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Family Business Communication
July 23, 2010
Written By: Michelle Clark, Ph.D.

In any given communication the non-verbal portion of the communication is far more powerful than the verbal content. According to the University of California, communication messages weighed 55% by facial expression, 38% by tone of voice, and only 7% by content.

Young children are very adept at observing and learning from their parents’ non-verbal cues. A raised eye-brow, a sigh, or faster walking pace can all be subtle “tells” that guide children how to anticipate their parents’ reactions, even in those situations where the parent’s thoughts are not shared out-loud. Because parents have absolute power over young children, a child learns these cues with survival intensity. Children also learn these cues from siblings, especially with the siblings who are flushing their head in the toilet. This is true in healthy, functional families, and even more so in troubled families.
Fast forward 20 years. Family members bring this highly nuanced radar for family member non-verbal communication to the workplace. As a result, family members are likely to respond more strongly to facial expression and tone from other members than from non-family staff members.
On more than one occasion, I’ve heard a family business leader say something along the lines of: “I have no idea why my (child/employee) always takes me the wrong way. None of the non-family members who report to me react like this.”
The unfortunate challenge of family business communication is that in negative situations most family members tend to speak with less care to family members than they might to non-family members. Think of the last argument you had with a family member in your family business. Recall exactly what you said, and the tone of voice you used to say it. Then ask yourself, “would I have communicated this way to one of our non-family business members?”
Here are two strategies:
Recall that family members are highly adept at reading your non-verbal cues. Effective family business communication requires you to be highly self-aware. Family members may be accurately reading your underlying feeling, but misinterpreting the cause. For example, your family business employee child may be accurately reading that you are angry and disappointed, but not know that those feelings are directed at yourself instead of him/her.
Actively chose not to live in your family baggage. It may be true that 25 years ago your father’s anger lead to punitive verbal attacks that left you feeling powerless and ashamed. In the midst of an adult-to-adult difficult conversation with your family-business leader father, you may need to look at the intensity of your reaction and ask yourself, how much of your reaction is coming from the present? Your father has matured and rarely behaves badly when angry any more, and you are no longer powerless in the face of his anger.
Set family agreements to foster family communication that avoids building resentments. Asking yourself, “would I talk this way to someone who wasn’t family?” is often a good cue.
Some of these ideas are drawn from:
Fishman, A.E. (2008). 9 Elements of Family Business Success: A Proven Formula for Improving Leadership & Relationships in Family Businesses. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

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