This is the fifth in a series of blog posts inspired by Crucial Conversations, our 2019 theme book that all Members received.  These blogs will help you prepare for our September 19th Breakfast Forum: Best Practices In Family Business Communication.

When others do damage to the “pool of meaning” by clamming up (refusing to speak their minds) or blowing up (communicating in a way that is abusive and disrespectful), is there something you can do to move back into healthy conversation? The answer is a resounding “It depends.”

While we can’t take responsibility for someone else’s thoughts and feelings, we’ll never work through differences until each person freely adds to the “pool of meaning.” That requires those who are blowing up or clamming up to participate as well. And while it’s true that you can’t force others to dialogue, you can take steps to make it safer for them to do so.

When another is moving to violence (blaming, labeling, attacking) or silence (avoiding, withdrawing, masking), we do well to remember they are not feeling safe and that “every sentence has a history” (Crucial Conversations, p. 160). We do not know the stories they are telling themselves or unconscious fears or long held family patterns at play, and often neither do they! We can do our part to stay curious and calm and manage our own internal messages and anxiety. Remember we’re actually joining another’s story already in progress. This means we’ve already missed the foundation of the story. If we’re not careful, we can become defensive. Not only are we joining late, but we’re also joining at a time when the other person is going to violence or silence.

Many times we can end this dangerous cycle by stepping aside and making it safe for the other person to move from their automatic emotional side to their thinking side. “When we help others retrace their path to its origins, not only do we help curb our reaction, but we also return to the place where the feelings can be resolved – at the source” (p. 162).

In business families, every sentence – or facial expression or tone – carries a load of multiple stories and experiences behind it. Your brother’s smirk or tone of voice may take you back to when he berated you in front of your friends when you were 8 years old. And we may feel the hurt when Dad took his side, again.

This year’s theme book, Crucial Conversations, suggests 4 powerful listening skills to restore safety when conversations go to violence or silence.

  1. Ask to Get Things Rolling. Be curious and stay curious. Remain calm and manage your own emotional responses. If we don’t get to the source of their feelings, we’ll end up suffering the effects of the feelings.
    a. “I’m curious about what you mean. I’d really like to hear your concerns.”
    b. “Don’t worry about hurting my feelings. I really want to hear your thoughts.”
  2. Mirror to Confirm Feelings. This means taking the portion of the other person’s story we have access to and making it safe for them to discuss it. Play the role of mirror by describing how they look or act. We create safety when our tone of voice says we’re okay with them feeling the way they’re feeling.
    a. “You say you’re okay but by the tone of your voice, you seem upset.”
    b. “I can feel your pain and would like to learn more.”
  3. Paraphrase to Acknowledge the Story.
    a. “I want to see if I’ve got this right. You’re upset because I’ve … “
    b. Don’t push too hard.
  4. Prime When You’re Getting Nowhere. Just like it took priming the old-fashioned pump by pouring some water into it to get it running, sometimes it helps to offer your best guess at what the other person is feeling or thinking before you can expect him to do the same. You have to pour some meaning into the pool before the other person will respond in kind.
    a. “Are you thinking the only reason we’re doing this is to make money?”
    b. “Are you thinking I said that because I don’t want you involved in this project?”

Remember, building safety when the other goes to violence or silence by using one or all of the above skills requires a calm, curious, open presence.  Restoring safety is our greatest hope to get our relationships back on track and wise decisions made.

Join us on Sept 19th for our Forum where we will explore communication strategies and tools to build healthy family business relationships.  Hope to see you there!

Sally Derstine

Managing Partner, Senior Family Business Advisor

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