The art of family business communication: 5 tips for better relationships

Becoming a better listener can yield many personal and professional dividends

Open, honest and clear communication is one of the most important hallmarks of a successful multigenerational family business.

By David Harland

Family businesses simply cannot afford to have breakdowns in trust and communication as the effects can ripple outward to affect their most important relationships.

Improve communication in your family business with these tips:

1. Pick the right time and place for discussions

Research shows that environments matter to an employee’s attitude and productivity.

The same can be said for communication, in that work conversations should probably happen at work and personal issues hashed out on non-work time.

Even if it’s impossible to keep business discussions from spilling over into family time, train yourself to have serious discussions in the right time and place.

Ask yourself:

  • Should the conversation happen during work hours?
  • Does it involve multiple family members? 
  • Should a formal family meeting be held?

One problem that many family businesses face is a lack of time to think about long-term business issues. As a result, important conversations about the future of the business happen haphazardly.

Related: 5 ways to manage conflict in a family business

One of the reasons I recommend establishing formal governance structures in a family business is that family councils or family board meetings offer structured times to discuss long-term strategy.

Family retreats are another way to get away from the business and focus on the big picture.

2. Choose the right medium

Some communications need to happen face-to-face. Others can happen in an asynchronous fashion  by email.

One issue that frequently crops up in multigenerational family businesses is that family members who are not involved in daily operations can feel left out of important discussions.

One way to avoid unintentionally leaving people out is to use written communication whenever possible and to hold regular in-person meetings with key stakeholders when necessary.

3. Keep roles in mind

In a non-family business, roles are fairly discrete and well understood. A manager has an explicit role to play – as do executives, employees and everyone else. When managers communicate with employees, they typically don’t have to juggle multiple roles.  

However, a family business combines personal and professional roles in a way that can make communicating complex.

Husbands and wives are presidents and CEOs, children are managers and employees. Non-family employees may be close family friends.

Related: Rethinking retirement in a family business

Though families can do their best to keep personal and professional time separate, it’s rarely possible to keep these different roles from bleeding into one another.

When you speak to an employee or partner, who are you really talking to? Are you talking to your husband or wife? Or are you speaking to your colleague? Think carefully about the role that you are occupying when speaking to a member of your family. Make sure that the way you communicate fits the role you are playing.

4. Set communication guidelines

Because family members see each other often and in different places outside of work, a great deal of information about the business may get passed along informally.

When conversations happen in casual or informal settings, important information can sometimes get lost or forgotten. These lapses in communication can cause a great deal of business and family friction. If your business currently doesn’t have a communication policy, set one.

Consider:

  • How should firm-wide communications be issued? 
  • How should family-wide messages be sent? 
  • How can you make sure not to lose or leave out important details? 
  • How can you make sure that the right people see the message?

5. Make communication a two-way street

One of the fastest ways to shut down open communication is to make the people around you feel as though you don’t listen. When communication breaks down or conflicts arise, one of the most effective things a family business leader can do is simply listen.

Here’s how to engage your active listening skills:

  • Stay quiet and hear the other person out fully, without interrupting.
  • Keep an open mind when disagreements arise and work on seeing the other side of the issue.
  • Ask open-ended questions to draw the other person out and clarify the issue.
  • Put away distractions, look the person in the eye, and be present for the conversation.

Bottom line: All of us could probably benefit from working on our communication skills. If nothing else, becoming a better listener can yield many personal and professional dividends.

Next month we continue our focus on communication and relationship-building within family businesses by discussing the unavoidable impact that family has and some tips on how you can harness that impact in a positive way.

David Harland CPA is managing director of FINH, an organisation that specialises in the provision of advice to family groups in business across the Asia-Pacific region.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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