Coulda woulda shoulda: Four directions in conflict resolution

October 19, 2009, Psychology Today
By Jeremy Sherman

Jeremy Sherman

Jeremy Sherman

People are mind readers. We have to be. We’re intensely social creatures. Natural selection favors those of us who figure out how to anticipate each other’s moves. But for even the most highly adapted mindreaders, it remains a guessing game.

We guess by reading people’s actions, reputations, and declared intentions. Reputation and declared intentions are not as reliable as actions. But on what’s to expect from another person’s mind even actions aren’t completely reliable. People change. Their actions today may be different from their actions tomorrow.  So one of the main things we’re mindreading for is their likelihood of changing.

I got interested in mindreading matters in general when raising a child whose behavior was absolutely wild.  I lay awake night after night trying to figure out what to do for and about him. I noticed that the question pivoted on a wouldn’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t distinction.

Wouldn’t: Maybe he could change but wouldn’t because he didn’t want to.  If that was the case, as parents, it was our job to push him to change. If he could change but was unwilling, then it was our responsibility to make him feel the heat until he was forced to change.

Couldn’t: Maybe he couldn’t change. Maybe he was predestined to be the way he was. Doctors had diagnosed handicaps.  If it was a handicap, then we should try to accommodate him.  The last thing you do with someone handicapped is make them feel the heat until they have to change.

shouldn’t: Maybe he shouldn’t have to change. He argued that his behavior was justified, that there was some moral reason he was right for doing the things he was. We were parents who cared, which meant we listened with an open mind to what he said in defense of his actions. If he shouldn’t or needn’t change because his value system was simply different from ours, then we should simply agree to disagree. We should live and let live. Probably seperately.

You may recognize a pattern I’ve discussed here before.  I’ve called it the Youmeus Point, the point in a conflict between you and me, when we (individually or together) try to guess whether you should change, I should change or neither of us should change but rather just accept each other as different. With my son,  if he could change but wouldn’t then I have to push him saying “The problem is you.  You are responsible for this conflict and you have to change.” If he couldn’t change–just didn’t have it in him–then the change would have to come from me, not him. And if he shouldn’t have to change because he’s merely doing what’s right by another valid standard, then resolution would come from changing our relationship with each other. Call it bad chemistry. Call it quits.

My son is 29 now. We don’t talk. I try every month or so, but mostly I’ve given up.  Years of devoted parenting trying to figure out if he wouldn’t change, couldn’t change or needn’t have to change never got me very far. Ultimately his actions revealed a persistent enough “didn’t” that there seemed no use speculating any more. Nothing I tried worked and at some point it doesn’t matter why.  You place a bet that it’s not in the cards and try to get your mind to stop whirring through the three alternatives.

That’s a pretty personal story and I wouldn’t want to waste it.  I’m making a general point beyond my son, about resigning oneself to agnosticism on the wouldn’t-, couldn’t-, shouldn’t-change debate. You sometimes have to take “Didn’t” as your best guess, stop wondering and move on.

This general point applies in romance, child-rearing, dealing with a troubling boss or business partners, deciding what to do about your membership in a group, club or congregation–any time you find yourself angrily nagging someone to get them to change, or fuming resentment over someone’s unwillingness to change, or feeling guilty that you are hounding someone so much, or thinking that you should just humor someone and not let it get to you, or thinking it’s time to quit talking to someone.  Those and related emotions and thoughts are largely fueled by the wouldn’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t distinction, a distinction that sometimes you just have to give up on being able to make accurately, because all that ends up mattering is “didn’t.”

That’s what people mean when they say “coulda woulda shoulda.” The sound of those blurred words in fast succession is like nonsense sylables, an incantation that means “can’t.”  You just can’t figure it out so you let it go.



One thought on “Coulda woulda shoulda: Four directions in conflict resolution

  1. Dave says:

    Brilliant Jeremy!! Your theory should be required reading for every psych major in the country!

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