How well does your family communicate? Consider these situations: 1. When you and a family member have tension at work, do you communicate your feelings directly to one another? 2. When you have a business discussion with your family, do you spend more time presenting your own viewpoint than listening to others? 3. Are there some family members whose overpowering manner intimidates others? 4. Do you or other family members have difficulty disagreeing with each other? 5. When talking to another family member about a business issue, do you sometimes feel there's more to the discussion than the issue at hand? 6. Are there "undiscussable" topics you and your family never talk about because they stir up unpleasant memories or are too "hot" to handle (such as someone's substance abuse problem)? 7. When someone does something well, do you and other family members make it a point to compliment each other? 8. Do you and your family members often laugh together?
If you answered yes to questions 1, 7 and 8 and no to the others, read no further. You have reached a communications pinnacle. Much like the four Shooster "kids," who oversee operations at Communications Service Centers, a call center specializing in distributing information and fulfilling product orders for a variety of clients, you probably learned the art of communication early on.
"We don't go through a psychoanalytical process when we talk to each other," says Stephen Shooster, president of the Margate, Florida, company founded by his parents. "We learned how to get along from the time we were in the playpen. By now, we know which buttons to push and which to stay away from."
But that's not true of all families. If your responses to the quiz above include some yeses that should have been noes (or the reverse), don't be discouraged.
"Most people don't communicate well," observes Sam Lane, a Ft. Worth, Texas, family business consultant and co-author of Working With Family Businesses (Jossey-Bass). For families who haven't learned to communicate (or who mislearned the process), it can be relearned. "But it requires a commitment that includes unpacking emotional baggage by resolving issues that were never resolved in childhood and learning new communication skills," says Lane.
What if you're the only one in the family willing to take the time to improve communication? You and the company can still benefit. A single good communicator can act as a role model for others. Says Lane: "He or she can direct communication traffic, making the process less tangled."
Take The Lead
Because a few simple changes in how you communicate can make a tremendous difference to the entire family, it's worth making the effort.
1. Paraphrase the speaker. Most people aren't skilled listeners, so they may hear what is said but not understand it. That can lead to conflict, especially among family members who, because of their familiarity, think they can read each other's minds.
One way to enhance listening is to get in the habit of paraphrasing. After a family member finishes a thought, Lane suggests using one of the following phrases to check your understanding: "So what you are saying is . . ." "In other words . . ." or "Let me check my understanding of what you're saying . . . ." If you don't capture the essence of what the person said, he or she repeats it, and you paraphrase until you get it.
2. Talk face to face. Directly communicating your feelings isn't always easy. But when Mom talks to Dad about son John, or John talks to one sibling about another, information gets distorted (as in the childhood game of telephone). And because you are dealing indirectly with problems, they rarely get solved. Direct confrontation later ("I hear you have a complaint against me") is better than nothing at all, but by then it's usually too late; there are already hurt feelings.
Confronting each other is hard, but it's the only way to meaningful communication, and straightforward doesn't have to mean brutal. As long as the basic rules of a healthy discussion are observed-respecting each other, maintaining self-control so you don't say things you don't mean, and avoiding personal attacks-confrontation can lead to constructive problem-solving, says Mary Whiteside, a psychologist and family business consultant affiliated with the Ann Arbor Center for the Family in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
3. Make statements, not accusations. When you face off with someone you're in conflict with, often the first word uttered is "You . . ." followed by accusations. Lane suggests using a three-step technique to bypass accusations: Start by describing what the other is doing ("The last three times you came into the shop, you started issuing orders to me in front of everyone"), how it makes you feel ("I feel demoralized in front of my department-as if I'm a little kid"), and what you would prefer instead ("One thing that might work is if you come into my office to speak to me privately, or call me on the phone and ask me to come to yours").
However useful these exercises are, family businesses plagued by divisive, unfruitful or sparse communication need more help than they can provide themselves. For these problems, professional help from family business advisors and communication consultants should be sought.
Patricia Schiff Estess publishes the newsletter Working Families and is the author of two new books, Managing Alternative Work Arrangements (Crisp Publications) and Money Advice for Your Successful Remarriage (Betterway Press).