I'm a big fan of using online tools to facilitate communication. Ever since the days of AIM, I've enjoyed having a keyboard at my fingertips, typing away my thoughts to those who would listen and respond.
I'm usually more comfortable digging in to deeper subjects via computers than face to face. Typing gives me the space and time to think things out. I can write up a quick sentence, then stew on it for a minute, making sure it says what I mean it to say.
Even when I write on this blog, most posts are half-formed thoughts that I sit on for weeks, letting the idea brew in my mind. I'm constantly reshaping the words to make the right pattern.
It also fits the way my distracted mind works. I can jump back and forth on several concepts as my ideas bubble up and fade away. When I get stuck on one thought, I can jump to another, knowing that the former will be there waiting for my return.
What does this have to do with family retrospectives? It's pretty common advice that one of the keys to a successful marraige (whatever form that may be), is great communication. And while it's easy to give that advice, it's much harder to act on.
Families are messy. You spend most of your week around each other, getting in each other's way. You have little quirks that, after a while, get pretty damn annoying to the person living with you. It's important to realize that a natural part of any long-term relationship is frustration. You will get frustrated at some thing for some reason.
Coming back to communication, the key to it for me is honesty and non-judgemental thinking. You can't be afraid of hurting the other person's feelings, and they have to know that you're coming from a place of respect. You don't mean to cast judgement on them for leaving their shoes on the kitchen table (I would never do that, but maybe once or twice), you just have to be honest that it completely grosses you out. It's okay to be frustrated in a relationship or want to improve, but it never works to hold that frustration in.
Right, what does this have to do with family retrospectives? In a perfect world, we'd be perfect at communication. We'd take the time each week to sit down at the clean kitchen table, after the kids have gone to bed at 7pm sharp because they know the rules, ate their supper as quickly as they could and didn't dilly-dally to get their PJ's on while getting distracted by legos or start rambling oh-so-cutely about their minecraft house and then take five minutes just to pick out a damn book to read and then after reading stories ask for water and then when you bring them water they want apple and then when you bring them apple they ask in the sweetest voice for you to lie next to them for "just one minute".
No, instead of falling asleep out of sheer exhaustion in your son's bed at 8pm at night, you're the perfect spouse and sit at that nice clean table that doesn't have crumbs on, in, and under it and you talk about how your perfect day was and maybe how it could have gone better.
But it's not a "perfect" world. Your kid isn't in bed, your table isn't clean, and the kitchen is an absolute wreck, which is an improvement over the living room. So when do you find time to actually talk like a good family does?
Sometime last year I ran across a communication tool for companies called '15Five'. There are two parts to it. Employees spend fifteen minutes each week responding to various questions about their work. Did they have any 'big wins' or are there areas of the business the team could improve on? Very similar to a 1:1, but in that all-important digital format.
The manager or mentor or whoever spends five minutes reading through the responses, adding their thoughts if they think of something useful to say. 15 minutes writing, five minutes reading. 15Five.
I really loved the idea, and tried it out at work. But I also thought, why not give this a whirl at home? Similar to the idea of home kanban, why not apply what works at work to the home life?
With that idea, I reached out to the fine folks at 15Five and asked if I could try it out. They kindly obligued and I've been giving it a go for a few months now.
One of the nicer features of the software is that you can customize the questions being asked. This is really useful, as the default questions are pretty business oriented.
Here's what I came up with that I think are a pretty good start:
What's going well? Any favorite parts to the week?
What challenges are you facing? Where are you stuck?
How are you feeling? How do you think I'm feeling?
How can I help you? How can you help me?
What are you hoping to accomplish next week?
To be honest, some of these questions are hard to answer, especially the feeling one. Family life is a wide range of emotions day in and day out, so it's hard to sum it up over a week. I do think asking how you think the other person is feeling is vital, as it's an assumption that can sometimes be wrong.
I do have to add a little bit of a disclaimer that we're not the best at responding. I try and work it in during my son's tumble class, when I have about 45 minutes of time in front of my laptop without distractions. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. That's mostly my fault as I feel I need full and complete responses, which isn't true. I just need to type something.
Regardless, it's a system that I think is worth trying, even though we don't always get a response in for the week. Some weeks we have an informal 15Five, were one of us just says our thoughts on the spot.
Regardless of how we respond, it always helps. Overall, I think our communication is better for it. I really can't wait until my son is a little bit older and I can try it out with him. Maybe he'll write something about wanting someone to lie next to him at night.