Dad's Relational Toolkit

Posted on June 11th, 2012

Like any skilled workman, a father needs a strong set of reliable tools to help him complete his job. As men we like to take action. However, to be good dads, we also need the willingness to listen carefully, the skill to truly hear, and the ability to relate deeply with our wives and children. This set of what I call Relational Tools is of critical importance to being a good dad. We will not be able to really serve our families unless we are willing to carefully listen to and truly hear what they are saying to us. Certainly we can’t expect our family to be open with us and share with us their deepest hopes and dreams and fears unless we prove ourselves able to listen to them, truly hear them, and relate deeply with them.

Active understanding is based on careful listening, because we will never really understand another human being if we haven’t listened carefully to him or her over an extended period of time. Most dads I speak with believe they have a pretty good active understanding of their wife and kids. In some cases this is true, but in many cases not so much. So here’s a little test to see how well you understand your wife and kids:

  1. Write down what you believe are the three biggest worries your wife has today. Put them in order, starting with what you believe is her biggest worry.
  2. Write down what you believe are the three biggest sources of joy in your wife’s life today. Put them in order, starting with what you believe is her biggest source of joy.
  3. Write down what you believe are the three biggest worries for each of your children. Put them in order, starting with what you believe is each child’s biggest worry.
  4. Write down what you believe are the three biggest sources of joy in each of your children’s lives. Put them in order, starting with what you believe is the biggest source of joy for each child.
  5. Sit down with each member of your family, starting with your wife, and see how close your answers are to reality.

This should be a fun and interesting series of conversations! If your answers matched up well with your wife and your kids’ reality, congratulations! You do, indeed, have a good active understanding of the members of your family. If not, just asking them and carefully listening to their answers probably furthered your active understanding of each person, and that is a very good thing.

Relating deeply to your wife and children over time, as you practice careful listening and use it to build an active understanding of each member of your family, you will begin to relate deeply to them. Relating deeply to each member of your family is not about having similar personalities, political views or musical tastes (thankfully). In fact, it doesn’t depend on circumstances or external similarities at all. Relating deeply is more about truly understanding, empathizing and appreciating the person each one is, deep down at the heart level.

Some couples are blessed with an ability to actively understand each other and relate deeply to one another almost right away. But in my experience, this is quite rare, and even couples that are blessed in this way must continue to work on careful listening and active understanding in order to maintain their ability to relate deeply. Why is that? Because people and circumstances change over time. For those couples who were not blessed in this way (and that’s the majority of us), we ultimately have a choice. We can choose to build the deepest possible relationships with our wife and kids using the skills of careful listening, active understanding and relating deeply; or we can just come home from work, sit down to watch the game on TV (or do something else that doesn’t involve our families), and continue to relate to our family at the surface level. Frankly, that’s the easier choice. But the TV will never listen 100 percent to you, or understand you, or relate to you in any meaningful way. So even though it is the easier path, it is one that eventually leads to emptiness and loneliness.

Do yourself and your family a huge favor: Put your Relational Toolset to work. Practice and improve your careful listening, active understanding and relating deeply tools. You will be forever glad you did.

Three Ways to Strengthen Your Relationship Tools:

Finally, here are three ways that you can use to strengthen your Relational Tools in the next 30 days:

1. Plan some one-on-one time with your wife alone, and then with each of your children separately. Plan a night out with your wife (or your child)—whether it’s a long walk or a drive in the car or dinner out—for just the two of you. Prepare some good questions in advance about things you know are important to your wife (or the child you are taking out). For example, you might ask about her biggest worry these days, or about specific things you know your child is worried about (grades, friends, finances, getting into college, graduating from college, getting a job, getting braces . . . the potential list is almost endless). Be sure to listen carefully, and then ask follow-up questions to ensure that you actively understand what you have heard.

2. A few days after that one-on-one time, go back to your wife (and, separately, to your children) and follow up on the issues that were shared. Help your family members see that you really were listening carefully and that as a result you have an active understanding of their concerns. Ask them some good follow-up questions (e.g., “Do you need any help with those job applications?” “Have you thought further about applying to that college?” “Did you ever call Jill and find out what she meant by that remark?”). These questions will help you actively understand how their thinking on these key issues is evolving. And, of course, offer to help in any way you can (e.g., “Hey, the manager of that store is a friend of my good friend Sam’s—would you like me to ask Sam to put a good word in for you after your job interview?”).

3. At least once a week after that, be sure to check in with your wife (and, separately, with your kids) on where they are on the issues they shared with you. Doing this will help you to learn to relate deeply to each of them by actively understanding the issues that are front and center in their lives. As you learn more about each member of your family, they will (usually) take a greater interest in the pressures, concerns and realities of your life outside the family as well. Remember that all organizations take on the character of their leader. So, over time, your leadership in your family, using your Relational Toolset, should mean that members of your family will learn to wield their own Relational Tools with greater skill. This will mean better relationships all around—and a stronger family over time.

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This article is excerpted from Be A Better Dad Today: Ten Tools Every Father Needs.

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