The power of storytelling for working parents
With RADA Business tutor Matt Bannister and leadership role-player Jessica Pidsley
A reflection on working and parenting from home during lockdown, and how storytelling techniques can make a difference.
In recent months, Covid-19 has caused a great deal of upheaval, and not just for businesses. As the parents of two young children, husband and wife team Matt and Jessica – both RADA graduates – know this all too well.
With school closures, global uncertainty, and childcare options still limited by social distancing, most working parents are busy juggling jobs and children, as family homes become both workplace and classroom.
Now, with summer holidays looming, we are facing more of the same. Yet, Matt and Jessica know how helpful RADA’s storytelling techniques can be when used alongside the fundamental tools of communication – the body, breath, and voice. We spoke to them about how we can begin to manage our stress and create emotional connections with both colleagues and children.
Manage your state for effective storytelling
Stories help to build empathy and develop understanding, which is something children pick up, even before they learn to read. When we talk about storytelling for parents, we don’t mean settling down for a bedtime story – although that’s undeniably important.
What we’re discussing is the way we tell our own stories, which shapes a child’s response. Communicating positively is always going to have a better result than the negative tone that can come under stress.
As Matt explains: “when you tell a story there’s not just a plot, there’s a tone as well. And the biggest narrative that children pick up on is the emotional tone of the story.”
“It’s important to take responsibility for your own state; that changes everything. If you’re not taking responsibility, then you are not in charge,” Jessica says.
Tell your truth
To help manage this, Jessica suggests that if you find yourself feeling stressed, you should take a breath and a moment to notice what you are experiencing.
Then, tell your child. “If you name it – ‘I’m irritated’ – then you can work on it. You’re not just trying to pretend everything’s fine.’’ The more you share your own feelings, the easier it becomes for your child to understand how their behaviour can affect you. And this is not only true of negative emotions.
‘‘Think about what story you are telling your child. Are you telling them ‘you’re naughty, you’re difficult?’ Or are you telling them: ‘I love it when I see you doing this.’ The wonder of sharing how you feel is when you start noticing that you’re enjoying something they’re doing and you want to tell them.’’ Jessica explains.
Use praise to move the story along
The method of drawing attention to good behaviour is called process praise. “It can feel clunky to start with, but all you’re doing is bringing their attention to what they’re doing. So, for example, when they are practicing handwriting, you might say ‘look at that letter! It’s right on the line,” Jessica explains.
Often adults will say something more general like ‘that’s good’, or ‘very clever,’ but by praising their process, you are giving them specific information about what is positive.
“If you say ‘Well done!’ and they don’t know what you mean, they may start to think of themselves as good or bad, rather than what they’re doing. When you process praise, they are more likely to repeat that behaviour because they know what it is. It also means that they are more likely to push themselves,” Jessica says.
Focus your breath from the boardroom to the dinner table
Of course, when you’re balancing work calls and deadlines against schoolwork and screen time this is easier said than done. It can be frustrating when your child chooses not to do as you ask. The temptation is often to raise your voice, but in such situations paying attention to your tone can actually help maintain a positive narrative.
Matt explains: “what tends to happen is that the body gets more and more tense, so the voice gets higher and higher. This means the voice gets into a very high resonance, which is ineffective in terms of communicating that you mean what you say.”
If you feel this happening, focus on your breath. “When I’m flustered I often check where my breath is,” Jessica continues, “Normally it’s up in my chest and I’m holding it, which means I’m tense and overwhelmed. But as soon as I breathe from my belly, I come back into a place of calm connection that’s more naturally authoritative.”
As Matt says, these are techniques that can work whatever situation you’re in. “Whether you are in a boardroom, or at the tea table, the same thing generally happens, which is that people try to exercise control rather than authority. And control is like a grip, which brings with it an associated stress response. On the other hand, authority is about saying ‘here’s what I need,’ and putting it in a way that is clear but also maintains flexibility, so you understand it might not happen first time.”
Five ways to start practising storytelling at home
Be clear when you’re working
If you can, set specific hours aside for work and make sure you stick to this timetable as much as possible. As Matt says, having a parent working at home may well be a novelty for your child – so setting clear boundaries will help everyone.
Involve your children in any problem-solving
If an issue comes up, involve your children in the solution. For example, if you are finding it difficult to concentrate because you keep being interrupted, talk it through in a proactive way.
Jessica says: “You might say, ‘the problem I’ve got is that I need you to stay outside the room while I’m working. What could we do?’ They might say, ‘we could make posters that say: Meeting in progress, and put them up on the door.’ If you involve your children, they become solution-based engineers – problem solvers.
Take a moment to centre yourself
“One of the things we talk about is the moment when you go from one place to another. That’s a great time to just take hold of your state again,” says Matt. “In that second when you’re getting up from your chair, or entering a different room, you’re about to leave your work behind and step back into the home. Stop and take a deep breath, release the back of your neck, and release your shoulders to get the tension out.” By making a conscious effort to do this, you avoid bringing work stresses with you as you re-join your family.
Be honest when you are struggling
As Jess says: “It’s very easy to underestimate children’s capacity to understand. I’ve found that by being really honest with the kids about struggle, they’ve been able to meet us with that. Sharing your feelings also helps your children start to understand and identify their own emotions.’’
Think of yourself as a leader
It be helpful to consider exactly what you want to achieve with your parenting. For Jess, adjusting her mind-set helped her to rethink.
“I like to think of myself as the CEO of my family. By adopting the idea that this is a big business - I start to think about the kind of leader I really am. It helps me to step in to that role. Ultimately, as parents, we are leaders.”