Clear two-way communication is critical during the process of transferring wealth from one generation to another. Communication is not idle chatter. Too often, family members attempt important communication while across the room from one another, staring at the ceiling, watching television, or playing a computer game. These patterns don’t work.
In true communication, all parties must be both transmitters and receivers of information. Transmitters must accurately convey their specific thoughts. Receivers must listen carefully and make sure that they fully understand what’s being said. Senders and receivers need to agree on the meaning of any message for there to be a meaningful exchange.
Communication is not just talking
Communication is an interaction between individuals. Simply talking is like a downed pilot or a ship captain in distress blindly sending an SOS signal hoping that someone will respond. Once a sender receives a response to a transmitted message, the opportunity for communication emerges, but is not guaranteed.
Listening is hearing attentively — making a conscious effort to receive and properly understand a transmitted message. Listening requires effort and practice, and learning to listen can be an enjoyable family exercise that produces lasting results.
Verbal vs. nonverbal
Up to 99 percent of all interpersonal communication is nonverbal – body language. The focus of nonverbal communication is not on what is said, but rather how it is said. Nonverbal expressions may be learned, but also occur naturally and unconsciously. Examples include eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, body posture and orientation, proximity of the parties, and voice characteristics such a volume, pitch or inflection.
The spoken message is lost when a listener hears, “You are the most important thing in my life” from a speaker who is on the way out the door while texting a golf partner.
Speakers and listeners alike must be aware of the nonverbal messages they send to people with whom they are attempting to communicate. Any hint that the intended verbal message is being contradicted by the nonverbal should be clarified immediately.
It’s OK to say, “I’m sorry”
Individuals must be willing to apologize for sending verbal and nonverbal expressions that do not adequately convey their intent. A sincere apology for an unintended message can greatly facilitate further communication among any number of parties.
Dialogue is an exchange of ideas and opinions intended to produce agreement. It is essential within a family where the parties will have an ongoing relationship. Dialogue can transform a family’s communication patterns and set the stage for ongoing discussions as new issues arise. Clarifying questions that encourage dialogue can lead to an optimal solution for the family. There is more discussion in the section entitled Conflict Transformation.
Family meetings can be an ideal forum for families to discuss personal and financial issues. In smaller families and those with less wealth, the meetings can be less formal and may occur more often. In larger families or those with greater wealth, family meetings are generally more formal, may occur less frequently, may be attended by financial and legal counsel, and can rise to the level of a family board of directors.
Effective family meetings provide a safe, comfortable and respectful environment where all members can participate and share their views. The goal of these meetings is to address issues impacting the whole family and, if possible, reach consensus on actions to be taken. Family councils are often facilitated by independent third-party advisers to encourage open participation by all members.
True communication requires effort. We can help by determining existing communication patterns, developing dialogue-producing questions and then guiding the discussions.