While of course good communication is important for all families , the stakes are higher for asset sharing families. Communication breakdown, conflict, and family dissension may affect not only family relationships, but business integrity and the livelihood of family members, employees, community members and many other stakeholders. So asset sharing families would be well advised to make good communication an integral part of family culture, something to strive for, to nurture and to preserve.
In my last blog, I wrote about the most important component of happiness and satisfaction was the connections a person has with others. I have heard numerous stories of family members, who for one reason or another, have become estranged. When working with family enterprises who have conflict, we often hear of a cut-off from one relative or another. It might be children not speaking to a parent, siblings who haven’t had contact in years, cousins who have limited knowledge and communication with each other because of the difficulties of their parents or grandparents generation. Whatever the case, the physical and emotional cut-off in the family invariably affects the business.
One story quite close to me involves two sisters who were very close. Sometime in their late 50s/40s (respectively) they had a falling out. Eventually, they stopped getting together with their families, and the space and silence developed into very strong negative feelings that echoed through the rest of the family system.
As time passed and they reached into their late 80s/70s, the elder sister started to develop dementia. The younger sister heard bits and pieces about the health of the elder and decided enough time had passed and it was time to visit. Their time together was short, but they chatted and smiled at each other’s stories. When the younger sister asked if it was okay if she could come back again to visit, a tear slid out of the elder’s eye, and she nodded yes and grabbed the younger’s hand.
My aunt died this past week, and my mother is very sad, yet so grateful that the connection was reestablished. There was a deep love there that had been hidden and uncovered. Connections with family matters.
Cut-offs happen in families: physically and emotionally. Many times as individuals we are completely justified in why we no longer speak. An event, or a series of events happen that leave us deeply hurt and affect our lives. We stop the connection with the other to protect ourselves. Often, though, when we look back at our family tree, we see a pattern of cut-offs that really had nothing and yet everything to do with our own cut-offs. We tend to inherit cut-offs as a way to cope with the difficulties of relationships.
Unfortunately, those cut-offs affect our satisfaction in life. We may accept them as necessary, but in reality, they leave a hole. Time has a way of softening the edges and healing the wounds that led to cut-offs. Sometimes, family members can’t even recall what led to the cut-off, it always was like this.
Look back at the relationships within your family and examine any cut-offs. Ask yourself these questions:
- Am I cut-off with anyone in my family?
- Why am I cut-off from them?
- Is the event that happened still fresh in my mind or has time helped to heal the wound?
- Have my parents or grandparents ever experienced cut-off? Did I inherit cut-offs or am I going to pass them down?
Take the time today to examine a connection with a family member that may have suffered a break-down. If you can re-establish the connection in a healthy way, you will have added to the happiness in your life and to those in the next generation.
So much distress in family centers on the notion of expectations. We have expectations of ourselves, our significant others, our family and our friends. We even have expectations of how events should go, such as birthdays, holidays, family gatherings. How many times do we set ourselves up with outlooks that we have and get disappointed when things don’t turn out like we had seen in our mind’s eye? How much discord in families is centered on unmet hopes?
In each area of our intra and interpersonal life, the ability to manage expectations will serve well. That is not to say that expectations are always dangerous; shared expectations around behavior, responsibilities, and outcomes can be quite beneficial, as long as they are agreed upon with a solid plan of achieving them. But so often our expectations are silent wishes, a testament to our own ego of how things should be.
Parents have expectations of how children should behave, perform, be seen as, etc. We think a child should be more outgoing, a better student, more of a leader, a better athlete and get disenchanted when they fall short. Siblings are disappointed in each other when they start the phrase with “He should” or “I wish she”. Relationships break down because they are built on what we wish for instead of what is. We hold plans in our heads that bring us satisfaction but include others who are incapable of (or don’t want to) meeting those expectations. We set others up to disappoint us, and then we get angry at them.
What is it about expectations that get us in trouble? Can you look back honestly at the disappointments in your life? How many of them are wrapped up not meeting the expectations you had for yourself or you had of others? How many family business issues are entangled in expectations in ourselves or others? How many times do we have to fight our dreams of what we thought would be, against what truly is?
Let go of and mourn the dream of what should be, and accept the reality of what is. Relationships will be based on acceptance and understanding, so important in families. What will happen is a better version of the dream than what was kept in the head.
It was the best of times, and then it was the worst of times for the second-generation family owners of a flourishing gardening business. Sisters Amy and Bethany, members of the third generation, were bright, talented women who were active in the newly formed family council, though neither worked in the operation.
Amy served admirably as the first chairman of the seven-member family council composed of her sister Bethany, her uncle, her aunt, her brother, and two cousins. Amy seemed to be a born leader. She had done a lot of the research and initial legwork to get the family council started and launched. Thanks to her efforts the family formed an active family council, and the family agreed that these were some of the best of times for them.
After Amy served her two-year term as chairman, her sister Bethany took over. Also bright and well organized, Bethany seemed like the perfect successor. After a year, though, the family council was not performing nearly as well as it had under Amy’s leadership. Council members weren’t showing up, meetings did not run as smoothly, and everyone noticed there was a real lack of camaraderie. Family members wondered if having good governance was really worth the time, effort, and expense.
The best of times and the worst of times boiled down to one significant difference: the leadership styles of Amy and Bethany. Amy understood the importance of building relationships, and Bethany did not. At the beginning of each month, Amy would look at her busy calendar and decide what day she was going to take her dad and her aunt to lunch. Since they were the owners of their family’s growing gardening business, she knew how important it was to stay close to them. She would also schedule calls to her siblings and cousins – making a point to find out what pressing issues she should have on the family council agenda so all topics could be addressed. She knew that staying in touch with the entire family and continuing to build those relationships was critical to the success of the family and the business.
Bethany had not realized the organizational and personal skills it took to make the council run smoothly. She was, however, smart enough to seek her sister’s advice. Amy explained to Bethany how imperative it is for family leaders to stay in close contact with everyone in their family system.. Amy said her strategy was to organize her calendar on the first day of each month because scheduling time for relationship building should always be done first. No one wanted to miss one of Amy’s meetings because the topics were always on target, and everyone was fully engaged.
Staying in contact with the members of the family council did not come easily to Bethany, but she became increasingly aware of how the little things she did to stay in touch paid big dividends in the cohesiveness of the council and the effectiveness of the family governance. Bethany learned from Amy that it is the investment of time that makes for the best of times when it comes to working successfully with your family.
I was having coffee with Dan, a good friend of mine, a few weeks ago. I was surprised when, apparently from out of nowhere, he said “David, you helped save my marriage.” I was delighted to have been of service, I said, but I had no idea what he was referring to.
“Tell me more, please!”, I begged, “I”d love to know how I helped, so that I could do it again if need to!”.
“Well”, Dan said, ” A few years ago I asked you what you would say to a family if you had only a few minutes with them to help them get through difficult relationship problems. You thought for a minute and then said ‘If there is something you want from someone in your family, find a way to give it to them.'”
“So”, Dan continued, “I’ve always remembered that. Last month my wife and I got into a huge fight. I didn’t talk to her for a whole day. I was waiting for an apology from her. I actually thought we were headed for a divorce Then I remembered what you said. And I apologized to her. And we had the best talk we ever had. We understood some incredibly important things about each other. And now I know we are on the right track.
“So David, that’s how you saved our marriage. ”
Well, I know there are many more reasons why Dan has such a strong marriage.
But I like to think that there is some truth in what I said.