Your family business doesn’t have to be a source of frustration and anxiety as it often becomes for so many families. Family business disagreements can lead to estrangement in family relationships that last for generations. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. In my 30 year career in and around family business, there is one obvious, yet seldom addressed, area of skill development that could eliminate a huge amount of the family business breakdowns. That skill is communication. Think about it. You are a linguistic beings – words are the water you swim in. Like the fish in water, language is so much a part of your world you almost forget it’s there. In families the way you speak to each other becomes ingrained and trained at a very early age. Being witness to many family business families, I have found a very predictable set of mistakes family members make that could be avoided. Following are the top 10 communication mistakes.
The first mistake is members of the family business stop talking! Okay, that is pretty obvious. But we all know once you stop talking you aren’t on a path to fixing the problem. Sure sometimes it’s okay to take a timeout and stop talking for an hour or half a day but too often families haven’t spoken together significantly in the past month. As painful as things are, you need to keep talking so you can try to understand the source of the breakdown and reach an agreement on possible solutions.
As detrimental as the first mistake, the second is members of the family business can’t listen. One of most important skills you can acquire for being a successful human being is to learn how to truly listen to people. Real listening requires you to suspend your judgments and forget your history. You need to really try to listen to what the person is saying. Too often people get overcome with emotions and simply stop listening. As you listen, you don’t have to agree with everything you hear but you should learn how to honestly take it all in.n
Next enters emotions. You can’t communicate in a calm manner. The brain scientists have now proven that emotions flood your brain with chemicals that actually shut down the creative part of your brain. We’re all emotional creatures and I know emotions play a part in everything we do. Highly effective families learn how to take a couple of deep breaths and restore some calmness before they try to communicate their issues to each other.
You should also teach and practice mindfulness – the ability to stay calm and rational in the midst of challenging situations. When there is an inability to balance advocacy and inquiry communication breaks down. People spend all their time trying to convince you why their way is the right way and too little time trying to ask questions and understand your point of view. This is advocacy- trying to get your point across and inquiry – understanding the others point of view. By asking questions to understand the other person’s thinking you can create openings for mutual understanding and building consensus.
Inability to escape the past is another common communication mistake. Especially in families, we get trapped in our past stories and experiences with people. Effective communication focuses on new possibilities for new ways of thinking and acting. Families too often get caught up in rehashing and reliving the past. Effective communicators know how to build new visions and new possibilities for working together for more powerful and effective futures. You want to use the past to educate yourself but it is effective communicators that create a new future.
Members of your family business team may have an inability to be thoughtful and coherent. Effective communication requires the ability to be thoughtful and to have a plan about what you’re trying to accomplish. Too often people start rambling and ranting and are unable to communicate their point effectively. As a family business manager, encourage family members to take some time and write down what they’d like to accomplish and practice it a bit before they dive into the conversation. You need to have a clear plan of where you’d like to go in the conversation and be open to the possibilities of where it might lead.
Confusing facts with opinions is a common communication mistake. This one always causes a heated discussion. Avoid this mistake by talking about assessments and assertions. An assessment is the judgment of something qualitative – “that’s a good-looking jacket” – a totally subjective thing to say. An assertion is something that is quantitative like “We sold $100,000 of merchandise.” The problem is people think their assessments (opinions) are facts and they are very sloppy about keeping clear about the difference between an assessment and an assertion.
A closely related mistake is speaking as knowledgeable yet lacking knowledge, competence and experience. When the family starts to get caught up in controversial decisions about the business, many times family members start giving opinions without sufficient knowledge or experience. Successful business families understand the need to conduct ongoing training for the family in the area of business fundamentals and best practices. This enables the family to have more productive dialogue coming from a place of shared knowledge. Encourage your family to invite other successful family leaders to their meetings to help educate them through real-life success stories from other families.
Family business members communicate inaccurate about facts and conversations or have a convenient memory. There can be nothing more frustrating and mind-boggling than when people start conveniently forgetting what they said or rewriting their version of the conversation. Some people seem to think this is a convenient way to avoid accountability. When this is a behavior pattern in the family, start encouraging them to capture their agreements in writing and circulate them to each other.
The last communication mistake is the inability to collaborate and build consensus with the family business team. Business’ and families, by their very nature, involve complex decisions and a broad range of ideas and perspectives. It’s critical to the families’ long term success to build the skill of true collaboration- really learning to build off of each other’s ideas instead of tearing them down. Successful families know the importance of making sure everyone’s voice is heard and the solution represents as many interests as possible.
You can use this list as a communication checklist at your next family meeting. Have everyone look over the list and identify one or two areas they realize they need to work on to improve their communication effectiveness. Capture those findings, remind people and hold them accountable to improve in the areas needed. If someone can’t be honest with themselves and identify one or two areas, consider hiring a coach to work with them on “accurate self-assessment”!
Think of communication skill building as one of your top priorities in your business family. You can’t really discuss your collective vision, set clear expectations of each and discuss your breakdowns if you can’t communicate.