While taking individual responsibility for good communication is essential, what a business-owning family can do as a group to improve communications offers almost unlimited possibilities. A family makes a very powerful statement to family members and to employees when it commits itself as a whole to bettering, in a rigorous and disciplined manner, the way it communicates. Doing so helps individual family members strengthen their resolve to become more effective communicators and gives them hope in an area where they may have seen only hopelessness before. When family members support each other s efforts to improve their interactions, they can reach the goal much faster than they could alone.

Taking a Systems Approach

It’s helpful to take a systems approach that is, to think in terms of creating an environment that encourages and supports real communication taking place. One way to begin is for the family to appoint a Communications Committee. A small family can ask two individuals to serve in this capacity while a larger one can choose three or more. Assign the committee to do an inventory of the family’s communication as a whole, looking at its strengths and weaknesses. The committee should take care not to place blame for any weaknesses since doing so may cause some family members to not participate. Based on what it finds, the committee can develop a plan of action for shoring up communication throughout the family and between the family and the business. Ideally, the committee presents its proposed plan to the family or its elected representatives (a family council) for adoption. By accepting the plan, the family commits itself to doing the work necessary to make good communication become a reality.

A plan of action could include some or all of the following elements:

Education of Family Members. Many business families find it useful to invite experts to lead sessions on communication at family meetings or retreats. This way, family members can learn better communication skills while together and help one another practice what they’ve learned. Topics might include better listening, conflict resolution, negotiating, trust building, teaching children how to communicate, running meetings effectively, and anger management.

When communication education is made a part of family meetings, family members begin to understand that learning to communicate better is a high priority and that it is a life-long, ongoing process. It’s not just a one-shot deal. Each education session reinforces what family members have learned before and takes them a step farther.

Regular Communication. Every family can benefit from regularly scheduled conversations. By instituting meetings and forums in which family members can talk with one another, a family creates a system for dealing with miscommunication as well as more serious conflict on an ongoing basis instead of letting disagreements fester until they explode into open hostility.

When it comes to how often family members should meet, one size does not fit all. It depends on the family’s communication style. In the context of the business, a weekly meeting works well for many families. However, if members of your family tend to interrupt one another many times a day, it would be better to meet more often, perhaps daily. Then, instead of interrupting others while they’re working, family members can save comments and questions and other issues for the regularly scheduled communication. That forces family members to prioritize, and it means they interrupt only for matters of extreme importance. Keep in mind that interruptions can be a source of friction in relationships. They communicate the message that I’m more important than you are, or, What I have to talk about is of the highest priority, even though it may not be. Family councils, family meetings, and family retreats all provide a way for the family to talk on a regularly scheduled basis. However, it’s also important to keep informal lines of communication open through fun events, like family dinners, vacations and family reunions that involve the whole family. Some families also find it helpful and fun to have a newsletter that can be sent to everyone via e-mail in between meetings and get-togethers. These are particularly good ways to distribute photographs and inform the family of important events, like birthdays, graduations, and weddings.

Third-Party Assistance. Conflicts run so deep in some families that family members just can’t find their way out without outside help. In such cases, the Communication Committee might recommend in its action plan that professional help be brought in to help the family sort out its issues and engage in a process that will put it on the road to better communication. We need to stress that, if your family is troubled, outside help is mandatory because self-doctoring can make things worse. In families that are less troubled, the committee can spell out the conditions for turning to a third party. It can recommend, for example, that a trusted and skilled family friend be asked to help resolve certain differences. It might also recommend that a professional consultant be brought in to help the family deal with knottier conflicts as well as defining how the consultant is selected and what authority they might have. This way, the family makes a decision about how it will handle conflicts before they occur not in the heat of battle. If you do this before an explosion, you will be very thankful when the need arises.

Rules for Communication. Some business families develop policies that cover both internal and external communications. In the beginning, however, it’s best just to set forth a few rules so that they can be readily remembered and practiced. The rules might include such issues as confidentiality, interruptions, how soon family members will return phone calls from one another, who can talk on behalf of the company or family and when and who can family members talk to within the company. Sometimes they include a code of conduct, outlining how family members should treat one another.

Recognizing Family Patterns. The Communication Committee’s work can include a look at the family’s communication patterns and how they help or hinder the family. The committee should be encouraged to make recommendations to the family about which patterns to reinforce, which ones to change or eliminate, or new patterns that could enhance the family and its business.

The family’s patterns would make a good subject for one of those family meeting education sessions. One way to introduce the topic would be to show the film, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It’s a romantic comedy in which, a young woman from a big, boisterous business-owning family of Greek origin falls in love with a mild-mannered schoolteacher, the only child of a quiet, restrained couple who are definitely not Greek. The differences in communication styles of the two households are clear and humorous and can kick off lively discussion among family members.

Another way to become more conscious of patterns of communication is, with the aid of a facilitator, to ask family members in one generation to write down some of the patterns that they perceive. Responses might be:

  • Mom often says, `you know what your father thinks,’ when she doesn’t want to admit to herself or others her opinions or feelings.
  • Uncle Bob really listens well and makes me feel like he takes me seriously. I wish the other members of his generation were more like him.
  • We argue all the time.
  • We never argue. It’s forbidden. So things that ought to be talked about often don’t get talked about.
  • If I express my own opinion, Dad thinks I’m disrespecting him.
  • We talk all the time.
  • We disagree a lot but nobody takes it personally.
  • We often go through Mom when we really want to say something difficult to Dad.
  • It’s hard to talk with our cousins because our parents are so distrustful of their parents and vice versa. We always feel like we have to take sides with our parents.

Family members can discuss what they have written down with the whole group and start to pinpoint the communication patterns that work and those that don’t. Family can also tell stories of where a communication pattern failed and the family can study it like a case to find lessons. Then they can begin to work on necessary changes.

Communicating with and in the Business. The Communication Committee can assess not only how family members communicate with one another in the family but how the family’s communication impacts the business.

In his published memoir, George G. Raymond Jr. describes how even after his authoritarian father retired from the family business and George Jr. was named CEO, the question of who really was in charge seemed to be an issue with employees. During that period, Dad would go to an officer of the company and, just out of curiosity, ask him a question, and the officer would take it as an order and do whatever he thought my father had asked him to do. As a result of this confusing practice by all the top executives, which really went on for five or six years, The Raymond Corporation wobbled. . . It was no coincidence that business, generally, started improving when managers realized that I was, in fact, the boss, and they didn t have to worry about what my father might think or say regarding any action they had taken at my direction. To keep the Greene, New York, material-handling equipment manufacturer prospering, George Jr. eventually found he had to change the company communication system from one that reflected his father’s style of managing by instilling fear in employees to one that was open and participative.

As the Raymond story suggests, the Communication Committee needs to explore such issues as: Does the business need a new system of communication as a result of a leadership succession? Is the communication system changing to keep pace with the growth of the business? If the company has gotten so large that the CEO can no longer keep employees informed on a one-on-one basis the way he or she used to, have other methods of communication been put in place to keep employees in the know? Do the company’s vehicles of communication meetings, newsletters, memos, e-mails, etc. appropriately convey that the owners care about the employees? Do the owners back up that message with action? Can non-family employees be direct with owners without fear of reprisal? Do family members listen adequately to non-family employees? These are some of the questions a family needs to ask and re-ask as it seeks to move its company forward.

Reprinted from Conflict and Communication in the Family Business. ©2003, by Joseph Astrachan and Kristi McMillan. A Family Business Publication.