FRI 23RD AUG 2019


Bringing the family business community together

Barriers To Effective Communication

24th August 2015 Paul Smith, Carnegie Management Group

Paul Smith provides a thought-provoking piece underscoring that family business consulting is an exciting, demanding and very complex field.

It is practically impossible for one professional to possess the requisite skills and knowledge to perform all of the functions necessary to address the problems that family firms face. This creates the need for cross-disciplinary collaboration, which is something FFI (Family Firm Institute – USA) and FBA (Family Business Australia) have made great strides in promoting. However, sometimes there are obstacles in realizing collaboration because of limitations in how we see others and ourselves. This piece should challenge you to reconsider the language used to describe colleagues in a way that is more nuanced and respectful of what everyone has to offer.

Understanding and respecting what we all do is critical to our working together and learning from each other.  Using shorthand phrases or jargon that tries to encapsulate in a word (“hard”, “soft”, “process” or “content”) a profoundly complex distinction simply gets in the way of effective understanding and collaboration.

All too often, FFI and FBA members with different professional or academic backgrounds identify others or themselves as being from the “hard side” or the “soft side” or as a “process consultant” as opposed to a “content consultant.” As is true of all distinctions, an almost irresistible human tendency attaches more status or virtue to one classification than the other.  It is often unclear if the person using those phrases is communicating a valuable insight or just suggesting that the listener “just doesn’t get it.”

But, in either event, the widespread use of these distinctions is at odds with one of the overriding goals of FFI and FBA – that professionals from different disciplines and diverse academic backgrounds learn from and communicate better with each other.  These distinctions often inhibit meaningful understanding and can serve as an excuse for not learning from or respecting another professional’s point of view or potential problem-solving skills.

At first glance, the “hard side/soft side” distinction seems perceptive.  But, what really is the point that it makes?  Certainly, there are not different “sides” and nothing anyone does is “soft.”  In fact, everything they do is hard, especially if it is done well.

The same problem exists with regard to the idea that there are “process” as opposed to “content” consultants.  It is simply inaccurate to think that any consultant can do their job without going through a “process” with his or her clients or that the skills he or she possesses and the value he or she can deliver arose without the knowledge of a great deal of “content”.  Accountants, insurance sales people, investment bankers, bankers and lawyers (the most notorious of the so-called “content” consultants) all go through a process to do their job, even if that process is no more complicated than gathering critical information.  In fact, many of those people often referred to as “content” consultants spend much of their time going through a process with their clients which is painful and requires a great deal of skill to do well.

Aside from not being descriptive, those phrases can be dismissive.  Certainly, the observations or insights of some consultants have been denigrated by saying, “She is from the hard side.” or “What did you expect, he is a soft-side consultant.”

Consultants who work with family businesses perform a wide range of functions.  The people who do all of these things successfully all have valuable insights into both behaviour and content.  None can accurately be said to be on the “soft” side or on the “hard” side.  None can do their job well without understanding a great deal of “content” and successfully navigating through a complicated “process.” If one considers in detail the services that are performed for family businesses by various professionals, the distinctions between “hard” and “soft” or between “process” and “content” fade dramatically:

  • Facilitate honest communication between others that are revealing of emotions
  • Produce a written contract that fulfills the goals of all who sign it
  • Find a buyer for a business and help the owners realize and solve their problems with selling the business
  • Write a plan that recognizes profoundly differing views of management between a father and a son
  • Reconcile the competing desires for control between brothers and sisters who are not in the business and those who are
  • Honestly analyze financial data to determine the relative profitability of business units, each run by a different sibling
  • Create insurance coverage that reconciles the cash flow needs of the business with the retirement goals of its retired founder

All would be better served if we recognized that what each of us does is multi-faceted and requires valuable skills that can benefit everyone else.

That, of course, does not mean that a lawyer or accountant can learn in a few hours, months or days the skills of a therapist, any more than a therapist can quickly learn the skills of a lawyer or accountant.

But, most lawyers and accountants can better develop the listening skills that come from asking “why did they feel the need to share that thought with me?”  Similarly, speaking directly and provoking confrontations, as lawyers often do, can lead to the accurate identification and resolution of problems far more quickly than other techniques.

Certainly, there are dramatic differences between how those with different training approach problems and formulate solutions. The difficult work of understanding and respecting those things we don’t know – the process and content that other professionals use with success – can only be done by struggling to avoid using jargon which diminishes others’ skills.

After all, we all have limited skills and “when a hammer is your only tool, every problem looks like a nail.”  The goal should not be to figure out more ways to use a hammer, but rather to learn from people who have other tools how to expand the range of possible solutions.

Categorizing people as “hard” or “soft” does not lead to genuine learning.


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