How to listen and win in family business communication

By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

Years ago, when my husband and I were just getting started, we lived in a small one bedroom house. He was finishing law school that Summer and we were planning a big celebration. Since graduation and our party were slated for August; and since family and friends would be flying in from out of town, I wanted our little home to be as pleasant as possible for this important occasion. Over the next few months, while we planned, I would suggest that I wanted a window air conditioner so that our stuffy little house would be more comfortable for the party. My husband always said he thought that was a waste of money, especially in the Northwest, where we see the sun so seldom. Nevertheless, I persisted, until one day he was particularly annoyed with me. I told him I had spotted a sale on air conditioners at a local appliance store and wanted to check them out. In frustration, he placed his hands on the table in front of him, pushed himself up from the chair, looked me squarely in the eye and announced, “We aren’t getting an air conditioner and I don’t want to hear any more about it!” I was speechless for a moment, not fully comprehending that I had been dismissed. Then I caught my breath. Would I back down? Would I fight? Or, would I negotiate? Giving the tension a moment to settle, I proceeded to explain to my husband that while he had every right to not want an air conditioner, he did not have the right to make a unilateral decision that affected us both equally. At the same time just because I had the right to want an air conditioner, did not mean I could override my husband’s wishes. In other words we were at a standoff. The only solution was to keep talking until we could come to a mutually agreeable solution. I am sure that you would like to know whether or not we got the air conditioner and who really won. But the real issue is not who wins but that relationships require no compromises, no giving in, no resentments in order to work.As much as is humanly possible, participants in relationships should work toward win-win solutions. Just as listening is a difficult skill to master, especially when you have so much to say, learning the art of negotiating a win-win or no-compromise solution with another person requires a lot of effort. But the pay off is a relationship filled with respect and cooperation. Reviewing last month’s column for a moment, we learned that if you really want someone to talk so that others will listen, you need to learn the art of listening first.

By listening you can begin to understand the other person’s world or “map of reality.” Comprehending another’s map is vital to developing your communication strategy. The basics of good listening are to get your own ego out of the way so that you don’t require the other person to think and talk as you do. Next, listen to what the other individual is trying to tell you instead of their words. Remember that all human behavior is meaningful, but the meaning may be disguised. For example, when I found my two year old carrying a loaf of bread around the house, I inferred that she was hungry. Further I inferred that my babysitter had neglected to feed her (which to my horror proved to be true). Another part of listening is to be truly interested in the other person. If you are genuine, the other individual feels appreciated and tries that much harder to send you clear signals that require less translating. Even if you don’t agree on something, the fact that you are making an extra effort to understand the other’s reality, will move you both toward a win-win solution. Letting go of the notion that good relationships are based on compromise is tough. Most of us have been taught that compromise is essential because both people can’t be right. But try to look at this another way. There really are many right solutions to a problem. We tend to think our solution is the only right one because it fits our reality best. But often in the listening process, we discover other solutions that work as well or better than our original one.When you are “bent” on having your way, you may get it, but at the expense of a healthy relationship with your wife, or coworker, or child or employee. Just because someone gives in doesn’t mean they agree with you. Acquiescence often leads the person to become sneaky to get their way, or to be passive aggressive and dig in their heels on other issues. Another important benefit of taking the extra time to go for a win-win solution is that you encourage free thinking in those around you. If you are a powerful person or extremely charismatic, you may be able to garner obedience from others. However, you will then deny yourself the opportunity to benefit from the creativity of other free thinking individuals. Even if you believe this philosophy of relationships, it is an extremely difficult process to accomplish. It does require that you are willing to devote time.You can’t give up in a huff or sacrifice your position because you are beaten down. You may be tempted to resort to intimidation for the sake of expediency, but you will risk rapport.

Therefore, my suggestion is to enter the negotiation with the goal of a win-win solution. If at the end of the time you have there is no solution on the horizon, table the discussion until you sleep on it. Often given enough time, and perhaps the advice of others, a new heretofore unthought of option will appear. Members of family firms often fall victim to the compromise trap. Because we want to keep relations on a positive note with our family members/coworkers, we acquiesce or intimidate our way to expedient solutions. Unfortunately, creativity, independence and loyalty are sacrificed. The willingness to risk a little annoyance or confusion by resisting settling for a compromise may mean a much more creative solution in the long run. In one family firm a daughter was the catalyst for the win-win solution. Her husband had worked with her father in the father’s business for about 15 years. The father’s son was being groomed to take over the business even though the son-in-law was far more capable. The son-in-law became disgruntled by the plan but was afraid to disrupt family equilibrium. Naturally the daughter felt caught in the middle. Eventually the son-in-law decided to move out of the business into another job in a related industry. This allowed him to grow professionally and yet not offend his father-in-law. But the problem remained that the son was not really capable of stepping into his father’s shoes. After the family wrestled with the problem for awhile, the daughter stepped in and offered to run the business for her father. The son was actually relieved by his sister’s offer because he felt an obligation to take over Dad’s business when he really had other interests. The daughter had not even been considered as a successor before, but she proved to be quite capable. With a little getting used to the family expanded their consciousness to include a new possibility which allowed the family business to grow and the family to carry on. Getting back to that air conditioner, my husband and I struggled with the problem for an hour or so. He had to admit that I was right about the decision requiring consensus. Keeping his mind open to the possibility of an air conditioner he could live with and keeping my mind open to the possibility that I could live without one, we arrived at a win-win solution. Since the air conditioners were on sale they cost about half what he had imagined. I agreed, in order to keep the costs down, that we needn’t run the appliance anymore than was necessary. So we did buy an air conditioner afterall, with no resentments on either side.

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