Understanding how others experience us is an important tool for change. That’s true in the workplace and especially at home, where we’re often so busy being parents and partners that it’s easy to overlook the impact we have on others. How can we measure how we’re doing as parents? What work tools might we adapt to use at home? Following the best practices you’d use in the workplace to solicit upward feedback from your children can help you identify areas to improve as well as positive behaviors to continue.
I decided to experiment with this approach by checking in with my daughters. Both conversations were relatively short, between 5 and 10 minutes. My kids were very direct, and most of the feedback they gave me concerned everyday interactions rather than really big issues.
While being a good parent is something I regularly think and talk about with my family, this approach focused the conversation using a process I’ve worked through with thousands of leaders in my role as a consultant and I found that many of the same best practices apply.
Here are four steps to conduct meaningful conversations with your kids.
To make this a positive experience, give your child context and a sense of safety.
State your intention and give them the questions. Explain that you’re looking to improve as a parent and you want their feedback. You may be aware of a specific behavior or pattern of engagement with your child that you want to work on (such as being on your smartphone less or listening before responding with your opinions).
Consider asking the following three questions:
- What do I do that you like or that you’d like to see more of?
- What do I do that you don’t like or has a negative impact on you?
- What would make me a better parent?
Give your kids time to think about their answers by sharing the questions in advance.
Set the stage for openness and honesty. Even if you have an open relationship, your kids might be concerned about how you’ll receive their feedback. Emphasize that it’s okay to share anything — positive or negative. Say something like, “I want to hear your honest opinions. Especially if there’s something I do that you don’t like, because I really want to understand how my behavior impacts you.” Convey that you’re strong enough to hear bad news, and that you plan to use their feedback to make important changes in your behavior.
Pick a time and place. Set the stage by picking a time and place that will make your kids feel comfortable; consider asking them to decide where and when you’ll talk.
2. Conduct the conversation
Begin the conversation by again assuring your child that you’ll listen with openness and believe what they say. Acknowledge that their feelings and perspective are valid, and prepare to follow through on the safety you’ve created.
Remind them of your goal and the rules. I told my daughters that I intended to act on what they shared with me, and we could brainstorm ways to implement the changes they were asking for. I asked them to try to be as specific as they could about my behavior.
Ask the three questions. Per her request, my 9-year-old and I sat at our dining room table to talk. She shared this feedback: “Stop correcting me when I’m doing something, and let me figure it out, and only help me if I ask for help.” My 16-year-old and I drove to get take-out dinner, and we had our conversation while waiting in the car for our food. She said that she appreciated how I listen to her and give her room to talk in our conversations. But she also shared that sometimes she just doesn’t feel like talking.
Listen. Try to listen without judgment to your child’s answers. Ask for examples (e.g., “Can you tell me about a time when I did that or made you feel that way?”). If something is difficult to hear, acknowledge that by saying, “I didn’t realize how difficult that’s been for you. It’s hard for me to hear.” One example my younger daughter shared was a recent bike ride when I had repeatedly told her to stop at a stop sign, increasing my volume to get her attention. It would have been very easy for me to justify myself — that I only correct or help when she needs it, or that I saved her life on that ride. Instead I reflected on her big-picture message — that she hoped to be respected and trusted.
Clarify. Encourage the conversation to go deeper by asking follow-up questions. Your goal is to get a clear and complete understanding of your child’s experience. After my older daughter said she doesn’t always feel like talking, I asked, “Can you tell me a little more about that?” She replied, “Not all of our conversations need to be deep, and if something is bothering me, I don’t always want to talk about it.” I learned that when she deflects my attempts to have a deeper conversation, I shouldn’t get upset with her. Apparently, when we’ve had these interactions in the past, I’ve seemed disappointed, which made her feel bad.
Manage your emotions. This entire process will backfire if you don’t respond with grace and appreciation. If you don’t like the feedback you receive, remind yourself that your goal is to understand your child’s perspective. If you get angry or upset, you can seriously harm the relationship you’re trying to improve. So take a breath, and try to maintain your curiosity.
When it’s your turn to talk, be calm and open, always mindful that they’re taking a risk in sharing information that may upset you. Avoid asking questions in a way that feels like an interrogation. Softness in language and facial expressions matter when you say things like, “Can you help me understand how I did that?” When my teen said she appreciated that I always allowed her to share her point of view, I acknowledged that I’ve always felt it was important for her to have a strong voice and assured her that I would continue to do this.
Thank them. No matter how you feel about their feedback, remember that your child took the time to do you what you asked, so acknowledge their cooperation and say thank you.
Summarize what you heard. Review and acknowledge the primary messages you’ve received. For my 9-year-old, I said that I heard that she wanted me to let her figure things out for herself. For my teenager, I said that I heard her say that while she appreciated my willingness to listen to her point of view, not every conversation had to be deep and meaningful.
4. Follow up
Now you’re ready to develop a plan for change. Based on the feedback you’ve received, you’ll probably have some ideas about what you can do differently. Just like leadership-development plans, a family plan that focuses on grand actions once a month will not be effective. To produce real change, come up with a few ideas you can do every day, even multiple times per day.
Reflect on what you heard. Take some time on your own to reflect on what your child has shared and look for themes. I began to see a pattern in my own behavior as both my daughters shared feedback about getting out of their way: I recognized I need to let my kids grow up. My 9-year-old’s request to figure things out for herself rang true for me. I was both proud of her for expressing her independence and a little sheepish because I realized she was right.
You might be surprised to find that something you’ve been doing that you meant to be positive had unintended negative consequences. Like my attempts to engage my teenager in meaningful conversation. I learned that the way she wanted to connect wasn’t always what I had in mind. At the end of our chat, I confirmed my understanding that not all conversations need to be deep, and if she wants to talk about something light, like a TV show or silly memes, I could accept that as an equally important way to connect.
Brainstorm ideas. Share the information from these conversations with your spouse or partner and brainstorm ideas for change. Once you have some ideas in mind, share them with your child and talk about what you might do differently.
You can say, “Thanks again for being willing to talk with me. I’ve been thinking about the feedback you shared and I want to tell you what I plan to start doing differently.” Just two or three meaningful things that you plan to work on will make all the difference.
I told my 9-year-old, “I’m going to try to do more of the things you enjoy, like taking time out of my workday to play a game and have fun with you. I’m also going to work on letting you figure things out. Especially when you probably know what to do without me.” You could also discuss ways your child might gently remind you when they see you falling into old habits, such as creating a code word or signal they could use.
Keep the conversation going. Tell your child that they can talk with you about how your behavior impacts them at any time, with the expectation that you will listen and respond. Let them know that this initial conversation was a great start, and that you hope it’ll continue over time. Consider ways to have regular feedback conversations, either as needed or by scheduling them around a milestone such as a birthday.
One of the best things to come out of this experience was hearing my teen say that she felt I was in the top 1% of dads just for asking her these questions and not pushing back on her feedback. I have no idea if I’m in the top 1% of dads, and it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that I gave my daughters a chance to express their perspectives on my parenting, I took their concerns seriously, and I responded non-defensively. And that may be one of the most valuable lessons of all as a parent.
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