brit really have known your preference? No! She’d never met you. She couldn’t have known unless you told her. But you assumed she ‘should’ know.”
“I see. The logic falls apart. OK. Great. Are there other thinking errors besides using the word ‘should’?”
“Oh, heavens, yes!”
“Well, I just mentioned assumptions. Assumptions are usually indications of thinking errors. That little phrase, ‘Don’t Assume Anything,’ is one of –“
“The Four Agreements!” she said, cutting me off. “I was just thinking that! I love that book.”
“One I hear a lot,” I said, “is people talking about feelings. They’ll say, ‘He made me so angry’ or ‘I want to make my husband happy.’ To me, the idea that one person can make another person feel anything is automatically a thinking error. It’s not possible to do.”
“Hold on,” she said. “I do a lot of things that make my husband happy! My kids, too.”
“I’m sure you do things with the intention of making your husband happy. And I’m glad if you get the result you’re after. But it’s not you who’s making him happy. His happiness is up to him.”
“No!” she protested. “He wouldn’t have been happy if it weren’t for me getting him that thing he wanted, or whatever I did in my infinite wisdom as his wife.”
“You make me so angry!”
“Let’s use a different example for a second. ‘He made me so angry.’ What about that?”
“Same thing!” she said with a bit of triumph. “He does something stupid that we’ve talked about a million times, then, yes, he makes me angry.”
“How do you mean?”
“Let’s suppose you’re having an argument about something related to the kids. You both feel strongly about your positions. Then, when you’re still on opposite sides of the issue, you find out he did that stupid thing again. How are you going to react?”
“You’re proving my point. That would make me really angry!”
“Fair enough,” I said. “Can we suppose a different scenario? No fight. In fact, a wonderful, relaxing time together, just the two of you. A date night. You’re having a great meal. You’re finishing off the wine. He’s listening to you talk about things here at work. You’re feeling really heard. And you find out he did that stupid thing again. What happens that time?”
She smiled with affection. “I’m probably going to cut him some slack.”
“Because other things are more important at the moment.”
“Me,” she said.
“So he did the same stupid thing both times, but your reactions are different. So it’s not what he did that makes you angry. You choose to be angry or not depending on the situation. Your feelings are yours to control. He has no control over them.”
She smiled and shook her head. “Do you know who I just talked about this with? Brit! She told me Carlos, the VP she was complaining about, was intimidating. That’s what she said. ‘He’s so intimidating.’ And I thought to myself, ‘No, he’s not. He’s actually pretty insecure and thin-skinned.’ I understand why someone like Brit might find him intimidating, but I think she’s wrong.”
“In what way?”
“A thinking error way. It’s not that Carlos is intimidating. But it is true that Brit is intimidated when she’s in meetings with him.”
“So how would you coach her to say it?”
She paused, thinking, then said, “Instead of saying ‘Carlos is so intimidating,’ she could have said, ‘I get really intimidated around Carlos.’”
“I agree,” I said, “Those are her feelings. She’s reporting accurately. No thinking error.”
Feeling statements (“I get angry when you do ‘X’”) were hard for Jodi to adopt. But as she got better at taking responsibility for whatever it was she was feeling, the thinking errors lessened, which felt much more like The Look & Sound of Leadership.
The Four Agreements
by Don Miguel Ruiz
- A thinking error occurs when a core idea is examined and proven to be inaccurate
- Thinking errors are often invisibly cloaked in the certainty of ‘right-wrong,’ ‘good-bad,’ black-white’ ‘all-or-nothing’ constructs
- ‘Should’ may indicate a thinking error
- Test every use of the word ‘should’ for the possibility of substituting ‘I’d like it if…’