• Posted in February 2014
  • Article written by Michael Carroll

The impact different styles of language has on our relationship

Breaking free of ought to, need to and must

Have you, in your relationship ever been told what you ‘should’ ‘ought’ ‘must,’ ‘need ‘ to do something? If you have experienced this type of language, take a few moments now to mentally backtrack in time and explore your internal response to this style of communication. How did you react internally? What did you feel? What did you say to yourself? What images did you create? Or is this style of language so frequent it had little impact? The verbs ‘should’ ‘ought’ ‘must,’ ‘need ‘ to in the NLP Meta Model are known as ‘modal operators of necessity’. Generally this type of language is not constructive in a relationship, as the focus is ‘rule based’ (what should, ought to, must be done) The opposite to rule based language of necessity,  is choice based language. In this article, I will present how to identify when necessity verbs are present and how to change the style of communication to clean and constructive in how you and your partner communicate with one another.

The processes that occur in the upper cortex in the human brain distinguish humans from other species.  Whilst most other species act on instinct and are restricted to sensory based communication systems usually to do with procreation or staying alive, human beings brains have evolved to have a facility for an advanced system of language. Language is one way of letting your partner know how you feel in any given moment in your relationship. Language and its inherent complexities can have a constructive impact or negative impact on what is being shared from moment to moment.  For example, telling your partner they ‘should have put the rubbish out by now’ will get a different response to ‘it would be a good idea to put the rubbish out’ The first sentence focuses on necessity (should) and is based on the rules of the speaker, the second sentence focuses on possibility (would) and is based on mental map where choices are present.

Have a look at the following sentences and explore your internal response

  • We should get out more
  • You ought to be home on time
  • You must lose weight
  • You have to tidy up more
  • You must not see your family as much

The must and have to verbs are very strong and would be indicative a person who likes to control through their own rules. Ought to and should are less strong and indicative of one person imposing their own rules on their partner. The chances are they are imposing rules on themselves as well with similar language, I should, I ought to, and I must. When you talk to yourself this way, particularly in critical voice you are operating from a set of rules you collected somewhere. It is a good idea to change your internal dialogue to choice based language.

Non verbal behaviour

In NLP there is large emphasis on non verbal behaviour. According to research by Albert Meriabaham (1971), voice tone and physiology are para messages to the communication and have a greater value in how the communication is experienced by the listener than the words themselves.  For example if a person said ‘you should put the rubbish out’ in a critical tone with a pointing gesture, it is reasonable to assume the person is coming from the necessity rule based perspective.  If on the other hand the person was laughing and the gestures were open, it’s less clear. In relationship’s we get to know the meaning of non verbal communication quite quickly and often unconsciously.

Flipping necessity to choice

To break free of necessity based language, all you do is to is substitute the necessity verbs with words of choice. So should, ought to, need to, must, have to become could, can, it’s possible, would.

  • We should get out more/it would be a good idea to get out more
  • You ought to be home on time/ I would like it if we could talk about the time you come home
  • You must lose weight/ Can we talk about our health
  • You have to tidy up more/ could we arrange a tidying up schedule
  • You must not see your family as much you have no time for me/ Can we talk about the amount of time we spend together

By substituting the necessity verbs to choice verbs you will notice you and your partner will have very different responses to each other.  You will be operating much more from a shared space using processes to explain what is important to you in this relationship and your life in general.  With rule based necessity words you are simply imposing your world on another person and that is not productive in a relationship.

If you are trained in NLP, you will notice I have taken one pattern from the meta model here and contextualised it to relationships.  There are 12 other patterns. The Meta model was created when the NLP co-creators modelled the language structures of two therapists who were working with people to help them have more choice in their relationships and family life. Within the syntactic structures of the Meta model are questions to challenge when a ‘client’ is operating from an impoverished map. Your partner is not a client so I have not included the question to challenge modal operators of necessity.  My thinking is if people learn how to use the Meta model on themselves and use clean language in their relationship the challenge is redundant. Enjoy the choices you and your partner create.


About The Author

Michael Carroll is the founder and course director of the NLP Academy and co-founder with John Grinder and Carmen Bostic St Clair of the International Trainers Academy of NLP.

He is the only NLP Master Trainer in the world certified by John Grinder and Carmen Bostic St Clair and he works closely with them in developing and delivering high quality NLP training.



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