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Can We Talk?

Opening the lines of communication

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."

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This article was originally published in the July 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Can We Talk?.

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