All posts by David Maxfield

Getting Things Done QA

How to Manage it All

NOTE FROM EDITOR: We are excited to announce the launch of our brand new training course, Getting Things Done®. In the month of August, we will be highlighting the skills and principles from Getting Things Done in our author Q&A article. Enjoy!

Dear David,

What is the best way to manage both work responsibilities and personal responsibilities? So much is required of me at the office that I feel like I put all my energy and attention into getting work done only to arrive home at the end of the day with little gas left in the tank to give to my family. In reality, they are my bigger priority, but receive less of my time and attention because I just can’t seem to manage it all. Any advice?

Sincerely,
Overwhelmed

Dear Overwhelmed,

Thanks for a very timely question! We just finished a major research study on this very topic. And the news is good! We discovered a relatively small number of changes you can make that will increase your productivity and reduce your stress—at both work and home.

We began by having 1,594 people rate their employees and peers from highest to lowest performer on a scale from 1 to 10, where the 10’s are the best. Then we asked two questions:

How much more valuable is a 10 than an average employee or teammate? The answer was, “Two to three times more valuable.” The 10’s account for more than half the work done in a team or department.
How do the 10’s do it? The answer was, “They work both harder and smarter, but mostly smarter.” In fact, an overwhelming number of their managers and peers said that the 10’s work habits actually reduce their stress.
We also collected thousands of descriptions of what 10’s do to be successful, and looked for the most common phrases. Here is what we found.

Communication Practices

• Top Performers: “They ask for help”, “Not afraid to ask questions”, “Know who to go to”, “Know when to ask for”
• Average Performers: “Lack of communication”, “Slow to respond”, “They don’t listen”, “They complain about”
Productivity Practices

• Top Performers: “They are organized”, “Good time management”, “Attention to detail”, “Very well organized”, “Keep track of what needs to be done” “Stay on top of their work”
• Average Performers: “Lack of attention”, “Lack of focus”, “Don’t follow through”, “Too busy”, “They are late”, “They are disorganized”, “Don’t meet deadlines”, “Not on task”

The communication practices will be familiar to those of you who’ve read Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, or Change Anything. However, the productivity practices comprise a wholly different set of skills.

For the last two years, we’ve been studying ways to improve personal productivity practices. Our guide has been David Allen, the author of the bestseller, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. So, we did a second study that put these practices to the test.

We began by using David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD®) principles to build an assessment that measures personal productivity practices. Next, we had 2,072 managers and employees complete the assessment, and tested how well it predicted their productivity and stress.

I need to get a bit technical to describe what we found: We used three methods to measure the impact GTD practices had.

1. A step-wise multiple regression analysis showed that the GTD practices improves Performance (R = .79) and reduces Stress (R = .78). These high “R values” mean that using these practices determine more than 60 percent of the difference between high and low performance and high and low stress.

2. T-Tests showed that people with high GTD scores had 68 percent higher performance and experienced less than half the stress of people with low GTD scores.

3. Item analyses showed the remarkable impacts GTD practices have. Here are a few of the items that grabbed our attention:

  • People with high GTD scores are 55 times less likely to say, “I start projects that never get finished, even when others are relying on me.”
  • They are 13 times less likely to say, “I’m not truly present at home, because I’m thinking about work and wondering if there are other things I should be worrying about.”
  • They are 18 times less likely to say, “I often feel overwhelmed. I start to think of tasks looming over me and that are about to crash.”
  • It was exciting to see the impact of David Allen’s five GTD practices. Their impact on both Performance and Stress are off the charts.

Three ideas for helping you at work and at home

I can’t teach you the entire GTD approach. For that, I recommend reading the book or taking our new Getting Things Done Training program. But I can give you a few big ideas that are proven winners.

1. Capture everything that comes in and out of your head. My favorite David Allen quote is, “Your mind is for having ideas, not for holding them.” Use a small number of capture tools, instead of relying on your memory. I use three simple tools: a pad of Post-It Notes, my email inbox, and a pad of lined paper. Whenever I have an idea, get an assignment, or remember a to-do, I capture it using one of these three tools. Having a reliable way of catching everything coming at me gives me peace of mind that nothing is slipping through the cracks.

2. Clarify everything in your in box, from top to bottom. Go through all of your capture tools at least once every day or two, and determine a next action for each item. Personally, I do this at the end of every workday. I go through the items in order, deciding what needs to be done with each one. This means I never use my email or notes as storage bins. I get my inboxes to zero before I quit for the day. Trust me, it feels like a little victory every time I do this.

3. Take stock once a week. Keep a sacred, non-negotiable meeting with yourself every week to catch up, get current, and align with your priorities. I spend an hour every Sunday night reviewing my past week, and planning my next. This is when I make sure my actions line up with my priorities, purpose, and values. This hour does more for me than any yoga method, meditation, or cocktail. It leaves me feeling renewed, energized, and confident that I’m on track.

Try these three practices. They take some discipline, but produce immediate payoffs.

Best of luck,
David

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Get Respect From the Boss

Dear David,

My boss and I have weekly one-on-one meetings. During these meetings, he frequently takes phone calls from his family, gets up in the middle of a discussion to use his personal restroom, and allows workers to just barge in to talk to him. I’m very frustrated with these interactions but he is the owner of the company and I am a new manager. I’ve discussed it with my peers, but the general consensus is it’s always been this way and he will not change. What can I say to still remain respectful and professional, yet help him understand how devalued this makes me feel?

Sincerely,
New Guy

Dear New Guy,

Thanks for your question. As I see it, this may be a difficult situation to change. The owner has a lot of leeway, and you aren’t describing any overtly hostile behaviors. Begin by asking yourself whether you’re accurately reading your boss’s intent.

Examine your Story: You’re telling yourself a story about his behavior—that his actions are intended to disrespect you. As a result, you feel devalued. Ask yourself the following two questions:

• Do you have all the facts you need to be confident your story is true?
• Is there any other, more positive, story that could fit this same set of facts?
Here are two attempts at different stories:

Story #1: From your boss’s perspective, the company is an extension of his home, and his office is his living room. When he invites you in for your weekly chat, it’s as if you are a guest in his home. He’s not trying to make you feel bad. He’s treating you with the same respect he would any one who entered his home.

Story #2: Your boss wants his company to feel like family, where he is the patriarch. As a result, he downplays some of the professional, impersonal, sterile business practices you see in most organizations. Instead, he creates more personal, informal relationships. Meeting with him is like sharing a beer with your father-in-law, when your father-in-law is buying. He sets the agenda, you’re not exactly his equal, and he takes bathroom breaks and family calls when he feels like it. But none of his behavior is intended to offend.

You mention that your peers don’t think your boss will ever change. Do they want him to? Or do they see his behavior as inclusive and welcoming? Are you the only one who is taking offense?

Master Your Story: I will suggest some actions that may help you change your boss’s behavior. But they don’t come with a guarantee. You can’t control your boss. What you can control is your reaction to his behavior. If you can’t master your story—if you can’t find a way to accept your boss’s behavior and feel good about it—then your choice comes down to either convincing your boss to change or leaving his employment.

Get Your Heart Right: Before you take action, stop and ask yourself what you really want long term for yourself, your boss, and the organization. Your initial question focuses too narrowly on how the situation makes you feel. Ideally, the conversation you have with your boss shouldn’t be about you and your feelings. The conversation should be about how to further your boss’s and the company’s priorities as well as your own.

Detail Your Expectations: You are asking for a change in the way your weekly meetings are handled. What exactly do you want? Don’t ask for something vague, like respect. Instead, make your requests very specific, such as: fewer interruptions, shorter meetings, clear agendas, etc. Decide what it is you are asking for.

Make it Motivating: Write down the pluses and minuses of each request. And include your boss’s perspective. For example, what does your boss gain or lose if he stops taking phone calls during your meetings? How would this change help him achieve his goals? Do your best to anticipate the consequences he values, and to weigh them in your balance sheet. Again, focus on consequences to the business and the boss, instead of talking about how his behaviors makes you feel. Your feelings may be fairly low on his list of priorities.

Make it Easy: Do your part to make your meetings more professional. Make calendar appointments that have beginning and end times. Get him agendas in advance, and bring a copy with you. Stick to the agenda as much as possible. At the same time, take care to avoid offending your boss. He may interpret your actions as signaling that you want only a professional relationship, not a friendship.

During the Meeting: At the beginning of the meeting, let your boss know what you’re stepping away from in order to meet with him. This puts some urgency on keeping the meeting on track and ending it on time. Then, when he interrupts your meeting, consider saying, “Let me know when you’re ready to continue, or if you want to reschedule.” Then leave.

I hope there are nuggets within my answer that will help you move forward. Please let me know how you work it out.

Best,
David

Influencer QA

What Should We Do and How Do We Get Everyone To Do It?

Dear David,

How does the Influencer model relate to processes such as: PDCA/DMAIC Cycles, Quality Circles, Statistical Process Control, Continuous Improvement/Kaizen, Lean/Six Sigma, and other Quality-Related approaches to Process Improvement?

Signed,
Curious

Dear Curious,

Welcome to the history of the Quality Movement! I’ve been lucky enough to work with many of the organizations at the forefront of this movement—Toyota, Ford, Mazda, Motorola, Xerox, and others—since the late 70s. My work has been mostly related to interpersonal skills, but it turns out these processes are also integral to quality improvement.

I think these processes help teams answer two important questions:

1. What should we do?
2. How do we get everyone to do it?

The first question focuses on process improvement; the second on influence.

PDCA/DMAIC Cycles: For those not already “in the know,” these initials stand for:

• PDCA = Plan, Do, Check, Act
• DMAIC = Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control

These processes are pretty similar. Each suggests a logical order to performance improvement initiatives, and each is intended to describe ongoing, continuous cycles of improvement. If you follow the steps in order, you should arrive at the answer to “What should we do?”

Quality Circles: Quality Circles were an early attempt to add Influence to the PDCA/DMAIC processes. The idea was to involve the people who were doing the work. If they were the ones who came up with the improvement idea, then they’d be more committed to “getting everyone to do it.”

These quality circles became the management fad of the early 80’s. Unfortunately, they were often imported into autocratic cultures that weren’t open to employees’ ideas, and so backfired.

Statistical Process Control (SPC): This is the approach that helped Japan conquer automobile manufacturing in the 90s. SPC focuses on how stable, predictable, and uniform a process can be and shows teams how to measure their consistency.

Before SPC, teams would achieve quality specs by producing 100 fuel injectors, and then throwing out the 20 that were out of spec. With SPC, teams could figure out how to make all 100 fit within the specs.

However, SPC required more arithmetic and math than many front-line employees would tolerate. SPC is great at answering, “What should we do?” but its use is often limited because it’s so hard to “Get everyone to do it.”

Kaizen, Lean, and Six Sigma: These three approaches are the basis for most quality programs today. Each tries to answer our first question, “What should we do?”

  • Kaizen focuses on short-term, small-scale improvement projects. It is often used at a team or even individual task level. The tools it employs are fairly simple and low cost: process mapping and cause-and-effect diagrams.
  • Lean focuses on intermediate-term, larger scale projects. These projects often span functions and departments, and include a wider variety of outcomes—quality, waste, speed, etc. It employs more tools and more sophisticated tools: visual controls, kanban, pull systems, etc.
  • Six Sigma focuses on long-term, large-scale, and complex projects. These projects involve multiple stakeholders, complex variables, and multiple outcomes. It employs the largest number, variety, and sophisticated tools: statistical tools, value-stream mapping, and a host of others.

Influencer: When we created the Influencer model, we began with the second question: “How do we get everyone to do it?” Presupposing that the quality team had already discovered what the “it” was. For example, it doesn’t take a lot of sophisticated quality tools to discover that hand washing is important in a hospital. But it often takes Influencer, with its Six Sources of Influence™, to get people to do it.

This emphasis makes Influencer the perfect complement to many process improvement initiatives. Teams use Kaizen, Lean, or Six Sigma tools to find better processes and then use Influencer to motivate and enable their adoption.

The greatest overlap between Influencer and process improvement is in two areas: Vital Behaviors and Structural Ability. Influencer focuses on the few Vital Behaviors that drive Results. Often, we use quality tools, such as process-flow maps, to find them. In addition, we use Kaizen, Lean, and Six Sigma to change the environment to make the Vital Behaviors easier and more likely.

I hope this helps. Many, if not most, of our customers use a variety of process-improvement systems. And they find that Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, and Influencer play a role in furthering their success.

Best,
David

Crucial Conversations QA

Resolving a Sibling Rivalry

Dear David,

My father passed away last summer after a six-month battle from mesothelioma. I was named as financial power and my sister as medical power of attorney in my parents’ will. My older brother went ballistic. Since then, he’s tried taking control of everything surrounding my Dad, my parent’s house, and now my mom. My mom was recently hospitalized and had back surgery. He tried to persuade the doctors to communicate only to him. He’s blown up at my sister, my mom, and me multiple times. His response is always, “No one listens to me!” or, “You’re not understanding me!” How can your books and ideas help this situation?

Signed,
House Divided

Dear Divided,

It’s sad when a family tragedy divides family members. This is a time when your mother needs support and the strife you describe is probably very hard on her. I’ll begin with a caution you’ve heard from us before: You can’t control your brother’s behavior or his feelings. What you can control are your own thoughts and actions.

Determine what you really want.
What are your hopes for the long term? Do you want a close relationship with your brother? Or will it be enough if you can get him to cooperate in your mother’s care and her affairs? I’m not suggesting you will be able to achieve either of these outcomes. You can’t control the way your brother feels and acts. But knowing what you really want will help you determine your own actions.

Understand the story that drives the feelings. Your brother went ballistic when he wasn’t given a greater role in your parents’ will. It’s important that you understand why that action provoked such a strong reaction. He probably saw it as a slap in the face—a sign of disrespect. When he says, “No one listens to me,” it makes me think he’s telling himself a story of ongoing disrespect.

Establish Mutual Respect. In Crucial Conversations, we say that, “Respect is like air.” When it’s there, you don’t even notice it. But when it’s not, it’s all you can think about. Does this sound like your brother? Is there a way to prove to your brother that you and your family respect him?

Let me imagine a tough scenario: Suppose your brother has a history of drug abuse, stealing from family members, and lying, and this is why your parents didn’t make him their executor. Does your brother still deserve respect? Of course he does! Every human deserves respect. But notice that the facts of the situation will determine how you will demonstrate that respect.

Demonstrate respect. There is no best way to demonstrate respect, so I’ll suggest a few that might be relevant to your situation. I’ll start by describing an idea that requires a great deal of trust and end with a few that require less.

    • If your role allows it, give your brother an accountability he can own. This action would demonstrate your trust. Of course, don’t delegate a responsibility unless you believe he can, and will, master it.
    • Involve him in your decisions. Ask for his help in establishing decision criteria, timelines, budgets, actions, etc.
    • Give him information in advance about decisions you will make. Clarify decision criteria, timelines, budgets, actions you are taking, etc.

Establish ground rules based on Mutual Purpose. In your question, you described several negative behaviors—taking control, excluding family members, and blowing up. You need to establish ground rules that prevent these from recurring. These ground rules will work best if your brother buys in to them. In fact, you’d ideally like him to play a role in creating them.

These ground rules should stem from your Mutual Purpose, which I believe is “Doing what’s best for your mother.” I think that you, your brother, and your sister would all agree on that as your key purpose.

If you find that this is your common ground, then ask the next question: “How should we act toward each other and toward mom to make sure we do what is best for her? What actions should we START doing to improve her experience? What actions should we STOP doing? And what actions should we CONTINUE doing?”

This START, STOP, and CONTINUE exercise should be inclusive. I’m sure your brother will suggest actions you should START or STOP doing as well. Again, make this a respect-building exercise by listening and including his ideas.

I hope some of these suggestions will work for you and your family.

Best,
David

Crucial Conversations QA

Tips to Battle Unconscious Bias

Dear David,

Five months ago, I started a job at an all-girls private, Catholic, school. I work as a technician and accepted the job because it combines my interest in instructional education and computer hardware and software troubleshooting. It also pays well above what I’ve earned in the past.

I’m a woman, and my teammates are all men. I’m feeling uncomfortable, but not because of the guy-to-girl ratio (4:1). It’s because I feel like all of my actions are being scrutinized under a microscope. I understand that this is a high-demand field. I’ve worked in schools before, but never as part of a team. So I’ve been introduced to things like team meetings and monthly feedback reports.

Lately, whenever I get feedback, I feel like my teammates are “fishing” for things I’ve done wrong. For example, the latest feedback was about what the expression on my face conveys. Help?

Sincerely,
Feeling Judged

Dear Judged,

Thanks for an interesting question. It combines a thought-provoking mix of issues: succeeding as a new employee, responding to feedback, and dealing with unconscious bias. I’ll suggest a few approaches.

Succeeding as a New Employee. Congratulations on your new job. It’s also a great opportunity for laying the grassroots of a successful career. Here is my advice:

Create your Personal Brand. Your brand is your reputation—the image you project. You need to take charge to make it the right brand. Our research for Change Anything uncovered three elements that are essential to your brand:

  • You know your stuff. In your case, this means that you are seen as a master of the different technologies you support. If you aren’t already a master, then put in the time and effort it takes to quickly rise to the challenge.
  • You work on the right stuff. This means that you focus on high-priority, mission-critical tasks, rather than staying in your comfort zone.
  • You have a reputation for being helpful. People need to see you as generous with your time and expertise.

Build Relationships. Reach out to build relationships beyond your immediate team. Schedule two to three appointments per week with your customers—teachers and administrators—across the school. Ask them about their priorities related to the technology services your team provides. Listen for improvements they’d like to see, and take notes. Try to find at least one concrete action you can take to respond to their suggestions.

At the same time, work to build stronger relationships within your team. This is where you need to build your reputation for being helpful. Volunteer for the tough jobs, pitch in when you see a teammate putting in extra time or effort, and ask others how you can help.

Get a Mentor. Find a person who is willing to both challenge you and advocate for you. This could be a teacher or administrator, or it could be your manager. The essential ingredients in the relationship are safety and trust. You need someone who can help you navigate the political complexities of your new job.

Responding to Feedback.
You are getting a lot more feedback than you’re used to, and it feels as if people are using a microscope to search for negative things to say. How should you deal with their criticisms? Here are a few suggestions.

Avoid Defending. It’s hard not to defend, especially when criticisms seem picky, unfair, or inaccurate. But do your best to become curious, instead of defensive. Respond with, “Hmmm. That’s interesting. Can you give me an example, so I can understand it better?”

Seek Clarity. Often, when feedback feels unfair, the real problem is that it’s vague. A person says, “You’re not very customer-focused,” when what they mean is, “After yesterday’s service call, you didn’t check back to see if your solution solved all of their problems.” Getting down to specifics will take the heat out of the feedback, and will also make it easier to act on.

Go Public. Here is a secret: People will continue to send you feedback until they are sure you’ve gotten the message. So, once you’ve decided how to respond to a piece of feedback, make your plans public. Going public communicates that you’ve taken the feedback seriously, have made changes, and that the person who gave you the feedback can move on.

Dealing with Unconscious Bias. As a woman in a team of men, you stand out. You get noticed. And, because we humans have our assumptions, your successes may seem a bit surprising to some, and your failures may seem a bit confirming. In addition, you may find that the work environment has been optimized for its prior residents—all men. How should you deal with these kinds of bias?

We recently studied the damaging effects of bias and found that subtle biases like what you describe are pervasive and soul-destroying. I am sorry you find yourself in this kind of environment. Luckily, there are skills you can use to confront what is likely an unconscious bias. I’ll suggest three from our Crucial Conversations book and training.

Speak Up. Don’t just grin and bear it. When you experience an interaction that leaves you wondering—like feedback about what the expression on your face conveys—step out of the content and have a conversation about your concerns. “Can I talk about what we’re talking about? I’ve noticed a pattern. Sometimes you give me feedback that seems more personal than the feedback you give each other. For example, feedback about my clothes, my glasses, and now my expressions. As men, do you ever receive feedback from each other on these things?” The goal is to begin an open, honest, and respectful dialogue that builds understanding and respect.

Make it Safe. Avoid labeling or accusing others. Instead, assume that people have positive intentions unless proven otherwise. Achieving a better outcome for the future requires that we help others and ourselves feel safe while addressing uncomfortable issues. For example, you might begin with, “I don’t think you realize how that came across . . .”

State My Path. Skilled individuals are careful to describe their concerns absent the judgments and accusations the rest of us hold when we speak up. For example, replace, “What you said was sexist and abusive,” with, “Last Friday, you said, ‘That’s the last time I send a woman to do a man’s job.’” Describe what really just happened—no apologies, no self-repression, no accusations, and no indictments. Begin with the detailed facts, tentatively suggest what the facts mean to you, then invite others to a dialogue where you both can learn. For a recap of these skills, watch our latest Crucial Skills Live video below.

I know this is a lot to process, but that’s what you get when you ask a really good question! I hope you find a few nuggets in my response that will help.

Best,
David

Influencer QA

How to Connect with an Aging Parent

Dear David,

My husband struggles with how to engage in conversation with his mother. Mom doesn’t get out much and spends a lot of time with what we consider negative news. When we are together, she shares her opinions as facts. Often sweeping generalizations, “Kids today don’t learn anything in school,” or, “No one . . . ” or, “All those people . . . “. He has tried to gently engage, “Interesting that you think that. What I’ve seen for my kids is they are working very hard and learning a lot in school.” She’ll say something like, “Well of course I don’t mean YOUR kids. But all the other ones who don’t have parents who care . . . ” If he disagrees with her, she acts personally attacked, and as if he doesn’t love her.

My husband has tried being silent and not engaging, but fears he is seen as agreeing and therefore contributing to stereotyping and prejudice in our society. He has tried to bring it up, “When you state your opinions so strongly, I don’t know how to share a different opinion without you feeling hurt that I disagree,” but without luck. Please help!

Signed,
Sidelined by Mom

Dear Sidelined,

What a sad question! Hurt feelings in families are especially painful. And yet, when you hear a loved one make an offensive comment, you don’t want your silence to endorse it. In Crucial Conversations we teach how to disagree in the moment without hurting feelings, but I want to draw on our book, Influencer, to take a longer-term view.

I think the fundamental problem to solve is that mom doesn’t get out much, but wants to contribute to your conversations. I don’t know her so I’m going to imagine she is a bit like my mother or my wife’s mother when they were in their 70’s and 80’s.

Your Data Stream Determines Your Mental Agenda.
As my mom entered her 70’s and 80’s, she retired from being a math professor, health problems kept her mostly indoors, she stopped driving, and she moved away from friends to be close to family. This meant that her world shrank into a fairly small bubble. Is this the same for your mom?

Imagine her small world. Where does she get her information? She probably watches a fair amount of television, mostly cable news with a sprinkling of a few favorite shows. Her friends are probably a lot like her, similar in age and TV viewing habits. As a result, her data stream is limited and repetitive. And it’s likely to be skewed towards the negative, because that’s what’s considered newsworthy.

Mom is Still Mom. A mom’s role in the family is a sacred one, and your mom should never give it up. A part of that role is to give advice, share opinions, and protect you from the world out there. I believe that is what she is doing when she makes her “sweeping generalizations.”

Conversations Stall Out. Does the following happen? You and your husband are with mom making conversation. You hit on a topic where she thinks she can contribute, because she heard about it on TV. But, when she speaks up, her comment strikes you as a negative opinion, not a fact. You either go silent or speak up to disagree. The conversation dies and mom feels hurt.

If this is what’s happening, then the question shouldn’t be, “What can I say in the moment?” but, “What can I do to broaden mom’s data stream and deepen our relationship?” Here are a few strategies that worked for my wife and me.

Include Her in Your Data Stream. My wife and I got some excellent advice from a friend. She told us, “When your mom gets into her 70’s, you need to call her every day.” We took that advice and it made a world of difference. It gave us personal topics to talk about, topics that were more important to us than whatever the latest news might be. Weekly calls don’t give mom enough context to contribute, but daily calls make her a part of your life.

We also began taking more photos. We’d send our mom two or three photos a day, just to let her know what we were up to. Then, when we talked at the end of the day, mom could comment on the photos and feel as if she were with us.

Think of ways to connect on a daily basis and to give her more details about your goings on. This will give you more positive and personal topics to discuss.

Create Common Experiences. My mom was a reader, so we started a book club with her—just me, my wife, and my mom. We quickly learned what she liked: John McPhee was an early favorite. As she grew older, we moved to shorter essays and stories. Tove Jansson’s, The Summer Book, and Bern Heinrich’s, One Wild Bird at a Time, became our new favorites. Once again, our goal was to create common experiences and shared experiences that gave us more to discuss than the weather, current events, and politics.

My wife’s mom loved music, so we started watching TV music shows together. This was a bit awkward since we lived three states apart. But the three of us became fans of American Idol, The Voice, and Dancing With The Stars. My wife would call her mom just before the show began to awaken her and make sure her TV was tuned to the right channel. Then, we’d call during commercial breaks to get her opinions on the performances, judges, and competitors. Again, our goal was to have shared experiences that were more relevant and personal than the weather, current events, or politics.

A last piece of advice is to ask mom about herself. Moms have so much history and wisdom to share. Below are a few questions I’ve pulled off the Internet. My wife and I tried some of these with our moms. They can stimulate some rich conversations, but not all of them work with every mom and you may need some patience to get the conversation going.

• How did you meet Dad and how did you know he was “The One”?
• What’s one thing you wish you did differently before you got married or had kids?
• What question do you wish you could ask your mom?
• What’s the hardest thing about being a mom? What’s the best thing?
• What was your dream job when you were younger?
• How many jobs have you had in your life? What did you learn from them?
• Who was your favorite person to spend time with when you were a teenager? Why?
• What kind of car did you learn to drive in? Who taught you?

I hope these ideas help you find more common ground with your aging mother and create common shared experiences that can generate positive conversation. I believe you are seeking for that kind of rich relationship that will benefit you both and I hope you can find it.

Best of Luck,
David

Influencer QA

Advice for the Parents of the Marshmallow Eaters

Dear David,

I think many are familiar with the Marshmallow experiment to demonstrate the benefits of delayed rewards. Is there any corollary data that demonstrates that those challenged with delaying rewards (i.e. those who ate the marshmallow) also struggled with avoiding penalties? In other words, do those so inclined ALSO engage in little behaviors to avoid consequences? I think of my daughter who is a marshmallow eater (unlike her brother who would wait). She also would lie a little to cover up a small infraction. But the lie eventually grows to become something with much bigger consequences. The son who understands the value of waiting for rewards is also much more likely to confess a little mistake and “take his stripes” but avoids the major repercussions of a compounding issue. Does data back this up and how can we help those who would eat the marshmallow understand the value of waiting and the penalties of compounding mistakes?

Thanks,
Marshmallow Parent

Dear Marshmallow Parent,

Wow, you’ve put some great thought into this question. Yes, I think the marshmallow study may tie in to what you are observing. But that’s not where I want to start. I’d like to start with how you handle the little lies your daughter is telling.

When Children Lie: Lying is tough because it undermines trust and shows disrespect. It’s hard not to take it personally and get angry. Part of what I like about your question is that you approach the lie with concern and curiosity, rather than moral outrage. I think that’s the best approach you can take as a parent.

For children, lying is often a faulty form of problem-solving. Your daughter has gotten herself into a fix and a lie seems like the solution—albeit a very poor-quality solution. So, treat the lie as a lack of skill and help her work on her ability to problem solve.

Of course, you also have to hold her accountable. Think of a reasonable consequence related to the lie and the problem she was trying to cover up.

For example: Suppose your daughter said she was doing her term paper at a girlfriend’s house when actually she was visiting a young man.

Begin with: “I called Sarah’s house and learned you were at Tanner’s. When you lie to me about where you are and what you’re doing, it makes it harder to trust you. So, you’re grounded for the rest of this week and you can’t see Tanner this weekend.”

Then, explore why she felt she had to lie: “Help me understand why you felt you had to lie about this?” You aren’t looking for an excuse for the lie. Instead, you are trying to understand the reason for the lie.

Finally suggest a better solution: “I would prefer you say, ‘Mom, I know you want me to work on my term paper this evening, but I really want to see Tanner.’ I would listen, and we could talk about it. Of course, there is a good chance I’d say ‘No,’ and you’d be disappointed. But that’s not as bad as lying, and hurting the trust we have.”

Teach Self-Control: In Walter Mischel’s classic studies, he followed four-year-olds who were able to resist eating a marshmallow for fifteen minutes in order to get a second marshmallow. Years later, these strong-willed children scored hundreds of points higher on their college entrance exams, had stronger marriages, earned more in salary, and got promoted more often. He showed that the ability to delay immediate gratification in service of longer-term goals is an important skill.

What people often forget is that Walter, together with Albert Bandura, also showed that self-control is a skill that children must learn, not a capacity they inherit. I remember watching my next-door neighbor teach this skill to his four-year-old. We were at a pool that had a waterslide. The rule for the slide was to wait at the base of the ladder until the child in front of you had landed in the water and reached the side of the pool. Little Ryan had trouble remembering this rule. His father and I were in the water having a conversation, but every few seconds, he’d have to remind Ryan, “Wait, wait, watch the girl in front of you. Okay, now you can go!” Ryan must have gone down the slide fifty times, and, by the end, knew how to hold himself back without reminders.

Of course, Joe, my neighbor doesn’t just teach self-control at the pool. It is a part of his positive parenting every day. He seeks out these teaching moments when he can help his children develop character skills.

Teach Influence: As I suggested earlier, lying is often a child’s last-ditch effort to get their way, when they feel they have no ability to influence their parent. Helping a child mature is all about gradually, sensibly, and safely giving over control. Children who believe they can get their parents to change their minds are more likely to try dialogue and less likely to lie.

But this loosening of reins is easier to advocate than it is to practice. One of my sisters-in-law uses a parenting skill I admire. Suppose her fourth-grade daughter comes in and asks, “Can I go to Mary’s birthday party on Saturday?” Her mom won’t give her an answer right away. Instead, she’ll say, “Convince me,” and then help her daughter make the case. She’s teaching her children how to influence her and allowing them to succeed when it makes sense. As her children have grown into their teenage years and beyond, they’ve maintained this kind of open and honest dialogue with their mother—in part, I think, because they are confident they can influence her.

Do as I Say, not as I Do: Whenever I answer a question about parenting, I feel I need to add that I’m not a parent. My wife and I have 24 nieces and nephews, so we’ve gotten to witness some wonderful parenting, but I don’t practice what I preach. For example, over the years, we’ve had nephews and nieces join us for dozens of “Camp Davids”—hiking Bryce Canyon or the Olympic National Park, unicycling in Moab, and surf lessons in Southern Cal. But these fun adventures don’t really involve much parenting. In fact, Camp David only has one rule: “You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.” So, my advice comes from skilled friends and relatives, not from hard-won experience.

Thanks again for your probing question. I look forward to hearing other perspectives on how to handle your situation.

Best,
David