How Much Do We Communicate By Not Saying Anything?

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Deb Houden

Communication is generally at the top of a list of topics that family enterprises want/need to work on: an important component in everything that family businesses do well (and not so well).  It can be such a challenge because communication can be a slippery topic.  What is not communicated is just as important as what is.  When a child brings up a topic, and is told that “we don’t talk about that”, the child learns to keep quiet. The child’s brain does not necessarily comply. The human brain fills in the blanks with the information available; when the information is limited, the thought process is limited.

Another example is when some event happens in the business and a family member wants to talk about it.  If they approach another family member, and are rebuffed, they soon learn not to ask difficult questions.  Difficult questions and difficult discussions are as important to learning how to communicate effectively as laughter and congeniality. Families who communicate effectively do both.

Families are filled with topics that are taboo. This phenomenon is especially prevalent in family businesses when not all members work in the business.

Here are 5 things to think about that will help you help your family communicate better:

  • What am I not saying that is important for others to know?
  • What am I assuming? Do I have the same information as everyone else?
  • What topic am I afraid to talk about in my family?  Why?
  • It may take a neutral 3rd party to help your family gently begin to communicate better.
  • Communication takes practice, circling back to make sure all information is out there, checking assumptions, and then practicing again.

Communication only becomes effective within families if it is practiced regularly.  If you are part of a family who struggles with communication, start gently and build up your skills.  Remember, by not talking about a topic, you are communicating plenty of information, just not what you might want others to know.


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