Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda


Woulda, Shoula, Coulda…. These three words seem so innocuous, but they can end up being so insidious. Just think of most of the instances that you have uttered these words to yourself. Were you reflecting on a lesson learned or just simmering in a pool of regret? I honestly admit that these words for me fall decidedly in the regret category.

Think of how you feel when others say these words to you. Are you feeling supported? Do you feel that the other person is trying to help you learn something? Or, do you tend to feel that the other person sounds “smug” or “superior”. Frankly, I do not personally recall a positive collegial conversation that involves the triad of Woulda, Shoula, Coulda.

It is my opinion that these three words have the capacity of anchoring in a past event. These words can be used to reflect on something that has the potential to be improved, but most of the time these words convey the sentiment “I screwed up” or “you totally blew it”. For our own internal dialogue, these three words can be replaced with the more powerful “I will”, “I want” and “I can”. By changing the verb tense towards the future, we change the focus from the past that we cannot change to the future that we can achieve by learning from the feedback of past events.

When interacting with others, I feel it is best to first consider if the other person wants feedback. Sometimes people will tell us stories with the hope that they will listen and validate our feelings. For the person with the hope of thoughtful validation, “Woulda, Shoula, Coulda” can generate a feeling of invalidation. If someone truly wants our feedback on a past event, it is a lot more helpful to describe the possible options and encourage them to choose the best option for themselves.

“From what you told me, you could have done this, that or the other. The consequence of this would be X, the consequence of that would be Y and the other would lead to Z. What do you think your best option would be”.

Since we cannot change the past, it is best to focus on what we can accomplish in the future. I hope you are able to leave “Woulda, Shoula, Coulda” where they belong, in the past.

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4 Comments to “Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda”

  1. “Since we cannot change the past, it is best to focus on what we can accomplish in the future.” Easier said than done In my experience, but good advice!

  2. Great reflection. I think most people are either adding their empathy to the situation or they want to move onto a different topic. What I’d like to add to your words are, “what did you learn from this? How would you like to do this better?”

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