Health

This Scheduling Hack Will Save Your Relationships

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I MIGHT AS WELL have been asking my father to go ahead and put one of the new cover sheets on his TPS reports when I texted him a few months ago and suggested we start talking regularly. After a misunderstanding that seemed exacerbated by a lack of regular contact, I reflexively sent a text saying he could pick the day and the time for us to talk on a weekly basis. I added a link to a shared doc. “Feel free to add agenda items as they come to you. No rush. Talk soon.”

It’s the same kind of message I send to new colleagues or anyone else I want to maintain regular communication with at work—and for the same reasons. My dad and I weren’t talking. Months would go by between conversations. We weren’t leveraging our shared interest in doing great things. We weren’t interfacing. The solution was right out of a modern managerial playbook. We needed a reliable, psychologically safe forum for feedback and growth. We needed structure. We needed a meeting. All of us do.

MEN ARE TERRIBLE at staying in touch. Our ambition is fueled by self-reliance and autonomy, values you can only practice alone. We don’t enjoy the “matrilineal advantage” that women do, says psychologist Joshua Coleman, Ph.D. “Women are more likely to prioritize their family [relationships] over men.” Men are likely to cede that role and influence to their female partners. We allow an attrition of communication that our girlfriends, wives, and moms generally don’t, and it destroys the social connection that more and more experts say we need in order to be happy, productive people.

Boys, however, are great at staying in touch. We are born craving connection. But this begins changing in our teenage years, says New York University developmental psychology professor Niobe Way in her book Deep Secretshttps://www.amazon.com/Missing…, about her research on boys and friendship. “Parents are socialized into a culture in which mothers are considered the carriers of emotions and emotional talk and fathers are not,” Way writes. By early adulthood, men become more guarded and less communicative with friends and family about their feelings. Father-son bonds, in particular, tend to wither.

Our obsession with self-reliance and the negative impact of other people on our lives may reinforce this lonerism. The pandemic fast-forwarded the process of losing touch for many. Before anyone had even thought of quarantine, people were afraid to put certain boundaries in place verbally, says psychologist Ashley Pallathra, Ph.D., coauthor of Missing Each Other: How to Cultivate Meaningful Connections. We couldn’t easily skip Thanksgiving with our overbearing in-laws. We were incapable of RSVPing “no” to the wedding we didn’t want to attend. “The pandemic gave us a means of [establishing boundaries],” she says. “For years, we’ve had fewer consistent opportunities to exude energy toward connection. Our social baseline has been lowered.” It’s time to raise that baseline. It’s time to reconnect with the significant people in our lives.

THE FRAMEWORK I used to try to solve the crisis of connection in my own life came naturally, because a tech start-up I worked for required me to employ it.

Like so many San Francisco–based companies, my employer fostered a culture of transparency and open communication. It explicitly valued honesty as much as skill and speed. It used radical management frameworks defined by openness, not hierarchical constructs. At the start-up, I learned about the power of psychological safety, which enables people to speak candidly about problems without fear of embarrassment or punishment. Without psychological safety, a communication vacuum is created that people fill with fear and guardedness.

“Fear inhibits learning,” Harvard Business School professor Amy C. Edmondson, Ph.D., writes in The Fearless Organization. “Research in neuroscience shows that fear consumes physiologic resources, diverting them from parts of the brain that manage working memory and process new information.”

The empathy, candor, and, most important, structure that I learned at my company provided a framework that had clear applications to my personal life. Especially the one-on-one check-in, a 30-minute weekly chat that ensures a regular cycle of feedback with someone and gives you a reliable place to work out problems that don’t need an urgent response. If you have a one-on-one on the books, you don’t need to take the extra step of calling a meeting and explaining what the subject, and the goal, is. The regular check-in is always there, with a rolling agenda that acts as a basket you fill asynchronously, whenever you’d like. You’ve created a psychologically safe environment, because both parties—you and Jaden in accounting or you and your mom in Peekskill—know the rules and what’s going to be discussed. The consistency frees up energy to make a meaningful connection with your counterpart.

To form this kind of connection within a one-on-one, it helps to lean into a reciprocal communication flow Pallathra and her coauthor, University of Pennsylvania associate professor of psychiatry Edward Brodkin, M.D., call “attunement.”


YOU CAN CREATE ATTUNEMENT using these four tactics:

Relaxed awareness

“Before the conversation starts, take a breath, relax your shoulders, feel grounded,” says Pallathra. You’ll be more prepared to hear what the other person is saying and notice their body language.

Listening

Focus on both verbal and nonverbal communication: facial expression, body language, and tone of voice. Make it just as important as what they’re saying. Don’t interrupt. Wait a beat before responding.

Understanding

Empathy, basically.

Mutual responsiveness

This is the result of being relaxed, listening, and understanding. It’s the back-and-forth that makes a great conversation work.

A lot of this can feel like mimicry—and you shouldn’t resist that. You can use the power of synchronicity for good. Follow their lead if they seem more relaxed. If you seem more relaxed, keep doing what you’re doing. Be gestural. Keep your shoulders dropped. Soon they’ll start to relax, too. Conversations are always a dance. Even if they’re with your dad.


DOING RESEARCH for this story, I went down a rabbit hole of sons reconnecting with fathers. I one-clicked Michael Chabon’s Pops and Philip Roth’s memoir Patrimony. I watched The Pursuit of Happyness and The Great Santini. But of all the books and articles and TED Talks and movies, it’s a one-minute clip from The Kelly Clarkson Show that I keep pondering.

Promoting his memoir Mixed Plate in 2021, the comedian Jo Koy talks to Clarkson about his relationship with his once-estranged dad. He says that as a comedian onstage, he tells lots of stories about growing up with his mom but that because his parents divorced when he was a kid, his dad wasn’t around much. “I talk about my mom a lot . . . that was my childhood, those are my stories. And now I’m building this story with my father.”

That’s a useful idea. We shouldn’t try to make the other person hear us, and we shouldn’t allow that person’s needs and views to flow unchecked into our psyches. We should keep the relationship outside and accessible to both parties, and we should keep building our story together.


THE UNDERPINNING of all this structure and behavior, in a personal conversation or in a work meeting, is commitment. So stay committed. Don’t skip your scheduled time even when you don’t have much to say. Whatever fills the silence is going to be surprising and possibly illuminating. Just showing up, every week for 30 minutes, establishes the kind of trust that helps healthy relationships grow. And with that, it looks like our time is up. Enjoyed it. Looking forward to the next one.

Click here to read other Unstuck columns.

This story appears in the May/June 2023 issue of Men’s Health.

Headshot of Ross McCammon

Writer

Ross McCammon is former special projects editor at Men’s Health and author of Works Well With Others.

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