A few times this week I have experienced a crisis of “what is” versus “what should be”.  As is often the case, we don’t see it first in ourselves, but in others.

Let me explain.  I listened to a client this week tell the story of what was happening inside her organization.  She described a number of dysfunctional pieces that were making her life difficult to work, stay organized and focused on priorities.

The pressures were significant and real. Fair enough. That in and of itself is not problematic. It can even be cathartic to have another person just listen to the challenges one is facing. And in fact, the line between what is simply symptom/cause identification in the spirit of resolving an issue and ‘story-telling’ about “what should be” is subtle.

However, what I have come to realize is that a lot of the story-telling going on in our heads and with colleagues revolves around a “should”. They should know better. The leadership should know more. The team should listen to me more.

The real truth of this practice of “shoulding” all over the place, is we keep perpetuating that same story, repeatedly finding validation for our story so it holds true.  In this way, we are mining for all of the data that proves we are right.  And in fact, we are likely missing or discounting data that does not validate our story. In this way, we stay stuck.  Instead of understanding problems more clearly and working actively to improve situations, we continue to tell the story to whomever will listen.

So you may say, well so what? Well, there is a cost in my opinion.

Typically the greatest cost is in our interpersonal relationships. Over time, complaining damages relationships. Many of us find it hard to listen to the same complaints over and over again. I think deep down inside, many of us come to work wanting to find hope and belief that we can do better, and some days it is hard. Generally speaking, many of us are looking to our colleagues to believe, to bring a “can do” attitude and to even challenge us to do the same.

Moreover, these examples of talking about what “should be” are not benign. They expend energy– people’s valuable time and energy–and potentially create interpersonal conflict.

When we talk about “what should be”, we are conveying a desire for our solution, as we see it. We talk about it at length, and make others the bad guys in our story. However we may be doing little to proactively influence the situation which may bring about change. In contrast, we may come to be seen as “complainers”, just wanting to be right, or wanting someone else to be wrong (my manager, the leadership team, the Board, my colleagues). We just don’t realize it.

For example, the other day I overhead two young men talking about some challenges inside their organization. One of them said, “I hope the whole operation goes down, just so they recognize how badly they are mismanaging the operation”. I was floored at this statement. I wish the whole operation would go down? Wouldn’t that mean the company would fail and you all, management included, would be out of a job? That makes no sense. But won’t it feel great that you were right!

I am starting to see that we would be better off, have healthier team relationships, and could be of better service inside our organizations if we shift the conversation. More often, our conversations need to address “what is”.

An example from my own life rings true. I used to complain that I couldn’t win enough business because Kwela had an environmental policy, restricting us from working with organizations outside the lower mainland. I believed this was preventing me from doing work with some great organizations.

Inherent in this complaint was a “should”:  Kwela’s leadership should relax the environmental policy so that I can go after different organizations outside the lower mainland. That was my opinion of a great solution. After a couple of tough conversations, eventually I got over my feeling about the “should” and got down to the business at hand of expanding our reach locally. I am pretty sure Kwela’s leadership appreciated that shift.

So let’s cast aside the “should be”, the desire to be right and vindicated, and instead let’s attempt to tackle the “what is”. When you catch yourself spinning a story, ask, what is this in service of? Is there a “should” inherent within my story? When I am repeating the situation, am I talking about observations not judgements? How could I shift myself more into a mode to address “what is”?

Joanne Spalton, Senior Consultant