Can We Talk?

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.

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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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