Two working parents plus three active kids equals five people in need of healthy dinners every evening at our house. Don’t get me wrong, I love cooking meals, but I don’t love getting home at 5:45 after facilitating a workshop and trying to get a nutritious, timely dinner on the table. A couple weeks ago I realized how much dinners were getting me down and I was starting to sound like a nag.

“I’ve asked you twice now to set the table.”

“Can’t you just chop up some carrots? Is that really too much to ask?”


I thought about what I really wanted from my family. When I got clear, it was simple. I wanted them to stop what they were doing and offer to help even for a few minutes during the dinner rush. If one person chops the salad veggies while another sautés the onions and garlic, we can take the many-hands-light-work approach to dinner. So I posted a sign, which I’m famous for doing (my kids still remind me of the wipe-til-it’s-clean sign in the bathroom when they were young).

The sign is the lead image you see on my kitchen cabinet: Between the hours of 5:30 and 7:00, you are welcome to ask, ‘How can I help?’ These four words have been known to increase happiness for all.

So far it’s working. It’s explicit about the time of day, has a gambit for what to say and ends with a purpose statement (if mama happy, everyone happy). My family walks in the kitchen, sees the sign and remembers to offer, How can I help?

I connect my home leadership experiments to work often and vice versa. I learned the word ‘gambit’ when I did my cooperative learning training with Kagan. It means something done or said to get a desired result. While I have many examples of success with gambits in the classroom, it also applies to leadership work. When I was working with an elementary PLC, I noticed they had parallel talk about instructional strategies but rarely interacted and questioned each other. In our second meeting together, I brought an 8 1/2 x 11 paper that read, “What do you mean by that?”

I said, “We throw around many terms in education like direct instruction, guided reading, shared writing, formative assessment, but if we don’t take the time to understand what another person means, it’s more difficult to collaborate. At some point in today’s meeting I want us to try saying, ‘What do you mean by that?’ to a colleague. It may feel a little awkward and stilted this time, but let’s give it a go.”

Terry was the first to try it after Kara said, “Let’s tie in the social skills” when he asked, “What do you mean by that?” Kara paused and then articulated how she teaches her students to thank each other after sharing their ideas to build community. After the meeting, the team agreed it had been a very productive hour.

While you may not be in a position to request gambits of others, you certainly can build your own gambit list. These are statements and questions I find myself repeating:

*Say more about that.

*What do you mean by that?

*What can I do to make your life more wonderful? (I learned this one from the father of Compassionate Communication, Marshall Rosenberg.)

*What if…

*And of course, How can I help?

One thought on “Gambits

  1. Now that I think about it I used gambits quite often for my kids when they were young. They have been a great tool to use with my students as well.

    I have to add though that “how can I help?” can seem to be a dodge when I take a concern/problem to a leader and he/she responds with “how can I help?” I feel the person who is responsible for resolving an issue is just dumping it back on me instead of owning that responsibility. This just adds to my frustration. I really want to say, “You can tell me how you intend to fix it.”

    But using it to prompt help at dinnertime. Priceless.

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