What I Learned About Teamwork From This Classic Parenting Book

‘How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk’ might be the management guide we all need

Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

While we don’t have to help our colleagues tie shoes or remind them to FaceTime Grandma (that’d be weird), parenting skills can translate surprisingly well in the workplace.

I don’t have kids myself, but I was curious when Julie Zhuo, a former vice president of design at Facebook and a mom of three, tweeted that she learns as much or more about improving teamwork from parenting books as she does from books about management. “I find kids present a more extreme version of the same kinds of interpersonal challenges that a colleague/friend/report would,” she writes.

On a recommendation from a parent, I picked up a copy of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, a classic manual of communication strategies — and found plenty of strategies I could use in my role as an entrepreneur. It turns out that whether we’re speaking to a team member or a child, the goal is often the same: We want to bring out the best in the other person.

Here are three tactics from the book, which you might find as useful as I did for communicating in the professional world.

Instead of praising, describe

You’ve probably heard your fair share of teamwork platitudes like “Great work!” Listen, the Mona Lisa is great work. My work is typically acceptable at best, and this generic remark makes me question the praiser’s sincerity.

In How to Talk, Faber and Mazlish write that praise can also lead to denial (“You think my performance was excellent, but you should have seen all the time I spent practicing!”), trigger anxiety (“Will my next presentation be as good?”), or feel like manipulation (“Okay, this is too much — what does this person want from me?”). The authors write: “Sometimes, the most well-meant praise brings about unexpected reactions.”

But the key to genuine praise that avoids these reactions is simple: Describe what you liked about the person’s work. Was it a specific idea that you’d never heard before? The effort that was put into it? The effect it had on others? The way it pushed the mission of the company/project forward? These types of descriptions take more effort than simply saying “Amazing!” — but that’s why they’re so much more meaningful.

To encourage autonomy, respect their struggle

Whether you’re a manager or a team member, people probably rely on you as they get their own work done. But there’s a problem when reliance turns into dependence. As Faber and Mazlish write, with long-term dependence comes feelings of helplessness, worthlessness, and resentment, which may even turn into hostility. And practically speaking, constantly doing favors and fulfilling requests can take up the time you need to do your job.

“When we give children advice or instant solutions, we deprive them of the experience that comes from wrestling with their own problems,” write Faber and Mazlish. At work, to encourage autonomy, allow your team members to make their own choices. For example, instead of saying, “Oh, that problem is easy! I’ll help you!” which might make them feel bad when they can’t solve even an “easy” issue, you might say something like, “Yeah, [that problem] can be tricky. Sometimes, [doing this] can help.” It’s the office equivalent of teaching someone to fish. As the saying goes, “Give a person a fish, and they eat for a day. Teach a person to fish, and they eat for a lifetime.”

Accept negative feelings

People don’t need their feelings to be met with agreement, but they do need them to be acknowledged. To demonstrate how to talk to kids, Faber and Mazlish describe a situation in which your employer has yelled at you in front of your colleagues. After work, you meet up with a friend. In three different situations, your friend: 1) Gives you advice (“Here’s what I think you should do…”), 2) Asks you blaming questions (“Did you prioritize your work properly?”), and 3) Psychoanalyzes you (“Maybe you’re upset because your boss reminds you of a parent figure in your life?”).

None of these approaches are as effective as your friend simply accepting your feelings, which might sound something like, “That sounds like a rough experience. To be subject to an attack like that in front of other people, especially after having been under so much pressure, must have been pretty hard to take!”

The most important thing to remember is even if one communication technique fails, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. It might just not have been appropriate in the situation, and you’ll do better next time. Faber and Mazlish acknowledge that “life isn’t a neat little script that can be memorized and performed,” but we can’t go too wrong if we listen to one another and learn from our mistakes.

I write about personal and collective growth. Author ‘There Is No Right Way to Do This’ herbertlui.net/reps/

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