Family Business

Embracing difficult conversations as a business family


4 min




Listen to Dr. Joseph Astrachan who teaches family business at Kennesaw State University describe how to improve communication skills and to make communication more effective in business family systems. Family businesses have a tendency to put off difficult conversations, in hopes of avoiding conflict among members. However, for the success of the business, it is important to consistently discuss these issues among all members, allowing the business and the family to grow from the eventual resolution of these difficult issues.




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There are so many elements of family business, and family business is so complex and so interwoven. Family by itself is complicated, business by itself is complicated. How do the financial aspects affect family relationships? How does family relationships affect strategy? How does family culture affect employee policies? How do all those things affect business success, and ultimately what does business success mean in the eyes of the family?

There are some techniques that I suggest people use in order to get families to embrace communicating about things that they do not want to communicate about. The first is to do what psychologists call “normalization” which is to say, “Family, you are like every other family. It is hard to talk about things you find uncomfortable.” Number two, “family you are not as fragile as you think you are, you can withstand fights, you can actually grow ... View More from having disagreements and airing disagreements.” Third, “ Family you should be afraid if you do not do this, because if you do not do this the chances of you blowing apart are much greater.” Fourth, practice difficult communication, let us start with easy topics that you find a little uncomfortable and generally move to greater and greater topics of discomfort. Five, when it is too uncomfortable it is ok to take a break. And the last one, you should schedule this for regular activity, as frequently as possible practice these conversations and gain greater depth.

You can have the conversation with a very specific set of rules. Rule number one, when you have the conversation make sure that everybody has the same amount of time to talk, that there is nobody dominating. Rule two, that you come up with a policy such as silence means consent, that is if you do not speak we all assume that you agree. Number three, when emotions get hot the conversation stops until people cool down. That is a really important rule and the reason it is so important is because as emotions get hot, your biologically imposed predispositions towards certain kinds of behaviour takes over. You can keep the blow ups from happening if you follow that rule, that is, “people are getting a little uptight right now, let us take a time out, everybody calm down.” Then you get back together, people go “I am sorry I was getting a little hot, let us keep the interest of the family together at this time,” and the conversation tends to continue. Another rule that I tell people is do not overload the agenda. That typically means that in a family of let us say ten people in a room and everybody has five minutes to talk on a subject, that one or two topics is enough. And too often people try and cover, ten, you know, ten, eleven, twelve topics. There is no way from having a meeting with such a heavy agenda stay in control; they tend to spin right out of control.