Sunday, August 9, 2020
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Communicating Effectively in Your Family Business

Communicating is not the same as talking – or even listening. Instead, communicating is understanding and being understood. And if that’s not happening in your family business, then it has a communication problem. Good communication is especially important in family businesses because family members can take on so many assumptions about other family members. Parents assume their children want to enter the business. Children assume they will be obligated to do so. Elder children assume they will take over some day, even if they don’t want to.

Communicating is an active process that, in its most effective form, doesn’t quite come naturally. You have to work at it, and that takes planning, practice and a few pointers.

As you discuss their responses and practice effective communication, keep these tips in mind:

  • Listen actively. This means restating what you’ve heard and then rephrasing to apply what was said to develop a greater understanding about underlying feelings.
  • Ask questions. Instead of making assumptions, ask what your family employees want. Where do they see themselves in the short term? In the long term? Do they want out eventually? What is important to them? What do they think is important to other family members?
  • Be a mentor. Work with your younger generation to teach them what you know over time as they grow in the business. Discuss your successes and your failures. Guide them through major challenges and help them correct mistakes.
  • Communicate about business only at work. As tempting as it may be to seize a moment at the dinner table to talk about the family business, resist. Instead, use that time to talk about personal matters.
  • Come together. Make sure that your family members take the time to come together to talk on a regular basis, from the founding parents all the way to the most junior generations. It’s important to share the different perspectives and priorities that people in different life stages have about the family business.
  • Use “I” statements. Phrasing what you want to say in this way, such as “I feel that…” or “When you do that, I feel…” helps you avoid sounding judgmental or accusatory when discussing different points of view.
  • Keep everyone in the loop. When major decisions are made that affect the family business, communicate that decision promptly and openly with everyone involved.
  • Don’t take everything personally. Sometimes family members lose their tempers or need to blow off steam, but that doesn’t mean it has anything to do with you. Keep cool and try to get to the bottom of the real issue.
  • Be encouraging. A brief congratulations or pat on the back goes a long way toward building confidence and encouraging open communication in the workplace.
  • Have an agenda. For important discussions, create an agenda with all items to be covered and distribute it in advance to meeting participants.
  • Establish communications guidelines. Create a communications protocol for your family business to establish how various issues should be communicated. For example, a quick email may be appropriate to let someone know you’re going to lunch, but not to let them know that a major change has been made.
  • Use a variety of resources. Sometimes face-to-face time is in short supply. In those instances, turn to other ways of communicating when necessary. When using written communication, be especially careful with regards to how the tone of your words could be perceived by the reader.
  • Document. Make sure your family business has written documentation to communicate important policies and procedures.
  • Get help. If you feel like your family is simply unable to communicate effectively, seek outside counsel to assist you. This could be a therapist or a professional facilitator, as the situation dictates.

Start communicating now. If you haven’t done so already, start by asking each family member what the family business means to them. Have them put their response in writing, so that they really think about their priorities, how they feel about the business and how they see themselves involved in it. Encourage honesty, even if you anticipate the answers will be difficult to hear.

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