How to Start a Parent Project Pod

This article was originally published on Medium on November 12, 2020.
Written by: Kimberly Han

My relationship with my family has been a REALLY challenging one. My dad and I hadn’t communicated well for 16 years; I never shared myself with him, always bracing my nervous system for pain. 7 years ago I wrote to him, sharing I wanted to be closer. Every 6 months or so for the next 5 years, I’d send up an update of my life. No response, ever.

We didn’t even wish each other happy birthday when I turned 30 and he turned 70, (even though he thanked the aunts and cousins who wished me happy birthday in the larger family chat). That’s how bad things were.

Now, for the very first time in my life, we have a relationship where we share ourselves with each other, the way I share myself with my friends. I asked him what his most precious memory was, and learned about his fears around aging. I’ve spoken about working on acknowledging people more, and asked him for acknowledgement for the very first time. I initiated our first “project” together — planning a surprise party for my mom and me making a movie from all the videos of mom’s friends and family and I asked Dad to secretly collect old photos when mom was out of the house. It was the first surprise she ever received in almost 70 years.

I found my “secret” — success is not THEM showing up how I think they should show up — it’s in ME showing up the way I want to show up. How can it be that I expect him to tell me he loves me if he’s never heard it from his own parents? How can it be that I expect him to be curious if he’s never had a model of what curiosity looks like? So I had to become curious and vulnerable — the qualities I wanted to receive.

I decided to ask them for 1 call every week, for 1 hour.

I told my parents I was doing The Parent Project with 3 other people (and their parents), and each week we committed to asking them a question from the deck of cards Parents are Human. The first week I asked, “what were you doing when you were my age?” Then, “What’s one bad habit you’d like to break?” Eventually I asked “What’s a favorite/most precious memory of yours?” At the time of writing this article, we’ve already had 17 conversations, and have gone from resentful strangers to friends gradually over the course of 17 weeks.

The conversation we had this week was around intergenerational trauma, and I’ve been sharing what I learned from a book I’m reading (The Body Keeps a Score) with them because they said their eyesight is no longer good enough to read. I didn’t think I’d be able to ask the question “What are you most proud of me for?” but I did, a few weeks ago. I made sure to have complete answers on what I was most proud of them for. I did these calls on zoom, coaching them on technical difficulties, and have them recorded to see how far I’ve come (I don’t plan to share the recordings with anyone).

On our first call, dad left the call in 10min to play on his iPad. I had my mom bring the phone to him, and I said, “this is the most important thing in my life right now — — to connect with you. I’m scared this isn’t important for you like it is for me.” He hasn’t left to play on his iPad since I said that.

A few months ago he said, “You SHOULD come back to Taiwan because we can take you to a weight loss camp.” In the past, I would have gotten immediately upset, defensive, or would have gotten off the phone as fast as possible. This time, I responded with, “Hey, it sounds like you care about me a lot. Thank you! Health for me right now is a feeling, and every day I bike and dance and watch the sunset and I’m feeling really active and fulfilled here in Santa Fe. I am living a life I want to live! Thank you for your care!” He looked surprised and **did not argue with it**.

So, how did I do it, and why did it finally work after 7 years of “failing?”

This work wasn’t overnight — — there were hundreds of hours of deep personal development work over the last 14 months. I couldn’t have done it without my parent project “pod” (with Brandon, Joseph, and Tong-Tong) and the support I received from them. A Parent Project Pod for me is a group that spends hours (2–4hrs in our case; every pod will be different) together every Monday debriefing the calls with our parents and emotions that came up and holding each other through the process of re-connecting with our parents virtually, sometimes tearfully. Then frequently we’ll decide together what question we want to ask our parents in the upcoming call. I attribute so much of my success to this pod. We all started as acquaintances (except Brandon and Joseph, who were already friends) and have now become family. Tong-Tong and Joseph even developed a romantic connection from this pod, and have since moved in together. We had conflicts with each other (maybe they’re inevitable?) and committed to working through them all and keep showing up every week.

My group and I have been meeting for HUNDREDS of hours in the last months doing personal development and The Parent Project together!

I’m hoping that this article can help you create a pod of your own, if you’re ready.

Are you ready to start a Parent Project Pod?

If I hadn’t done any form of therapy or personal development (including men’s groups/women’s groups), this project is would have been very, very difficult for me, and I don’t think I would have “succeeded.”

I HIGHLY recommend having practiced feeling your feelings, speaking authentically and vulnerability, and taking responsibility for your actions.

It’s also incredibly important to acknowledge another person’s feelings without trying to “fix” them, are willing to lovingly “call in” your peers if they might have a blind spot, be willing to hear what your own blind spots might be, and take action to implement feedback or step out of your comfort zone. Studying trauma can also be incredibly helpful, as well as learning your own tendencies, triggers, and attachment styles.

Everyone in our group had practiced these for hundreds of hours together (not to mention hundreds more hours studying from various schools, teachers, therapists, and books separately).

The Parent Project is a place for us to understand our parents better, not a place to simply commiserate, though hearing each other out is a huge part of it — — this should be a place for deep reflection and personal growth. If you haven’t done any personal development yet, you might want to think about kicking off the first few sessions (I’d recommend 15 sessions) with this article I wrote on how to start a personal development pod.

Finding your Pod:

In an ideal world, I’d have a matching system where you can input your information and we’d be a matchmaking service for you! But I currently only have bandwidth to write this manual and share it with you, as I’m working on prioritizing my own healing with my parents!

Here’s where I might need your help. I’ve created a facebook group for all of y’all to self-match. If you feel this is not customized enough for you, you can create your own groups, like “TPP — Egyptian Americans.”

In addition to posting to these pages, I might post on my own social media channels like my facebook page, or ask people I know who might be interested. There are facebook groups like “Asian Hustle Network” with thousands of people who might be interested, and probably those groups exist for many different cultural/ethnic backgrounds.

Then, it’s time to have chemistry calls! You meet each of these individuals in a video chat, and see if there’s chemistry. If there is, great. If there isn’t, you can feel free to use or edit this script: “Thank you so much for spending the time to get to know me and to share your story. This may be mutual, but I am not feeling the chemistry for a long-term commitment, but I wish for both of us to find the pod we need!”

This might take a little work, but it’s absolutely worth it to have the right pod!

Getting Started:

  1. Frequency/time: Choose the timing and frequency that works best for you and your pod. 90 minutes every week works really well for our pod. (We’ve fluctuated up to 6hrs/week at some points)
  2. Consider the number of people you want in the group: I recommend no more than 3–5 people so that everyone’s voice is heard. My personal preference for this type of group is 3 or 4 people.
  3. What kind of container do you want to set? Our current container includes getting to the zoom room on time + a personal check-in of the week from each of us, + parent-related check-in (we used to muddle this together, but since we started live-streaming these conversations every week, our parent-related content comes later). Then sometimes we’d dive into peer coaching, holding space, or encouraging each other. It’s important to note that our structure has changed DRAMATICALLY since we started. At some point, it was a book group, and we’d check in on group content. Then it was a 6-step-how-do-you-feel process followed by 1 item to dive into on our integrity list. The structure we have now might change in a few weeks or month.
  4. What’s the format? We use Zoom for video (and even record and publish each session), but could have easily used Google Hangouts as well. The amount of tears and emotions and laughter shared from our computer screens was more than some of my in-person relationships! I was skeptical at first as well, but being virtual can be VERY POWERFUL.

Choosing the group:

My entire group was Chinese-American, which was a coincidence. This group morphed from my Conscious Leadership Pod after practicing together for over a year — -two (non-Asian) people had left and the 2 who joined HAPPENED to be of similar family backgrounds. Everyone thus understood my struggles around parental and cultural pressures and expectations.

I highly recommend choosing people who can understand your struggles — — may it be, queer in a very conservative family, or coming from a divorced family, or having completely differing religions with your family.

You may also want to select for people who have a similar background in personal growth, emotional awareness, and a strong level of commitment to do deep work in their relationship with their parents consistently over several months.

We chose:

  • People who were willing to be vulnerable and lean into discomfort/challenge/courage.
  • People with a history of doing personal development work (or had facilitation experience), receptive to receiving feedback.

I approached each person individually (in person or over the phone), stating my desire to start this group, and let them know where I was in the process (who else I plan to ask, when we might start, how many hours per week the commitment would look like.)

The First Meeting:

Kicking Off:

  1. You (as the first facilitator) will set the container by welcoming/thanking the group, and share why you started it.
  2. Some connection game like, name + why you’re here, and an icebreaker to get authentic conversation flowing. Favorite examples include: “if you really knew me you’d know…” or “rose, thorn, bud” (sharing something that feels good, something that feels painful, and something exciting yet to come).
  3. Share experiences about relationships with parents (~10min each + 5min Q&A from the group).
  4. Decide on a number of commitments, communication, how we want sessions facilitated, and expectations (all of these sections are below).

First meeting email example:

“Our next meeting is Tuesday 7pm PST via This Zoom Link you can reach via the google calendar invite, which I’ve sent out. I will be leading the next meeting.

**TIP: If you use Google Calendar to schedule virtual video meetings, put the Zoom video link in the “location” of Google Calendar, or you can simply click “add conferencing” when editing an event on Google Calendar and it will create a video conferencing “Hangouts” room to join. I can’t tell you how many times I had to scramble through old messages and emails to try to find the link at the last minute.**

Please come prepared to share about your past and current relationship with your parents, with questions and/or ideas written down so we can share with the group.

We’re starting with a 4-week commitment, and then will discuss how we’d like to adjust commitments.”

Communication:

We’re starting with text communication for now. I’ve sent a group text to the following numbers:

  • Kim — xxx-xxx-xxxx
  • Brandon — xxx-xxx-xxxx
  • Tong Tong — xxx-xxx-xxxx
  • Joseph — xxx-xxx-xxxx

We will use our text group for links/threads of thought.

See you all on Tuesday! Text ahead of time if you might be a few min late so we know where you are.

Kim”

**Side Note: After many months of using a text thread, we have finally switched to Slack, which allows us to track our conversational and learning threads better**

Structure/Guidelines:

As the initiator of this practice group, you want to have some guidelines written out, then get together for everyone to discuss and agree on a final set of guidelines. Guidelines will help keep the culture of the group.

On day 1 of our group, 4 of us met on Zoom and set expectations/guidelines for our group. Your guidelines will be different from ours, and it’s a cocreative process, but here are some guidelines we set for ourselves for reference:

  1. Be fully present
  2. Seek to understand
  3. Update expectations when we can. If you’re going to be late, or if this group is no longer a priority for you, LET EVERYONE KNOW ASAP!
  4. Everyone in the group is essential. We won’t “go on without you.” We’d simply renegotiate a time that works, or you can renegotiate your commitment.
  5. If we’re feeling crappy, or ugly, or drained, we’d still commit to showing up, and be accepted even if we’re not bringing our “best” energy forward. Life happens.

Here are some things we’ve learned that have kept our group continually transformative and connected:

Push each other out of the comfort zone with curiosity and kindness

Establish trust in the first few weeks for this to become effective. You want everyone to be in the stretch zone, instead of the comfort zones or panic zones. This is the slight discomfort that allow us to grow, but not disengage, get bored, or get overwhelmed and run away.

Examples of what we frequently say, ad hoc include:

  • “Is that really true?”
  • “What would it look like if you approached with more wonder/curiosity?”
  • “I have a story that what you just said is a judgement, are you open to exploring that?”
  • “Are you open to feeling into that anger/grief/fear?”

Listen actively

Share the impact of what you hear:

  • “What stood out to me…”
  • “As your shared X, it made me think of…”
  • “Hearing you share X made me appreciate…”

Affirm each other for progress that is made

“Do you feel complete with your sharing?”

  • As this is an evolving process, sometimes not everyone would get a chance to share, so we’d make adjustments in subsequent calls to accommodate
  • We’d frequently say “I feel complete” after one of our personal shares to open space for the next person to go.

Learn facilitation fundamentals

Acknowledge without trying to fix

  • “Wow, that sounds really challenging. I can see why that would be so painful.” Instead of immediately jumping into “have you tried _______?”
  • If you want advice, ask for it! “What advice do you have?” or “What do you think I could try in this situation?” or “Have you experienced something like this before?”

(Optional) Thank our practice partners and exclaim how difficult that session was and how important it is to keep doing the work!

  • “I’m so grateful for y’all and all the support I’ve received from this group. Thank you for being there for me.”

Have a set schedule, or schedule WHILE ON THE CALL.

Asynchronous scheduling for busy people like us meant we went almost 2 weeks without a meeting one time because we decided one time to not “waste precious call time” scheduling.


Here are some interesting takeaways I did not expect before the group started:

  • I have tried MANY times over many years to “repair” my relationship with my parents, and never saw any changes from them. This time, I really did, and ONLY because I stayed consistent with my personal changes whether or not I was seeing change from them. It came slowly, but my dad and I are ACTUALLY friends now.
  • There have been a LOT of tears! And challenge. And deep, deep work! The kind of depth I went to some of these calls with were perhaps witness only by past romantic partners; the way we care about each other and became attuned to everyone’s faces and bodies even over the internet became uncanny in the best of ways.
  • Having people in various stages of development in their relationships with their parents was incredibly powerful and connective! It helped us build empathy in unexpected ways. For example, Brandon’s parents were split up and he hadn’t talked to his dad in 12 years. My parents are still together, but I had a TERRIBLE relationship with my dad. Tong-Tong had been doing this work for several years now, and had a pretty good relationship with her parents, though there were still some triggers she was working through. Joseph created “Parents Are Human” with his parents, who have been supportive to him his entire life, even though they had a lot of trauma when they were young and worked minimum wage jobs.
  • We began to get more intuitive and more comfortable. Sometimes after one of my shares, one of us said “that doesn’t feel complete but I need some help from both of you on why it doesn’t feel complete for me.”
  • The changes we’ve personally made in our lives have inspired friends to work on their relationships with their parents.

Other snippets into how our group is run differently now vs. a few months ago:

  • We used to take meticulous meeting notes (1 scribe per meeting) and we have since stopped. Turns out, the best use of our time came from working in the present and we never read our meeting notes. We DID, however, begin to record our sessions on Zoom (this only works if you pay for zoom), or sometimes audio recorded when we were diving into a process.
  • Our greeting instead of “rose thorn bud” or other connection games morphed to “how are you (feeling)?” Followed by a 6-step feeling-your-feelings worksheet. Then after a year, it morphed into “how was your week?” because we’d all become family and wanted to know the everyday updates in each others’ lives.

Additional Tips:

  • Use your group for emotional support when you handle a situation well, or if you’re struggling! A simple “hey, does anyone have 5min to hold space for some stuck grief?” will do!
  • If your group is bigger, maybe for 1 week, divide a group of 4 into 2 groups of 2 for accountability, and switch up the pairings the following week.
  • Avoidance is a HUGE thing that comes up. It’s recommended to talk about your own avoidance tactics in the beginning and how you want to be supported through them. Even saying “can you ask me if I’m being avoidant?” can be a good first step.
  • There are some hard weeks and some easy weeks. The key is to keep showing up. There have been weeks I was so triggered that I wondered why I was doing this project at all. The support of my group helped put me right back on track.

Remember: success is NOT them showing up the way you want them to show up, but YOU showing up in the way you want to show up.

Joseph J. Lam
On a mission to help people connect deeply with their parents. | CEO & Co-founder of Parents Are Human (parentsarehuman.com)