Talk to the Right People at the Right Time

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Every family business has disagreements and misunderstandings, which require challenging conversations to resolve. However, too often we tend to put off those conversations assuming things will get better if we have a few days of pouting silence or physical separation. Instead of talking about the issues, we bury ourselves in solo activity and have only casual conversations about the weather or the day’s work. We tell ourselves, “We have lived and worked together for years. The other person knows how I feel and think so why should we talk about it?”

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Unfortunately, avoiding a challenging conversation does not solve it. In fact, the disagreement or misunderstanding swept under the rug usually escalates and eventually explodes, which leads to reduced productivity and broken relationships. The strong leader, however, recognizes there’s a problem and sets a “when and where” to discuss it. The sooner the issues are talked about, the better. The goals of the conversation are to:

  • name the problem
  • discover the underlying cause
  • brainstorm possible solutions 
  • together, select the best solution

A good way to start the conversation is to ask, “What’s going on? Something seems to be bothering you. What is it? Why aren’t we communicating better?” Your first responsibility as a leader is to listen. Avoid the strong urge to immediately solve the issue or give coaching.

It is essential the conversation be a fair process. Both parties need to feel the discussion is balanced and the powers of age, ownership or relationships with grandchildren or other family members are not leveraged to affect the balance. Creating a short list of guidelines of “how we are going to talk” is beneficial. The list often 
includes honesty, openness, respect and no interrupting. One conversation I facilitated created four rules: no shouting, no cussing, no yelling and no spitting. It worked well for them.

The first step to resolution is to name the real problem. Shouting, silence, tears or anger are symptoms of what is causing the pain. The problem lies beneath the surface and usually deals with feelings or fears of lost relationship, broken communication or loss of personal value. One way to get to the real issue is to talk about what has changed in the relationship and when the change started to occur. 

It is important to ask, “What do we each need to make things better and why do we need it?” For example, one person might say, “I need to feel more a part of the operational decision-making because I am 40 years old and still have no sense of leadership or ownership. When will it be my turn?” 

After knowing the “why,” the solution is easier to discover and both parties can begin to brainstorm mutually beneficial options. From that list, they can select the best solution. 

Lastly, a word of caution. If other family members’ or employees’ behaviors become a part of the discussion, it is imperative the conversation end until those individuals can be included. To have a successful solution to the problem, the conversation cannot be about others, but with others. Triangled conversations are not workable; direct communication must be practiced to find a win/win resolution.

The challenging conversation is simply using the values of integrity, respect, openness and fairness to create a working environment that allows each person to fulfill his/her needs for individual uniqueness and connection with others. If that is accomplished, you have talked to the right people at the right time. 

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