Communication is King:Strengthening communication in the family business
Are you finding communication challenging within your family business? You’re not alone. Clear and honest communication is critical for any business, but when it comes to family business, emotions and old habits add extra challenges. Here are a few ways you can improve communication in your family business.
Communication is fundamental to pretty much everything we do, from how we relate to each other to how we relate to the world around us. Communication within a family business is also critically important. If family members are not being heard or if messages are misinterpreted, it can create real problems. Poor communication not only risks the success of the family business it also risks family relationships. Within family business, the phrase “Communication is king” could not be more true.
The challenge of family business communications
Family businesses have a double whammy when it comes to communication. They are faced with the same challenges of any business but also the added challenge of personal relationships.
We have talked before about the three key factors to a conflict-free family business; transparency, honesty and fairness. Transparent communication that is honest and leads to fair outcomes is critical. These three key factors rely on all family members having good communication skills.
What is clear communication within a family business?
Defining the meaning of communication is an interesting exercise. At our workshops, we ask people to come up with a simple yet clear definition of “effective communication”. By the end of the discussion, we usually have something like:
Effective Communication is Intent = Impact.
This is saying we want the impact of our communication (on the other person) to equal the intent of our communication.
When we communicate with someone, we have an idea in our mind of the message we want them to understand. We convey the message, and it makes an impression on the other person—the impact. But here’s the rub, is the impact of the message the same as the intent? Often, they are vastly different.
Let’s dissect this a little. There is a range of ways we can send a message to another person; verbal, written, non-verbal, tone of voice, etc. Then there is the context in which we are communicating—is it formal, work-based, around the dinner table, driving the car, going for a walk, in a board meeting? Then there is the state of the relationship between us and the person we’re communicating with. Is it open, trusting, wary, conflicted, emotional?
The reality is that all these factors combine to shape how the message is interpreted. If things go wrong, the message won’t be interpreted in the same way as we intended. The person receiving the message is influenced by the same things as the person sending the message, i.e., the context, the way the message is sent, the current state of the relationship and the level of emotion. The problem is they usually have a completely different interpretation of these factors, which is all played out instantly and unconsciously. How often do we really sit down to consider the context, level of emotion and mode of communication when someone is talking to us? We often don’t, we just tend to react.
The challenge is that if they don’t get the message we intend, it is us who has the problem. The person you’re communicating with can only work with what they’ve received. They only know what they have perceived so your job is to find a way to get the message across so that the difference between the intent and the impact is minimal. This can take work.
The importance of communication in family business
Communication between family members has a few added challenges. We often have deeply ingrained and very well-worn communication patterns. These patterns are incredibly easy to fall into and influential in how we interact with the other person. In fact, the patterns are so strong, they’re often the key determinants in how someone understands your message.
All families have communication patterns, some are positive, and some are negative. For example, one raised eyebrow was all it took for my daughter and me to end up in an argument after I noticed a mistake in her work at FBC. By raising my eyebrow in a certain way, my daughter tuned out of what I was saying. An old pattern of behaviour kicked in, and she went into her familiar reaction. I saw her reaction and then completed the pattern by reacting in exactly the way she was expecting. Before we knew it, we had an argument on our hands. And I’m supposed to be the professional communicator here!
The key to successful communication in family business is to be aware of existing communication patterns. If we are really concerned about the effectiveness of our communication and want things to improve, we need to actively work on it. The adage goes that the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. This is a perfect way to describe the communication challenges for family businesses.
How to effectively manage communication in family business
Most of our day to day communication goes along fairly well. We muddle through and if we get it wrong, we apologise and move on. The challenge comes when we need to have an important conversation or when there is a high level of emotion around the subject matter. This is when it gets hard but at the same time becomes even more important to get right.
If you are in this situation, you need to plan and prepare for the conversation. As a side note, please don’t have important conversations by email or text. This is a terrible way of communicating and will often make things worse when there is high emotion involved. As a rule, the moment you sense emotion in a text or email conversation, pick up the phone. Even better, go and talk face to face.
How to prepare for important conversations
- Be very clear on what you want to say and what you don’t want to say. Define this clearly for yourself prior to the conversation.
- Think through how you want this person to feel at the end of your conversation. How do you want them to feel about you and about the situation you’re discussing?
- Think through the trigger points for the person you are talking to. If they are a family member, there will undoubtedly be existing communication patterns in place. Some will be helpful and some will be unhelpful. Be aware of these.
- Think about what you will do if you slip into an unhelpful interaction pattern. How will you get out of it? What will you do to change the pattern?
- What is your level of emotion in this? How might you be triggered? It is easy to see the emotion in others while completely forgetting our own emotions and how tense, worried, upset or stressed we may become. It may be better to wait until your own emotional level has reduced before starting the conversation.
Successful communication within a family business is an in-depth topic. There is far more that we can dive into, and improving communication is a key part of the services the Family Business Central team provide. However, from what we have covered here in this short article, you can get a sense of the additional challenges families in business together face when they need to communicate on highly sensitive or emotional issues. This is why it is sometimes so helpful to have an independent third party to help families running businesses to facilitate these difficult conversations.
Communication is King, and it is something we all must work on. Just ask my daughters!