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Let Go of “Shoulds” and Expectations at Work (or Anywhere)

Conflict Remedy Blog by Lorraine Segal

Shoulds and expectations are a big source of conflict. If we have a clear, though completely unrealistic expectation of how the other personshould behave, or what should happen, we can get ourselves in all kinds of trouble when they don’t follow our “script.”

For example, a former colleague of mine, whom I’ll call Megan, was living in a large apartment complex. The wall near her apartment needed touch up painting because a mailbox was removed. She asked the landlord to pay for the paint, but he was unwilling. The situation escalated, with Megan writing a series of increasingly angry letters to the landlord, trying to “make” him do what was right. When we talked, she was on the point of withholding rent unless he paid. She was willing to risk being evicted or having to move if the landlord wouldn’t take care of this.

I asked her how much the paint would cost. She said $12.00. I was quite surprised, since moving from a place Megan basically liked would cost hundreds of dollars, and, as she worked from home, could also disrupt her income. I suggested she just get the paint herself, take care of the problem, and let the rest go. “But the landlord should do it,” she said. “It’s the principle of the thing.”Ultimately Megan did let it go. But her attitude is not unique.

I have worked with many clients who, at least initially, couldn’t let go of seemingly small issues with co-workers, supervisors, or spouses.

Often, it is because they are too angry about events in the past, with that person or someone else, to see what is in their own best interest. They have to address the emotion and it’s true source before they can make a better choice.

Letting go of righteous shoulds can help not only an individual or an organization, but an entire city. Seattle, like many other big cities, has had a major problem with hard core falling down drunk individuals out on the street. Over and over this relatively small number of people create a public nuisance, require expensive emergency treatment, take up a lot of police time, and are the subject of countless citizen complaints.

A few years ago city officials took a hard look at this complex problem. Then, working in partnership with many government entities, they decided to set up a “wet” house, a housing place for alcoholics, with no requirement or expectation that they would stop drinking. The workers would even buy alcohol for the residents. The result? The city saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in emergency services, and the alcoholics had a safe place to live where they were treated far more humanely and got better health services. Many cut back significantly on their alcohol consumption, and some even sought treatment and stopped drinking.

Now I think we all agree that alcoholism is bad and these folks would be better off not drinking. But these beliefs, however true, did nothing to solve the problem of those who were unable or unwilling to get treatment and stop. Only when Seattle let go of the shoulds and found a sensible, realistic way to help did they have some success that other communities are now duplicating.

I think a lot of us do the same thing in our personal and professional conflicts. We have a clear vision of what should happen, how the other person should behave and what they should do or say. But the problem is that the other person or group may not see it the way we do, and we can’t make them conform to our sense of what is right. If we persist in holding to this narrow vision, the conflict or problem persists as well. We can’t always find a perfect solution, but I encourage all of us to stop “shoulding” around in difficult conflicts and find our way to a more nuanced and realistic assessment of our options.


Lorraine Segal

After surviving the 50's and 60's, as well as twenty years in toxic academia as a tenured professor, Lorraine Segal was inspired to started her own business, Conflict Remedy (, happily teaching, coaching, blogging and consulting around workplace conflict transformation. She is addicted to reading novels and enjoys walking and… MORE >

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