Communication is a topic that comes up often when discussing what family businesses need to work on. With ubiquitous communication technology today, you would think that a subject like communication would have ceased to be an issue, after all, everyone is always reachable, right? If only it were so easy.

In a business family, one problem that is difficult to address is communication that only goes in one direction, from the top, down. After all, if the parents raised their children by simply telling them what to do, why would anything be different when they are at work together?

One of the issues with that style is that when messages only travel in one direction, they sometimes begin to fall on deaf ears. The biggest problem with communication, as they say, is the illusion that it has taken place. That is difficult enough to deal with in the best of situations, but when it happens because the speaker is being tuned out, it is a symptom of much bigger problems.

I know that in my situation with my father, things evolved over time with respect to communication flow. I truly believe that he, like many parents, wanted to listen to what his kids had to say, but just took a long time to realize that what we had to say was not only valid and pertinent, but that it was in the interest of the whole family to work together in a more collaborative fashion.

I do not like being told what to do, and I think most people feel the same way. Management styles have thankfully evolved a great deal, and the autocratic way of yelling at people just seems like such a throwback these days.

But while you can suggest to people that is is more important to listen to others than to speak, that doesn’t mean they are all going to suddenly start doing so. Learning to truly listen takes a lot of practice, but it can be learned. Some people just seem to take longer to understand that they should listen to others.

A family business is a tricky environment due to the intersection of the family and the business, and unfortunately some old-fashioned parenting styles and management styles still linger. Most parents in the older generation eventually see the light, but others never do, to the point of devising ways to continue to control things, even from the grave.

These situations can be very frustrating for the next generation successors to deal with. It can be helpful in these situations for the siblings to get together and begin to work on their own communication, in the belief that they will most likely outlive their parents and therefore will eventually need to get along without the senior generation’s help or interference.

Sometimes brothers and sisters begin to meet, get along better and develop a consensus for how things will eventually be handled after their parents have passed away. Sometimes the parents become intrigued when they hear of these meetings, and ask to be invited to join.

I could not end this blog without mentioning Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which I read many years ago. My favourite habit, and one that some have called his greatest quote:

Habit 5: “Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.”

If you can make that a habit, you have no choice but to listen more intently. If others are having difficulty doing so, the more they see you model this behaviour, the more likely they will eventually catch on as well.

It is certainly worth the effort. Then, if you can not only listen, but also learn to listen without judgment, you will see that you are really on to something, but that is a subject for another blog.

Steve Legler “gets” business families.
He understands the issues that families face, as well as how each family member sees things from their own viewpoint.
He specializes in helping business families navigate the difficult areas where the family and the business overlap, by listening to each person’s concerns and ideas.  He then helps the family work together to bridge gaps by building common goals, based on their shared values and vision.
His background in family business, his experience running his own family office, along with his education and training in coaching, facilitation, and mediation, make him uniquely suited to the role of advising business families and families of wealth.
He is the author of Shift your Family Business (2014), he received his MBA from the Richard  Ivey School of Business (UWO, 1991), is a CFA Charterholder (CFA Institute, 2002), a Family Enterprise Advisor (IFEA 2014), and has received the ACFBA and CFWA accreditations (Family Firm Institute 2014-2015).
He prides himself on his ability to help families create the harmony they need to support the legacy they want. To learn how, start by signing up for his monthly newsletter and weekly blogs here.