How to Handle Mistakes: Stop Shaming & Start Shaping

We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why. – Stephen King

Do you know anyone that can undo the past? I certainly don’t! If someone makes a mistake and we tell them what they “should” have done, they will resent us even if we were right. They will resent us, especially if we were right, because they can’t do anything about it.

Telling someone what they “should” have done only creates a feeling of helplessness in that person, because they’re feeling shamed and they can’t do anything to erase their error!

Striking the word “should” from our vocabulary is easier said than done. Just pay attention to how often you or others use the word “should” and you will see how rampant its use is.

It is very important to remember, “shoulding” on someone creates shame. If you are a parent, then you will get to witness countless mistakes made by your children. If you are a teacher, then you will get to witness a number of mistakes by your students. If you are a leader or coach, you will also be faced with addressing mistakes made by your employees, players, and teammates.

Creating a shaming experience by using the word “should” will backfire on you in the long run. So, what is a person supposed to say when someone makes a mistake?

You have two options to use when faced with addressing a mistake; you can lash out or you can look for the lesson. Remember, that person cannot take back what they had done, the only thing they can do is learn from it. Use the words “next time” or “from now on” or “in the future” to COACH that mistake instead of CRITICIZE it!

Instead of telling someone, “You shouldn’t have done that,” use the words “from now on” and then fill in what you would rather have them do. For instance, if a player dropped a game winning pass, instead of saying, “You shouldn’t have looked behind you,” say, “From now on, keep your eyes on the ball.”

When you use the words “next time” or “from now on” or “in the future,” the person who made the mistake will no longer be obsessing about what happened and feeling ashamed. Rather, they will be able to turn this moment into a useful experience because that person is focused on how to do it better the next time, instead of why she or he did it wrong this time.

The word “should” is the verbal equivalent of a parent shaking an index finger at a child for messing up. Realize that we all make mistakes and that your advice is the difference between “shaming” someone and “shaping” them.

Thomas J. Watson, Sr. said it best when he stated, “Failure is a teacher – a harsh one, but the best.” Turn mistakes into teachers and you can become a better, instead of a bitter person.

Better or bitter? The choice is now yours!

Chris Swenson is a licensed Couple and Family Therapist currently helping people overcome challenges at his private practice counseling office in Sterling, CO (Rhino Wellness Center). To contact Chris, you can call 970-522-0796 or schedule an appointment online at