Communication Within Family Businesses

communication within family businesses
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Communication Within Family Businesses

Communication Rule One: Be like my friend.

She does something with her communication that no one else I know does. And, she’s pretty insistent that I do likewise when we’re talking. For her, speaking, listening and thinking are three completely distinct activities. It’s noticeable but not too awkward. Among the results is that when she is listening to you, she is really listening. It’s something that you can feel. I appreciate it.

Most of us, even while the other person is speaking, we are already working on our next point. And, more or less consciously, when we hear someone, we anticipate possible next words they might say and then judge their words against our expectations. We ask ourselves tactical questions, “Are we going to respond? How? Are we going to deal with the cognitive or the emotional, with the brain or with the heart? If one, then do we dismiss the other? etc.” This happens so fast, so automatically that we believe we really had only one way to respond to what we heard; we respond on autopilot.

If there’s any old stuff that keeps going around the family meeting table, autopiloting communication will only fan it along. Like my friend, then, Rule One, make a line separating thinking….speaking…&….listening.

Communication Rule Two: Hear & Respond to everything being said.

But first, this metaphor which is a true story. In 2010, the Musical Instrument Museum opened in Phoenix, AZ. Our best visits there are when our composer son joins us. He KNOWS music and he is passionate about it. On our first visit to the MIM, he was still an adolescent male who enjoyed the gross stuff of life more than his middle-aged dad did. This brings us to Tuvan Throat Singing. It sounds gross, until you’re brought to that well often enough, and then the beauty of it shows up.

What happens in throat singing is that the performer creates a fundamental tone, and using his mouth and throat, shapes a specific harmonic of it – My son gave me that language. Key point is that we’re hearing two notes come out of one throat.

And, this brings us to any meeting of any family business. A person opens their mouth and sound comes out. Habitually, we receive it as one thing. But, (at least) two things come out. There’s the verbal. And, there’s the emotional. We want to work with both.

But, instead of hearing everything that’s being said, what we really do is pick out only one thing and hear that. For example, in a meeting of the Family Business, Cousin “X” just reported on progress in hiring a new operations manager. However, others at the table have instead heard Cousin “X” disparage their skills. This seems like a miscommunication, and it is but not in how we normally think of it. When “X” spoke, information was delivered along with emotion. For the listeners, the information was lost in emotion, Cousin “X”’s and their own. If emotion is not acknowledged and dealt with, it will disrupt whatever process is before it.

Here’s a tool that can help. For example, and the following all happens quickly, when someone says something that feels highly emotional to me, I hear it. I pause. I feel what it feels like in my chest and shoulders. I imagine that what they said is written as if in an email in front of me. No body language. No tone. Just the words. Then, I look at those words. And, I try to find the most neutral way of taking those words. And, then, I speak. I might say something about how I feel and then I respond to that “email,” as simply and honestly as I can. This takes practice.

Responding to the cognitive part of communication has its own complexity. It also takes practice. And, there is a lot of preparation required here on the part of the individual and the family.

Every family in business has its way of knowing what it knows, its own epistemology. Knowledge could be for some a hunch, for others a market analysis. Every family also has its means of engaging its members with that knowledge. That base of knowledge is the foundation on which communication is built. It’s common ground on which grows common language. It’s like people talking about winter who have only lived in either St. Petersburg, Florida or St. Petersburg, Russia, not a lot of common ground.

To understand this better, let’s take this example: the family that was hiring a new operations manager had just built an addition to their factory. In deciding to do that, the family managed the information flow of market analysis, local zoning, financing, and more. And, they interfaced with a bevy of new professional service providers on top of those regularly engaged. Doing this well requires mastery of a large body of information. And, it calls for clarity in goals, values and roles.

Being a contributing member of the family business requires commitment to the family, to its vision and to doing the work to fulfill our role. It means getting educated in the family’s ways. The aforementioned clarity and commitment define the engagement of each member of the family business. And this engagement is best when built consciously by the family and offered to its members at times and in ways appropriate to their development as members of the family business.

Specifically, family needs common ground to effectively run their business and the family has to build that common ground. These points are key to building that common ground:

  • Mapping the business including personnel and roles and what knowledge is owned, where is it and who has access. Similarly, physical and financial assets are included in the mapping.
  • History, values and vision. These are the road markers for the family business. They require codifying and regular recitation to maintain their influence on the day to day activity of the family business. They also require regular review and update to ensure their relevance. Here, creativity is especially encouraged in making family events and rituals to mark the passing along of history, values and vision.
  • Skills acquisition. The family in business continually acquires skills that enable change as desired or required. They decide whether to invest those skills in family members or to bring them in from the outside.
  • Execution. This is governance, the description of how you operate; boards, tenures, shares and their ownership, and more.

These functions are the backbone of the business. And, while they have emotional vestments, they are cognitive. So, continuing our example, when Cousin “X” reported on hiring a new manager, everyone got lost in emotion. But, after a regroup where they reviewed how the manager decision was made and got a handle on the feelings around that process, they were able to continue with their business.

This example depicts a family that has considered itself and its business in a comprehensive way. They have created a structure where listening to each other is possible. Engaged family members acknowledge emotion and they honor the shared facts that give substance to their business. This prepares them for Rule Two: Hear & respond to everything being said, both the emotional and the cognitive.

Communication Rule Three: There are many more rules.

However, communication in each family business has its own life, so rules about communication are best when custom tailored.

Our work with your family business includes checking, and if necessary, reshaping communication. Thank you for your reading. Please be in touch with thoughts or questions.


For more on emotion in Family Business, I recommend this article: Brunden & Hartel, 2014
For more on Language Processing, I recommend a resource for this column: Rayner and Clifton, 2009

jonathan magidovitch
About the Author

Jonathan advises family businesses in both the US and Israel. He consults with families in business on goal setting, role development, governance, communication, transition, leadership and culture building.     ( view bio )

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