In researching the new book (which launches Tuesday), I experienced the treat of spending time with people like Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, R.C. Buford, GM of the San Antonio Spurs, and Dave Cooper, a SEALs Team Six commander. Yesterday, a friend asked me a question that caught me by surprise: has this experience changed how I parent? (My wife Jen and I have four kids; 22, 19, 17, and 16). The answer is, yes, absolutely. Four ways:
1) Learning to truly stop. Connection happens when you totally, utterly cease what you are doing and give someone your full attention. This sounds incredibly obvious, but I didn’t fully appreciate its power until I felt it in action, and saw how it creates the foundation for all conversation.
2) Seek to listen like a trampoline. As a parent, you want to be the Wise Person with All the Answers; you want to help solve your kids’ problems fast. The leaders I spent time with did the opposite. They almost never tried to solve problems quickly, or interject their own ideas. Instead, they focused on absorbing what the other person was saying, and responded, usually with questions. My favorite image for this comes from work by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman: listen like a trampoline: absorb the message, and then try to add height and perspective to the conversation. And besides, kids don’t really want answers anyway — they want to be heard.
3) Make fewer wisecracks. Confession: I’m the kind of parent who’s always looking for the joke — the pun, the call-back, the wisecrack. Spending time with top leaders showed me that this is not always a good instinct. A lot of little jokes have a message beneath them — I’m smart — that can undermine the sense of belonging that strong groups have. It’s not the joking that’s bad — it’s when you fail to balance things out with moments of real connection.
4) Lead with failure around the dinner table. You know the drill: you ask your kids how their day went, and they say “fine,” and so you dig for more, and the whole thing produces all the fun and delight of a tooth-pulling session. Here’s the solution: stop asking. Instead, tell them about something you failed at today. Some screw-up, big or small — and don’t hold back. Go into detail, show your fallibility. It sends a massive signal of belonging and openness, and it makes for dinners that are (I can testify) a lot more energetic and fun.