Communication is both a key builder, and an ultimate destroyer, of relationships. Communication is the process of sending and receiving messages, between two or more people. Its quantitative, tangible elements (words used) convey information. Its qualitative, non-verbal elements (tone, gestures, choice of word) convey how a person feels about another. In any given situation, non-verbals trump verbals with their ability to profoundly influence the meaning and impact of actual words used.
Inadequate communication skills, and the destructive use of communications between family members, are common causes of conflict in Family Businesses, and in Business Families.
Question: Why are these conflicts so hard to resolve within the family?
Answer: Because most family members ask the wrong questions and lay blame for the conflict in the wrong place. When you’re not asking the right questions, you can’t find, or make, the right solutions.
They make this mistake because, when relationships break down, accepted wisdom is that “communication breakdown” is to blame for causing the conflict.
In reality …. that’s rubbish. It makes no sense. It’s a face-saving cop out that attempts to shift focus from the real causes (for which people are responsible), to observable outcomes – objective symptoms. It’s like saying: “my rifle was responsible for shooting my former friend.” Bad, wicked rifle? Was it to blame? Of course not. The real questions are: What caused the intent? And, why get a rifle? Why aim it? Why pull the trigger? What problem has the shooting solved?
Communication, whether verbal, non-verbal, or in written form, is just a tool. It can be wielded with skill, or with less than terrific competence. It can be used constructively, or destructively, and for serious or purely social purposes. Whatever, it’s just a tool that can become more sophisticated and powerful as its user’s competencies increase; or not.
Communication skills can be learnt, to a degree. However, if communication has “broken down” then, to borrow the words of Rolls Royce, it has “failed to proceed.”
If communication is not working, or is not happening at all, and conflict is the apparent result, the real question you need to ask is, “Why has communication broken down?” At least, that’s the question that needs to be raised and answered if you want to resolve the conflict. Chances are, it’s not because somebody has had their tongue cut out, or lost the fingers they need to pick up the phone, or to send an email!
The most common cause of failed communications within families is loss of trust, which follows as the inevitable consequence of long-term loss of respect. Many family members seem to think they have a divine right to be respected and trusted by their nearest and dearest, notwithstanding that, for a long time, their own actions and behaviours have sent unmistakable messages that they neither care for, respect, nor trust said family members, themselves.
So the real question that needs to be asked is: why have we lost respect and trust for each other? Whatever happened to our care factor? And, did we ever have one?
To find out why communications have broken down, start by exploring the nature and state of the relationship between the conflicted parties.
To understand its current state (the here and now of a relationship), try to obtain a proper understanding of its history – from early days, to date. The process of deconstructing a conflicted relationship is invariably traumatic, but when approached with care, skill, and positive intent, the deconstruction process itself will be cathartic for the main characters.
Once the entrails of the damaged relationship have been extracted and laid out, gently explore and contextualise/rationalise the events and emotions each person perceives as having contributed to their current conflict. Everyone should treat everybody’s perceptions as reality, even if they make no apparent sense, and even when they go against their knowledge of actual facts. Acknowledgement and validation (which are not the same as agreement) are essential for establishing the empathic environment required to make this process work.
Chances are, if enough face-saving has been injected into the proceedings, there will come a tipping point after which individual participants will start reconstructing their relationship from the component parts. And they’ll do this without actually having to resolve with what were previously seen as major issues. In effect, the problem is “evaporated” out of existence, perceived mountains are reduced to manageable molehills, and people wonder out loud how things ever got into that state, since there now seems to be so little substance to them. But, a little while before, and perhaps for many years previously.
If the individuals can’t get to that tipping point by themselves, a skilled facilitator may be able to help them get over or around their blockers. In some cases, they’ll need to coach one or more of the individuals to improve their communication skills.
In extreme cases, psychologists, counsellors, or coaches may be required to work on and with individuals so they can engage in the necessary conversations. This may be a short to long-term proposition, depending on the severity of the situation.