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Helping Family Businesses
Prosper Across Generations®

When Communication Fails

More and more sibling teams are holding meetings to establish policies and procedures for their future ownership responsibilities. These meetings usually focus on how to make decisions, rules for employment and compensation, dividend levels and valuation procedures.

These discussions offer numerous opportunities for honest differences of opinion. Conflict and confrontation may ensue. But we find the greatest communications problems and meeting breakdowns have little to do with differences of opinion. They develop because of deep feelings that have never been acknowledged, much less resolved. Three feelings seem to cause the most frequent disruption and hurts:

Lack of appreciation.

“I don’t feel I’m appreciated for all I’m doing, all I’m sacrificing for the family.”
“You don’t respect my experience or education -- otherwise you’d defer to my opinion.”

In every family business some people are sacrificing more than others to provide business or family leadership. Their sacrifices can be sources of considerable pain -- especially if their spouses, children or free time are being short changed.

Lack of trust.

“I don’t feel you trust me and accept me as an equal.”
“You’re disregarding me -- otherwise you’d hear me out when I offer my opinion.”

Power and competence are not equally distributed in family sibling teams. And the older people get, the more they are angered by perceived lack of trust.

Lack of fairness.

“No one understands how mistreated (or left out) I feel.”
“You don’t give me the benefit of the doubt -- otherwise you’d be more sympathetic and supportive of my problems.”

Life isn’t fair. Some are born later. Some don’t get the same chances. Sometimes circumstances cause disadvantages.

The Cycle

In a family, especially a business-owning family, these feelings have basis in reality. When a person feels unappreciated, untrusted, or unfairnessness, effective communicators listen carefully and try to show support. The family works hard to separate these feelings from the decision at hand.

But often these feelings can reinforce each other. Those who feel they are treated unfairly can’t appreciate the unappreciated who lose their patience with those who feel untrusted who feel unsympathetic to the feelings of those who feel unfairness.

When communications cycle out of control, the original topic of discussion is entirely lost in unfulfilled feelings from the past. Business owning families may focus on proactively solving business problems, rather than patiently hearing others express their feelings. Consequently, these families may suffer inordinately from cyclical communication breakdowns.

Hopefully, a couple of family members or a facilitator can help the family see this cycle develop, and help to surface painful feelings. The participants should be assured that these feelings are normal and natural. All family members can become more sensitive and respectful.

Family meetings are all about responding to family members’ needs. That process begins by being responsive to needs to feel appreciated, to share trust, and to experience fairness. Only when family meetings focus on people’s needs will they result in effective decision making.

 

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