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Learn to Solicit Feedback … from Your Kids

Jul. 19, 2020 Harvard Business Review

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.

1. Prepare

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:

  1. What do I do that you like or that you’d like to see more of?
  2. What do I do that you don’t like or has a negative impact on you?
  3. 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.

3. Respond 

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.

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