Communication and family: What “should” we be doing?

Deb Houden
Deb Houden

In my last post, I talked about the importance of each generation defining what it needs in order to be an effective group for the family and the business. The operative forum was a family meeting. Family meetings can be tricky. I was facilitating a particularly tense family meeting recently when the patriarch asked me why these meeting were so hard when at the office, they just meet and go forward? He said, “We don’t seem to have as many problems with work relationships as with our family ones.” I asked him how often he talked with his employees. He said, “Every day. We have our meetings, or our visits, solve our problems as move on.”

As family members, we have a certain expectation that since we are family, we should be able to have these meetings, we should be able to talk to each other, we should be able to come to the table and work things out. A wise person once said the family should adopt the policy, “Quit shoulding on me.” The point is that the patriarch failed to accurately compare the amount and type of communication he had with his employees to how much and what type he was having with his family.

We assume as family members that communication should be easy, and when it isn’t, we can’t communicate with “them”. Families need to build capacity in their communication efforts as much as they do with their employees. Many times employers/employees have a filter on their communication before they proceed. How often do we do that with family members? How often do we filter what we say in a way that is constructive? How often do we listen to family members in quite the same way as we listen to employers/employees? How often do we search for a clear understanding of what the other family member said and what they meant?

Case in point, a large family was compiling some ground rules for future meetings. The very first rule the youngest brother said was “Don’t make it personal.” I immediately thought he meant let’s keep business issues business and family issues family. I didn’t think much more until a sister said, “Well, it’s all personal!” I thought, that’s not what he meant, but let it sit. We continued to go around the table, and finally got back to the youngest brother. I asked him to explain what he meant by “Don’t make it personal.” He said as family members, we all know the soft spot that each member has that we can poke at and it hurts. Don’t make your statements so they poke at the underbelly of each other just to hurt. Turns out I was completely wrong about what he meant. We all were but didn’t really understand until we came back around and asked.

Families would be well served to work on their communication with each other. They need to build their capacity! Keep it frequent, keep it constructive, keep on trying to understand, keep it gentle when needed and keep it from poking at the underbelly of the other. And then keep on — it’s never done! Keep building and getting better.

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