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Let’s say ‘could’ instead of ‘would’

Would you like to hear about a simple way to improve how we solve problems, especially moral dilemmas? It’s as simple as changing the words we use! In this episode, we’re going to introduce you to the big difference between saying ‘could’ and ‘would’.

As enablers of change, we often face ethical dilemmas in our work. We want to help farmers improve their practices and well-being, but we also have to respect their values and choices. We want to share our knowledge and expertise, but we also have to listen and learn from them. We want to promote innovation and change, but we also have to deal with uncertainty and risk.

How can we navigate these complex situations and make good decisions that are both effective and ethical? Zhang et al. (2018) suggests that one simple word can make a big difference: ‘could’.

The study found that using the word ‘could’ instead of ‘would’ when facing ethical dilemmas can help us gain moral insight and find better solutions. Moral insight is the ability to discover new ways of thinking or acting that can satisfy multiple moral values or goals at the same time. For example, instead of choosing between honesty and loyalty, we might find a way to be both honest and loyal.

Zhang et al. (2018) conducted several experiments with different scenarios and participants. They found that asking ‘what could I do?’ instead of ‘what would I do?’ when facing an ethical dilemma increased the likelihood of finding a win-win solution, reduced the tendency to rationalise unethical behaviour, and enhanced the sense of moral agency and responsibility.

Why does this happen? Zhang et al. (2018) explain that using ‘could’ instead of ‘would’ shifts our mindset from a predictive mode to a generative mode. When we use ‘would’, we tend to focus on predicting what we or others would do based on our existing preferences, beliefs, or norms. This can limit our options and make us overlook creative or alternative solutions. When we use ‘could’, we tend to focus on generating what we or others could do based on our moral values, goals, or principles. This can expand our options and make us more open to new or different solutions.

How can we apply this finding to our work as enablers of change? Firstly, when we encounter a farmer who is reluctant to adopt a new practice that we think is beneficial for them, instead of asking ourselves ‘what would I do if I were them?’, we can ask ourselves ‘what could I do to help them see the benefits of the new practice?’ This can help us empathise with their perspective, understand their concerns, and tailor our communication accordingly.

Another example is when we have to choose between two conflicting goals or values in our work, such as productivity and sustainability. Instead of asking ourselves ‘what would I do if I had to choose one over the other?’, we can ask ourselves ‘what could I do to achieve both goals or values?’ This can help us think creatively, find synergies, and avoid trade-offs.

When we face a situation where we have to decide whether to report or ignore unethical behaviour by a colleague, such as corruption or fraud, instead of asking ourselves ‘what would I do if I were in their shoes?’, we can ask ourselves ‘what could I do to uphold my integrity and professionalism?’ This can help us avoid rationalising or justifying the unethical behaviour, and act according to our moral standards.

Using ‘could’ instead of ‘would’ is not a magic bullet that can solve all our ethical dilemmas. It’s not a substitute for careful reasoning, consultation, or reflection. It’s also not a way to avoid making hard choices or taking responsibility for our actions. It’s simply a tool that can help us gain more moral insight and find better solutions. We encourage you to try using ‘could’ instead of ‘would’ in your extension work and see what difference it makes. You might be surprised by how much more you can achieve with just one word.

Well, there you have it! We’ve shared our thoughts and perspectives on being deliberate about the words we use, but now it’s your turn. We genuinely want to hear from you and learn about your experiences, tips, and ideas regarding this topic. Consider this your invitation to join in the conversation by leaving a comment below.

We believe in the power of open dialogue, where everyone’s voice is valued. So, don’t hesitate to share your insights, challenges, or further suggestions on this subject. Your contribution can truly enrich the discussion and help us all grow together.

Thanks for reading this Enablers of Change episode. If you want to stay updated on future episodes, subscribe to our newsletter. And if you’ve found value in this, please spread the word and let your friends know about it. We’d love to have them join the conversation!

Until we meet again, we wish you all the best. Keep embracing positive change and let your words be a catalyst for a better world!


Zhang, T., Gino, F., & Margolis, J. D. (2018). Does “could” lead to good? On the road to moral insight. Academy of Management Journal, 61(3), 857-895. Available online.

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David Bicknell
David Bicknell
9 months ago

Hi John and Denise – such an important reminder that the language we use affects how we see ourselves and how others perceive us, and even affects what we do! That whole should-would-will level of commitment.

Tony Watson
Tony Watson
3 months ago

hi guys, I missed this at the time, but really enjoyed reading and thinking about this just now. The use of the word could…
Thanks for sharing, cheers

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