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Are You Getting the Message Across? Tips for Avoiding the Common Pitfalls of Familial Miscommunication

One of the fascinating things about working with family businesses is discovering how different all families are, each one special and challenging in its own way. Despite the seemingly unique set of challenges presented by each family I have worked with, in almost every case there lurks an issue with miscommunication at its root. Here, I take a look at some of the most common examples of familial miscommunication and provide some ideas for their remedy…


My first example is when family members take messages for each other. Once a communication is passed on, it gets filtered through the messengers’ own perceptions and biases; even different body language or tone can lead to the message understood being quite different to the one that was originally intended.


A case study illustrating this involves a large business family in which one family shareholder began to ignore all family correspondence and refused to participate in important decisions. The extended family instinctively turned to his direct sibling for answers, asking the sibling to communicate with his brother on their behalf. The result was that the sibling’s relationship with his brother deteriorated because of a misunderstanding. Do not underestimate direct, face-to-face communication, which is the only way to make sure important messages have ‘landed’.


A second common form of miscommunication in families is ‘pigeonholing’. Miscommunication often happens when we think we know someone well and begin to assume certain features of their personality. This is a particular danger amongst family members, who share a history. I have seen this play out in an uncle who found it difficult to appreciate his niece’s role as the new Board Director and stop seeing her as ‘the little terror’ who used to run around the office causing havoc as a young girl.


When one family member makes an assumption about how another will act or feel based on past experiences and historical roles that may no longer be relevant, making a fair judgment becomes difficult. In this situation, it is the person on the receiving end of the assumptions that often holds the key to changing others’ attitudes towards them. If this person, rather than taking offense, is able to understand and accept that it is hard for family members to reform early images, they will be better able to respond constructively. The best way of changing another person’s perception of you is by patiently and repeatedly taking actions that demonstrate your role has changed - it must be a process that evolves over time.


My third and final example of familial miscommunication is ‘emotional masks’. This refers to when somebody doesn’t know how to express an emotion and it manifests itself as something else. One ageing family business founder refused to step down from his role as Chairman and became infuriated when his children attempted to bring up the subject of succession planning. As a result, his children believed that he did not think them competent and that he did not wish them to continue the family business. Eventually, the founder agreed to meet with an outside adviser. The adviser encouraged him to talk about his anger in a way that he was unable to do in front of his family, with whom he only knew how to act the role of the strong patriarch. The founder came to the realization that his anger was actually a response to his underlying fear of ‘letting go’. His business, his own personal accomplishment, had become what defined him and he was afraid of what his life would be like without it. Having identified the real issue, the founder was able to work with the adviser to create a clear delegation process, enabling him to gradually hand over control and adjust his relationship with the Business without ‘losing face’, and to enjoy planning his retirement.


I notice a common thread in the above examples of resolved familial miscommunication: responsibility. In the first example, all of the family members realized that they had allowed and encouraged one person to take on a messenger role and so rather than scapegoating the estranged family member, everyone worked towards changing the negative pattern. In the second illustration, the individual who was the target of the assumptions turned the situation around by taking positive actions to change other family members’ view of herself, rather than reacting negatively by becoming defensive or trying to ‘get even’. In the final scenario, the family business founder took responsibility for choosing anger over other emotions and accepted the help he needed to work out what it was he really wanted to achieve.


I think responsibility is key in a family. For families in business together, tasked with dealing with the complex interplay of business decisions, ownership issues and family relationships, responsibility is even more crucial. You can’t choose your family, but at the end of the day it is your team, with a shared history and goals, in which each family member plays a different and important role. In order to overcome the tough times, it is necessary for family members to take group responsibility for each other’s strengths and weaknesses in order to be able to balance them, and personal responsibility for the consequences of their own actions and the unique position that they play.

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