Good communication is one of the most important survival skills for a successful family business. Unfortunately, despite all our brainpower (or maybe because of it), human beings are imperfect communicators, and imperfect communication often generates conflict. Conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing; important ideas and information are often embedded in it. Good communication skills don’t develop from avoiding conflict; they do help avoid unnecessary conflict, avoid exacerbating it and promote learning from conflict without damaging any of the family members of the business. So how can you enhance good communication, allow for healthy conflict and cut down on miscommunications?
Catch miscommunications early. Communications easily and inevitably go awry. Spotting miscommunications early enables you to head off resentment, bruised egos and anger and paves the way for going over — instead of avoiding — the points of contention. Some clues that communication’s gone awry: unexpected emotional reactions, blank stares, lack of feedback or your own internal sense that you have just spoken into a vacuum. Keep in mind that these are merely clues, not evidence. Don’t ignore them or use them to accuse, and don’t ask the person, “Did you hear me?”; that can sound belligerent. Instead, invite the other person to participate in the dialogue by asking for feedback or for an opinion. A mea culpa also helps. “I’m not sure I was really clear,” you could say. “Sometimes I don’t clearly put my thoughts into words. Should I try that again?” Asking the other person to help you out makes the quest for clear communication collaborative.
Learn the intent-impact model. Conflict frequently escalates because people act on the erroneous assumption that they have communicated accurately. This miscommunication pattern is so common that a team of psychologist researchers who have observed scores of married couples’ discussions has even coined a name for it: the intent-impact model. When what you say (your intent) has an unexpected result (impact), communication gets sidetracked and negative emotions escalate. Often, when people haven’t responded in the way you’d hoped or expected, they are not being defiant, devious, oversensitive or stupid, but they have simply heard something other than what you had intended to say. It doesn’t matter whose “fault” the miscommunication is; the only faults lie in not noticing when it happens and in joining the escalation of negative feelings. Instead of responding to the other person’s unexpected reaction, stop; explain that the reaction surprised you; and say, “Maybe I didn’t say what I meant to say clearly enough. I didn’t intend to make you angry (or hurt you).” Don’t say, “Maybe you didn’t hear me clearly.” Once someone is angry or hurt, that statement pours gasoline onto the fire. Instead, defuse the intensity by taking the responsibility on your own shoulders. This sounds simple, but it requires practice, discipline and a strong sense of yourself.
Remember that many factors contribute to miscommunication. The simplest statements have invisible roots and cast unintended shadows. Differences in culture, age, pecking order within the family, gender, mood, listening styles and assumptions significantly affect our ability to speak or listen effectively and clearly. You may mistakenly assume, for example, that someone who is making eye contact with you has clearly heard everything you have just said. Conversely, someone who avoids eye contact may not be ignoring you but actually listening keenly. If you give some advice or direction to a younger sibling, he may be thinking more of long-ago conversations or resentments than about what you are saying. Someone who has had a bad day may have her mind on matters other than what you have to say, and you may misconstrue her lack of attention as lack of commitment. When miscommunication occurs, be sympathetic, not accusatory; it helps to remember that the greater duress people are under, the harder it is for them to communicate. That applies to you as well. You may be aggravated about something completely unrelated that happened earlier in the day and speak to someone with an unintended edge in your voice that he takes personally; then you assume he’s touchy or has a bone to pick with you.
Remember that emotions are contagious. Neuroscientists have recently discovered mirror neurons, the part of the brain that responds empathically to another’s emotion. Mirror neurons help explain why we can watch someone cry and feel sadness or why a hasty gesture from one driver escalates into road rage. Emotional contagion is a wonderful thing when people are laughing or in love, but it is not so good when someone is angry or hurt. Don’t fuel the negative contagion that may result from a miscommunication. You may have to work hard to override biology and soothe your innate urge to react resentfully to someone else’s resentment.
Good communication involves more than technique. Bernard Mayer, an expert in conflict resolution, points out that it also involves attitude, and he lists several attitudes that nurture good communication.
Genuinely care about what others are saying. You can probably sense when you are being talked at rather than talked with, and so can others. Whenever you are about to talk with someone, try to remind yourself to be curious and to not just care about getting your point across, but to also hear the other person. If you remember this, you will be more attentive, and others will be more open to listening and talking. When you think you know everything, or when you think the only way you can acquire more information is through indirect or surreptitious means, you are not only putting a serious crimp in your incoming information pipeline, but you are also squeezing off communication.
Good communication takes energy. You have to work at communication, marshaling and focusing your energy while remaining relaxed. Alert relaxation is crucial to good communication. Shouting also requires considerable focused energy, but it is not conducive to mutual communication. Be patient and sympathetic with yourself and the other person.
Remember to be tolerant of your own and others’ difficulties in communicating. It is one thing to read this article about communication and vow to practice the precepts. But in the real and messy world of emotions, conflicting aims, separate agendas, headaches, pressures, and two or more people, it helps to remember that good communication is a process, not a test. As a process, it involves not perfection but recognition of mistakes and then doing what you can to get back on course. Like the best parents, the best communicators are not the ones who never make mistakes, but the ones who realize their mistakes, own up to them and take corrective action. The best communicators also help other person do a better job of communicating as well — not through coercion but through supportive modeling.
Communication is one of the greatest sources of difficulty and hope in dealing with serious conflicts. Good communication does more than keep families and businesses going; it is the essence of our family and business relationships. The way we communicate with others and among ourselves ultimately determines the quality of our lives.