Saving Marriages One Stand-Up at a Time

I once believed you could make anything work in a relationship. Part of me still thinks you can. The greater question becomes “should you?”. What are issues which are resolvable vs those that require you to move on?  These questions had been on my mind for a while and jumped front and center during my morning check-in with my folks on my way to work.

The conversation starts with the normal “how have the last couple days gone?”, however quickly she starts complaining about trivial things. I know my mother well enough that this isn’t normal behavior so I asked “How are things really doing?”, it seems that adding “really” does make a difference.   I find out my parents’  relationship is going through a rocky phase.  Various personal topics get touched on, the ones every relationship has gone through at least once and I can hear the pain in my mom’s voice at the upcoming hurdles.  It’s time for a trip back home to Ohio.

My mother picks me up from the airport  a couple weeks later and the tone is still the same.  I always have a tough time knowing what’s appropriate to say when  it comes to relationship issues between my parents. I see my mother’s pain but never know exactly what will make it go away.

In this instance I heard more about miscommunication, resentment over unfulfilled promises, and past-based assumptions than anything else.  I really wish these weren’t common issues, however these complaints are almost identical to those I’ve heard within corporate groups. In fact, the more I thought about it the more overlap I found. With a slew of  my intimate relationships having been a mess, I started wondering if the similarities were close enough that some of the tools and strategies could cross over. Could implementing some of the processes we use to reinforce group buy-in and communication have the same beneficial effects in a relationship as they do within organizations?  After all, what are organizations other than groups of relationships?

I resolved to test out some ideas I had with my folks.

I felt a little odd trying to run a small workshop with my parents. Who am I to teach my parents? In a company you have less emotional baggage, whereas with your parents it weighs heavily. You’re committed, you’ve got literal skin in the game: skin and blood and genes. It’s really a great exercise in active listening and humility.

Though they’re hesitant at first, after a series of questions and answers they commit.  We get started right away and I spend the next few hours applying everything I’ve done within teams at corporations to my parents relationship. We talk about working agreements, stand-ups, Kanbans, and commitment. We talk about ensuring respect, establishing empathy, and creating structure.  We talk a lot. Their brains are spinning, churning over thoughts of using these tools for the kids’ chores, church activities, and personal goals.

It’s working.

Though I’d hoped this exercise would help remove stress and conflict from my parents’ lives, it wasn’t until weeks later that I truly saw the real results.  Many of the complaints that were present prior to our discussion had dissipated.  Agreements had been made and had a structure for evolving, as well as a way to be kept in check if they weren’t.  Additionally, empathy was now present in all of their interactions. My father, a vehement opposer of lists and being told what to do, was now keeping track of tasks on the kanban board…and enjoying it. For him, the reward of seeing things move from the “to do” to “done” column provided a sense of accomplishment that replaced any sense of feeling nagged. It was simple: he could see what needed to get done, and my mother was able to visualize why priorities might change. They developed empathy; conversations changed from “why isn’t this getting done?” to “how can I help you with this?”.

Empathy in general is a key skill to have and is particularly beneficial in functional business relationships.  However, in personal relationships it’s become even more important with it’s strong ties to love. People want a loving relationship not just one that’s based on convenience or complacency.  Building empathy with your partner will directly impact having a loving relationship!  An interesting write up on the the connection of Love and Empathy can be found at

Now, it’s not all roses. My participation in the stand-ups with my parents decreased as time passed.  Though I’m not sure if the structures are still in place after a year, their conversation techniques have permanently changed, meaning that any future attempts to improve will be easier for them to take on. I’m planning another trip home soon and expect to continue working on strengthening their understanding of the principles behind these tools.

Over the course of working with many types of relationships some of the underlying questions that have come up for me are, “How can I merge my desire for immediate gratification with longer term contentment and happiness?” and “How can I ensure I continuously prioritize relationships?”. Though I’ve always said that my personal relationships are the most important part of my life, recently I’ve had to accept that this not actually the case.  It’s high time I also  start using these tools and systems to help make sure my  lifestyle lines up with my desired priorities.

Most people can relate to these problems in their personal lives.  Whether it’s their parents, siblings, friends, or professional relationship; I’d highly recommend trying it out.  Below is the format I used.  Feel free to tweak it and make it your own.  I’d love to hear your feedback on what worked for you!

1. Get buy-in to try something new

  • In this case I asked, “Would you guys be up for trying something new that I’ve been playing with for a while?  I’m not sure what the outcome will be, but it will only take a little while, and the results I’ve seen in companies have been pretty amazing.”

  • I don’t have a great new solution that will solve all their problems. There is no guaranteed outcome, just cases of past experience that indicate that it will likely help.  Don’t tell them you have magic fairy dust to solve all their problems. People are smart and they’ll know when you’re full of shit.

  • Stay away from implying you know more about their situation than they do. It will only annoy them. Try not to use “should” and “shouldn’t”.

2. Tell a couple of stories about the types of changes you’ve seen within groups.

  • Here I had some good examples of teams that suffered from major communication problems (both professionally and socially), who spent most of their time on Facebook, choose to procrastinate, didn’t have tools to communicate, and resented each other because they had no empathy for one another. The emotional distance that results from feeling more and more separate from each other dehumanizes the other person.  As they become more of an object that you perceive is causing suffering in your world, the more you separate yourself from that entity, which leads to less empathy and propagates the issue.  With this understanding it becomes easy to see how passive-aggressive behaviors in the workforce really aren’t that dissimilar from those in intimate relationships.

3. Developing working/relationship agreements

  • In this case I started with the main complaints of what each person was or was not doing. Some examples included never bringing receipts home, spending too much money on coffee, failing to plan trips ahead of time, spending too much money on gas, neglecting to schedule property viewings, not supporting decisions with kids, and nagging.

  • We next discussed the changes that would help things work, having them each ask the other if they would be willing to take responsibility for specific tasks, and whether they would agree to write those tasks on sticky notes to put on the wall for everyone to see.  We ended up with goals like “receipts will always be in the house at the end of the day”. Everyone needs to be completely in on the agreements.  No “kind of” type of language allowed.

  • I emphasized that nothing is permanent.  There are structures to allow for this to change when it makes sense for it to. This is only an agreement till it no longer works. This is really important for people that get stuck on not wanting to try something out for the fear of being stuck with it forever.

4. The magic of Kanbans

  • For those of you that don’t know, “Kanban” means signboard. It’s incredibly simple and yet impactful.  In short, it visually shows you what you’ve done in the past day, what you plan on doing the next day, and what’s blocking you from moving forward.  Yes, there are wip limits and much more, but we’ll keep it simple for the time being. The point is that communication is now visual, and it’s clear for everyone to see.

  • Start out simple and make 3 columns for To Do, Doing, and Done. You can always add more later but don’t overthink your options.

  • MAKE THIS VISIBLE. If it’s not in a place you look at everyday, you won’t do it. You’ll even want to hide it to not deal with it. Fight that urge.

  • Use the order as a priority and grab from the top of the list to move over.

  • Establish a “Work In Progress” (WIP) limit. Don’t put more than 2 things per person in the “Doing”. Get things done before starting more.

5. Relationship/work stand-ups

  • We all agreed to have 15 minute stand-ups to check in on only the following:  What did I accomplish yesterday? What am I committing to tomorrow? What do I need help with (blockers)?

  • This will seem odd to most people to apply in a home environment, however these are common things that we need to talk about all the time to build empathy and yet never really have structures for. Especially for families that don’t all eat together, have busy schedules, etc.

6. What needs to evolve (retrospectives)?

  • After discussing the rationale for these continuous improvements and an evolution to something more fulfilling, we made a commitment to implement our new strategies once a week.  There are many games to foster follow through, and I always suggest learning multiple fun games.  This needs to be something you look forward to and enjoy, otherwise it falls by the wayside until you have large enough problems that you need to bring it back.  Why not just build a system that constantly rewards doing it? This is also a great place to revisit agreements and make modifications.