It doesn’t have to be that way. In a 40 year career in and around family business, I see one obvious, yet seldom addressed, area of skill development that could eliminate a huge amount of the family business breakdowns.
Communication skills are needed. Think about it. We are linguistic beings – words are the water we swim in. Like the fish in water, language is so much a part of our world we almost forget it’s there. In families the way we 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.
Here’s my list of top 10 communication mistakes
1. They stop talking!
Okay, I know this 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 will come to us who 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.
2. They 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.
3. They 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. I realize 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. In our work, we also teach and practice mindfulness – the ability to stay calm and rational in the midst of challenging situations.
4. Inability to balance advocacy and inquiry
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. In our work, we call this 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.
5. Inability to escape the past
Especially in families, we get trapped in our past stories and experiences with people. I can understand how that happens because I saw it happening in my own family business. Effective communication focuses on new possibilities for new ways of thinking and acting. Families too often get caught up in rehashing and reliving in the past. Effective communicators know how to build new visions and new possibilities for working together for more powerful and effective futures. We want to use the past to educate us but it is effective communicators that create a new future.
6. 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. We encourage people 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.
7. Confusing facts with opinions
This one always causes a heated discussion. In our work, we talk 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.
8. 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. We encourage families to invite other successful family leaders to their family meetings to help educate members through real-life success stories from other families.
9. Inaccurate about facts and conversations – 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, I start encouraging them to capture their agreements in writing and circulate them to each other. Unfortunately, some people use confusion and selective memory in order to not be held accountable for previous conversations.
10. Inability to collaborate and build consensus
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 vs. 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 1-2 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 1-2 areas, send them to me and we’ll have some coaching 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.