One Phrase Worth Rethinking

I recently had a discussion with a young lady that was exasperated at an ongoing conflict she was having with a co-worker. The conflict started on a separate project several months ago and now they were working on something new together and all he could do was put her down and make her feel stupid and insignificant. Since in this case they had no choice but to work together, she was exhausted and highly stressed at the idea of having to go through this with him again. I asked her if she had spoken to him directly about her concerns in light of this new project. Her response was a very common phrase:

“I shouldn’t have to.”

Her reasoning was that they had spoken before and that she had made herself crystal clear yet already he was starting to give her “those looks” again that indicated how useless he thought she was. Since they had talked about this before, she felt he ought to know how that these looks and the tone of voice he used were condescending and insulting. She was emotionally exhausted having to be on his team again.

You can see there is a lot for our young lady to get her head around about her own accountability, but look at that last sentence again. “He ought to know how to act in this situation.”

I have seen many people (myself included) brought to a complete halt by the “I shouldn’t have to” mentality an interpersonal conflict situation. “I shouldn’t have to” assumes (a) “rightness” on the side of the person saying it and (b) some kind of justice that exists between us and all of those with whom we have relationships. In fact, when it comes to conflict situations, “I shouldn’t have to apologize” is one of the most common walls erected to resolution. It means, “I am not to blame, she is, therefore it is she who needs to apologize.”

The problem is that “I shouldn’t have to” is often entirely irrelevant. The real issue is whether the potential outcome of DOING it would outweigh the protection of pride involved in NOT DOING it. And that’s what “I shouldn’t have to” is often about. It is my own ego interpreting the situation as if taking whatever action this is will put me in a subordinate position. And that position becomes more important than the actual resolution of the issue.

Of course there are times where the situation has become extreme enough that you have to put your foot down and say enough is enough. This is an example of ownership of your role in the situation and taking a stand. Unfortunately, “I shouldn’t have to” is a phrase of inaction…it sometimes represents why we are not going to do something in the specific situation that might, in reality, make a difference.

Before deciding that I just don’t understand the jerks you work with (and I don’t…but they aren’t that different from jerks others work with…trust me), ask yourself a couple of questions before sticking to your “shouldn’t have to” plea.

  1. What are the consequences of action versus inaction? Is it possible that doing what you “shouldn’t have to do” might break the stalemate?
  2. Is it possible that you are now trying to make a point rather than trying to solve the problem?
  3. Is it possible that the other party doesn’t realize that you are waiting for them to do something? How would they know?
  4. Is it possible that your stand is based on a lack of confidence rather than real justification?

And by the way, don’t let me sound too righteous here as this is a trap I fall into as frequently as anybody. I often have to ask myself who I’m helping and whether or not it is really worth it. The big question for me is often, “Is this really a principle I’m standing on or is it pettier than that?” If it’s pettier, it might be worth doing it, even if you shouldn’t have to.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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