My husband Mat and I can’t be the only parents who started lockdown with best intentions. Hunkering down with our children (Poppy, 14; Stanley, 12, and Rose, 10) we’d play Yahtzee; make papier mache; pickle things together. Well, that was the plan. Four weeks in, we’re shuffling from bed to desk in our dressing gowns, shedding crumbs, and biting each other’s heads off. Recently we reached a new nadir: My husband, an executive team coach, came into the kitchen to find his wife chasing mice out of the cereal cupboard, and his kids scrapping over schoolwork, as a malfunctioning fire alarm beeped overhead. Sensing our ‘home team’ was not operating at its best, he suggested borrowing some techniques from the business world to help us bond. In other words, “Tomorrow, get dressed, I’m leading a family workshop on How to Make the Most of our Lockdown Lives Together.”
Filing downstairs next morning, wary (but dressed) we find assorted A3 pads, coloured pens and 5 chairs arranged around a flipchart, upon which Mat has written in large letters: “Welcome to The Family Experiment” (gulp). Sensing our reluctance, he brings us in for a group hug. (“Eugh,” says Poppy, “someone smells”). Following a quick energy check (in which we all score poorly) Mat cuts to the chase: “How would we like to feel?” Handing out pens, he task us each to draw a picture of success, post-lockdown. I sketch us all relaxing in the garden I’ve planted, and feel calmer already…then tense when I see how our ‘visions’ jar (Stan has drawn himself running AT SPEED; Rose sits surrounded by cakes). So can we create a shared picture of success? Getting out the glue, cutting up magazines, and passing round pens, we’re soon making each other laugh, and building on each other’s ideas. As Stan salutes Poppy’s sketch of his feral ‘lockdown’ fringe (“I have my best ideas behind it!”) I realise it’s the first bit of creative fun we’ve shared in weeks. We’re proud of the giant, crazy picture we produce. “So this is the family we want to be,” says Mat. “Now to figure how to get there…”’
A quick break for a cuppa, then we start on some 1-1 feedback: In rotating pairs, we take turns to tell each other, “Why I think you’re being amazing right now”. No waffling, insists Mat, we must “land every point in data” (ie give examples). Results are…well, amazing. Sure, the kids run out of steam occasionally (“Isn’t time up yet?”) but I’m touched by Stan thanking me “for supporting me in all my crazy passions’; Pops for “keeping us clothed and fed”; Rose “for not questioning our baking.” Surprises keep coming: When it’s my turn to sit out, I hear Rose thanking her big sister for “teaching me things” (aaah) and “smuggling me sweets” (what?!) Poppy glows under the praise, and in turn thanks Rose for coming out on bike rides with her, “even though you can’t brake or do turns”. Mat and my ‘share’ leaves us both quite teary-eyed, though that could be exhaustion. Having been scratchy with each other for awhile, it’s amazing how little it takes to re-connect – just two minutes of sincere face-to-face, thanking each other for their tolerance and support. “Were you bored?” I ask Mat when I’m done. “No,” he says, “I could’ve let that go on forever.”
The impact is striking: We’ve generated more family ‘feel-good factor’ in twenty minutes of structured, positive feedback than we’ve managed in weeks of living on top of each other. So can we identify what’s hindering our happiness? Key ‘blockers’, we agree, are lack of sleep (bedtime’s been getting later – for all of us) and the way we’re all operating at different speeds (I down tools for the day, just as Mat’s hitting his stride. When Stan wants to play, his sister’s flagellating herself over French).
So these are the problems, what’s the plan? “No way we can crack every challenge overnight,” says Mat. “Let’s commit to trying a couple of experiments, see what works, what we learn.” At the end of each week, we’ll come together for a family ‘status meeting’. “Will it take as long as this one?” Stan asks anxiously. Reassured it’ll will be much shorter (and may involve cake), the children eagerly help devise our first experiments: To keep us working and playing more together, we’ll synch our schedules, starting with a ‘check-in’ meeting every morning. We’ll share what we hope to achieve that day, then work in 90 minute chunks, so we’re all taking breaks together. The children are to stop schoolwork altogether after lunch, so they can enjoy a proper stretch of freedom (any work remaining for the elder kids to be swiftly dispatched before supper). We’ll aim for one family activity a day, and our various bedtimes, we agree, will be “whenever Mummy yells.”
We wrap by drawing up a Behavioural Charter, which Mat sticks to the wall of the downstairs loo: Persuade, don’t poke. Explain yourself. Be interested in each other.
So how do we get on? Post-workshop, we’re already feeling more ‘in it’ together. Our morning check-ins establish a cheery camaraderie for the day, and the children are dispatching their schoolwork with less stress. We’re yet to play Yahtzee (no dice) but we have managed a family bike ride and ‘pulled together’ to haul Rose out of a ditch. Having rolled my eyeballs at the idea of a ‘Charter’, I’m now citing it constantly! It damps down squabbles before they can flare; the kids appreciate rules they’ve helped draw up. (“Are you trying to persuade me?” Poppy asks Stan, bouncing a rugby ball on her head. “Or prod?”) When time comes for our first weekly review, I’m hope our ‘status’ will be happy. Rose is holding out for cake.
Your family might be full of love, but is it operating at its full potential? Mat Freer, executive team coach, and founder of The Culture Experiment suggests some team-building tricks to transform family life.
Have Family Meetings In business we recognise the need for teams to meet regularly, but expect our families to operate like well-oiled machines fuelled by occasional pizza nights. Schedule regular time to check in with each other, share progress and provide feedback.
Energy Check Whether you’re a stressed CEO or angsty teenager, how we feel impacts hugely on our ability to contribute and collaborate. Start family meetings by finding out how everyone is feeling and why. Give yourselves scores out of 10; compare yourselves to a cartoon character or food (“I feel like a scrambled egg right now”).
Work on things together Whether it’s creating a collage of your ‘shared picture of success’ or going ‘all in’ on the veg patch, working towards a shared goal brings people closer together. Find family projects that require you all to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in.
Give each other positive, specific feedback High-performing teams constantly give each other feedback – at least 6 positive statements for every 1 corrective one. Focus on what ‘your people’ are doing well, and be specific (“When you helped me scrape those plates, you made my worst chore fun!”)
Behavioural Charter We’re all great at creating ‘to do’ lists; less good at considering how we need ‘to be’ together. Discuss how you behave together when at your very best. Can you capture a few family standards to adhere to, then check in with them regularly?
By Tash Bell, as featured in ‘Telegraph Weekend’
Main photo credit: Jay Williams