Should and Ought: monsters of the English language

“I should have visited my mother more often.” “I ought to have worked harder for my exam.” “I must spend more time helping my child with his homework.”

When you want to beat yourself up, there’s no better way than telling yourself all the things you “ought to” do or “should have” done. These phrases express a sense of obligation and correctness and when you use them you feel that you’re not doing the best you can.

“Should” and “ought” encourage feelings of guilt. You may spend far too much time feeling guilty. Lessen that guilt by changing the way you think.

Internal dialogue
You, like all of us, have an internal dialogue running through your head. You may be aware of it constantly, or just occasionally. You use it to rehearse things you plan to do or say, and to relive past events.

The language you employ during that conversation reflects how you feel about yourself and reinforces those feelings. It perpetuates any feelings of worthlessness, of failing to come up to scratch, of being less good than all those other perfect people who, you imagine, would have done the things you “should” have. It feels as though you have a nagging critic constantly telling you how far you’ve fallen short.

Those weasel phrases hold up a distorted mirror to your face. In that mirror, you see the reflection of someone who has failed to be perfect. You take away that picture, imagining it to be the real you.

Adjust the dialogue
Break in to this vicious circle. Remember you have charge of your thoughts. You can change your internal conversation with yourself to make it positive. Instead of thinking, “I should have said ‘no’ to that slice of cake,” say, “I enjoyed that cake. I will choose to have an apple instead of dessert tonight so that I continue to maintain my diet.”

Take responsibility for your actions.

Notice how rarely you do things simply because you feel you “ought”. If you do, you probably feel miserably resentful. You usually do things because you think the outcome will be worth the effort in some way.

When you find yourself using the “ought” or “should” words, take a moment to consider just why you believe you should be doing something. Maybe you actively want to do well in your exam, or make your mother happy.

Decide what outcome you want, so you take the appropriate actions. You can decide not to do something, and take the consequences. If you fail to study, for example, you may fail the exam. How much does that matter to you? Only you can decide.

Concentrating on the outcome of your actions, not on the actions themselves, gives you permission to decide not to do things. Imagine being at your mother’s funeral. How will you feel then if you look back and know you visited her? How will you feel if you decide not to visit? You may decide that she is asking for an unreasonable commitment from you, that will not improve her life or yours in the long term. You may decide to be firm and say “no”.

Make sure you think carefully about the eventual outcome of your action, so that you choose it through logical thought, not a vague, guilty feeling that you “ought” or “should”.

Learn from the past
As you replay past events in your head, you may decide an outcome was less good than you hoped. For example, you may have given a public presentation and stumbled over your words, dropped your notes and tripped down the stairs. You feel bad. You feel guilty: that you let people down. You may think you “ought” to have spoken more slowly, tied the notes together and held the banister of the stairs.

This is hindsight talking.

You did your best according to the resources you had available at the time. It was your first presentation. You did not know how much practice you needed. Perhaps you were surprised at how nervous you felt.

Next time, you have additional resources at your disposal because of your experience. You know how you may feel, so you can prepare yourself more effectively. Make a plan. Practice slower speech and learn your notes by heart. Arrange not to walk down stairs, or practice going more slowly.

Increase your stock of resources for the next time and work towards a better outcome.

Your child’s dialogue
Help your child learn more mature ways of making decisions. She builds her internal conversation habits on the way she feels about herself, just as you do. Help her to think positively so that she understands and learns from mistakes while keeping a healthy regard for herself.

If she is rude to an adult, for example, rather than telling her she “should” or “must” be polite, point out that her behaviour was a mistake. Show her the consequences. It put her in a bad light. You are cross with her and the adult thinks she is ignorant and stupid. She may sacrifice a treat because of her behaviour.

Help her to see that behaviour that is more acceptable, leads to a better outcome, so she learns to make sensible decisions based on reality, not guilt.


The King’s Speech: how to improve your stammer even if you never broadcast to the nation.

I put off going to see this film for ages. I thought I’d see and hear an unlikely “miracle cure”. I was wrong.

The film moved me to tears. Accurate, realistic and honest, it showed so much truth about stammering.

A staggering one percent of the adult population stammer. Even more, ten percent, of children stammer, but many learn to speak fluently as they grow. The origins of stammering or stuttering (it’s the same thing) are still not understood, and there’s no sure-fire cure. Methods differ, but therapy’s come a long way from Demosthenes and his mouthful of stones.

It’s hard for adults who’ve missed the window of opportunity in childhood, and grown up with a stammer, but you can be hopeful. There’s plenty of help out there.

Sometimes, it seems there are as many methods of treatment as there are clouds in the sky: NLP, McGuire, Delayed Auditory feedback, prolonged speech, stammering fluently, fluent stammering : which to choose?

As Bertie found in the film, you can make a whole bunch of different techniques work together for you.

The common factor for success is your determination to be yourself, not defined by the way you speak. You already feel that determination, don’t you?

It’s possible
Remember, everyone can be fluent sometimes. Maybe you’re fluent when you’re talking to yourself, or to the cat. Maybe you need surround sound to block out feedback from your own voice. Maybe you can talk to friends but not make speeches in public.

If you can speak fluently sometimes, you can build on that. Whatever you want to do, it’s worth persevering. Keep trying.

Mary’s story
Mary stammers. She always has. She talks happily to colleagues, friends and family. Sometimes, though, she has to go to meetings and say her name and job title. As you know only too well if you stammer, that can be a real deal-breaker of a problem.

Mary’s solution was simple. She knew she was an exceptional writer of analytical reports. That’s why she had a job that meant going to meetings with strange and scary people. Those reports meant a lot to her. When she touched one, she felt pride and a warm, peaceful feeling of self worth. She stepped into her success zone the moment she picked up her work.

So one day, off she went to a meeting with new clients. She took one of her reports with her. She sat, scared as ever, waiting for the “round the table” recitation of names. When it was her turn, her heart pumped and her palms sweated, and she picked up her report and read her name out loud, off the front page. She had a little hesitation, but it was her best ever. She felt great.

There are plenty of reasons for this success. Her pride in her work gave her confidence. Touching the report helped her feel successful. Picking up the report was a distraction and let her look away from the other people round the table. She doesn’t really know why it helps, she just knows it works.

Now, she doesn’t take the report with her. She remembers that success story at every meeting, she feels that great feeling, and she knows she can cope.

Her story shows you can deal with even your biggest speaking fear.

Try an experiment for yourself. Think about something you do well, that makes you feel great. Close your eyes, breathe slowly and imagine yourself doing that thing. Watch yourself doing it, and admire your skill. Feel the feeling, and enjoy it.

Then, still breathing slowly, imagine going into a difficult speaking situation, with all those good feelings inside you. See yourself using that feeling of success when you speak. It’s a good feeling. Keep remembering it.

Practice every day, mentally watching yourself and your success. Enjoy seeing and hearing how great you are.

Next time you get into your speaking situation, slow your breathing right down and remember that great feeling of success. See what happens. It’s an experiment, so use the results to learn more and be even greater in future.

Visit the British Stammering Association to find out more, leave a comment on the Speechcontacts blog or subscribe to the mailing list at Speechcontacts and I’ll send you more free info.

Build Your Own Communication Kit 3

Do you look down and mumble when you’re nervous? Do you stare up towards the sky when you’re trying to remember something you’ve read? Have you noticed other people doing these things?

It’s all to do with using different parts of your brain. We have five senses: seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting. We differ, though, in the way we use them, and we often prefer to use one sense more than the others.

Some people are visual types, and they notice the things they see. Others are auditory and more aware of sounds, while others prefer to feel and touch things. We call that sense of touch, ‘kinetic.’

Amazingly, you can tell which sense a person’s using, just by looking at their eyes. If their eyes go up to look at the sky, they’ve thinking visually. If they look down, they’re noticing how they feel, and if their eyes move sideways, it’s a sign that they’re concentrating on sound.

The areas of your brain that deal with your senses are in slightly different places, and brain scanning shows that the direction of your eyes can indicate which bit of your brain is most active.

Knowing more about how others notice the world can help us to get on with people in day to day life as well as in the working world.

Sometimes we assume that everyone thinks the same as us, but we’re all different. The more we understand about our differences, the better we’re able to connect with people, enjoy their company, and make an impact on them at work.

Being aware of the options is a great tool in your communication kit. You can talk and write more meaningfully, by ‘talking the same language’ as your audience.

‘I see what you mean,’ ‘I hear you loud and clear,’ ‘Let me get a handle on that.’

The words and phrases we use give other clues about the way we think. When we say, ‘I was moved,’ or ‘he’s so sharp he’ll cut himself,’ or ‘hold on a minute,’ we’re using feeling ‘kinaesthetic’ language.

If we talk about, ‘I’m under a cloud,’ ‘you’re a sight for sore eyes,’ or ‘I can see my way forward,’ we’re using visual imagery.

And when we say, ‘it was music to my ears,’ ‘I hear you loud and clear,’ or ‘to tell the truth,’ we’re using auditory language.

You’ll find you use all your senses, but it’s likely you’ll find yourself preferring one or two of them. You may already have an idea about how you notice things. For example, do you learn best by reading what’s written or do you like to hear someone telling you information?

If you want to explain something, it helps to appreciate the way they think and learn. If you’re telling your aunt how to retune her television, for example, she may want to follow the written instructions. Or she may be better listening to an explanation, or will want to watch someone doing it and copy their actions.

Use word clues and eye movements to find out what kind of explanation will work best, or use all the sensory channels just to make sure.

Why not spend some time watching and listening, to find out the kind of language and learning that works for you and the people around you. With that tool in your communication kit, you can find endless ways to be clearer, get on people’s wave length and make connections.
If you’d like to read more about building your own communication kit, go to SpeechContacts