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Meaningful Conversations

Dr. Carolyn Friend headshot

Stranberg Resource Group recently had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Carolyn Friend, a founding partner at Inheriting Wisdom. Dr. Friend helps family businesses transfer their legacies from one generation to the next.

In this conversation, we explore how conversational nuance can support or undermine critical dialogue in family businesses.

Meaningful conversations form the basis of strong relationships.

In a family business, having a meaningful conversation can be difficult due to the multiple roles family members play in our daily lives. Being a family member (son, daughter, aunt, uncle, etc), is fundamentally different than being a peer, boss or subordinate at work. When families work together, these roles can conflate and cause unwelcome or awkward tension.

Consider this scenario:

The Vice President of Operations plans a meeting to discuss retirement and succession planning with the CEO, who is also her mother.

A discussion between a mother and a daughter about retirement is entirely different than a VP and CEO discussing succession. Without carefully considering the roles that each person plays, an important conversation can be derailed.

In family businesses, patterns that develop across lifelong relationships can perpetuate and become entrenched modes of behavior that prevent us from evolving our relationships.

When the subject matter is critical, meaningful conversations requires a strategy. Dr. Carolyn Friend, Co-Founder of Inheriting Wisdom, has build a framework to help individuals and family businesses improve their conversation so they can gain traction on what’s important.

Rule #1: Be Present.

Set the stage.

Here’s a universal rule for meaningfully connecting with someone: Silence your phone, close your laptop, turn off all digital communications/ notifications. Give your audience 100% of your attention.

The first step to Being Present is to reflect on your own patterns of behavior and identify scenarios that are counterproductive.

Consider the VP of Operations Scenario discussed above, and think about the following questions:

  1. How to I relate to my mother outside of work: What do we talk about? What language do we use? Do I call her ‘Mom’?

  2. How do I talk to my boss while at work: are off-work topics interjected in work conversations? What language do we use? Do I call my boss ‘Mom’?

  3. ·What types of conversations are hard to gain traction on, and why: is there a pattern of behavior that prevents us from making progress?

The next step is to pick a role. Are you professionals discussing a critical business issue or are you family members discussing your personal lives? Yes, in reality, you are both simultaneously; but, to make progress you need pick a role and set your stage for the conversation accordingly.

In marketing parlance, it means knowing your audience. When the subject matter is truly important, think about to whom you are speaking, what your relationship with that person is, what patterns your share with that person, and how those patterns can help or hurt you.

Rule #2 Be Clear

Know your message and how you will communicate it.

Let’s evolve the scenario from above. You are a VP reporting to the CEO, your mother. It is important to remember that your intention is to focus on the sustainability and growth of the business, yet it is important at the same time to acknowledge her contribution.

Consider your goal and the variables that will influence the outcome. If this is a personal conversation with your mother, this might be a discussion while on a Sunday walk. Contrarily, if this is a conversation with your CEO this might be a more formal conversation at the office.

Your language will depend entirely on the role you choose to play. If playing the role of daughter, your message will appeal to the history of your relationship. Contrarily, if you play the role of Vice President, your message will center around the needs of the business. In a hypothetical sense, both are equally valid routes to achieve the same goal. The danger lies in conflating the roles.

The nature of your relationship to your mother is unique to the two of you. The benefit of your long relationship is that with careful reflection, you will be able to identify language that resonates. The risk is selecting language that falls into a pattern that shifts the conversation from your goal.

Success will hinge on your ability to connect with your audience, this requires a careful consideration of what your language you will use, and how it will be delivered.

Rule #3 Be Authentic

Be yourself.

A meaningful conversation with a family member means connecting with a person who deeply knows you. This is where the overlapping roles the important people in our lives play can be a double-edged sword: if you aren’t careful, the conversation can fall into old established patterns.

Conversations are fluid exchanges, and it is easy for tangents to take over and disrupt or dilute the topic. In families, we often let issues from our past influence how we view and communicate in business matters. Effective communication means understanding when it is necessary to shelf an issue so the conversation can stay centered on the topic at hand.

Center yourself around what you want to say and don’t get pulled away from that theme.

Authenticity requires being your true self, particularly when communicating with people who know you well. It also requires being a tactful and active listener.

Rule #4: Be Intentional

Know your desired outcome and be realistic.

In some cases, a grand idea requires huge consensus, and in others your simply need to convince one person.

Some ideas can be conveyed and accepted in a single conversation, and others require multiple touch points and time to process.

If you are going to discuss the retirement/ succession plan of your CEO/Mom, which is a better tactic:

  • Organizing a formal meeting at the office with the CFO and a General Counsel to force the issue.

  • Casually peppering conversations with themes of retirement and succession to softly introduce the themes that are important to you.

There is a stark different between the options above, and yet both are completely valid.

To use a metaphor, imagine climbing a mountain. There are many routes to the top, each with a unique set of conditions. To successfully reach the summit, you assess which path is most suitable for you, then you prepare accordingly and commit. Intentionality is that commitment. It’s the strategy that guides how you make the rest of your decisions. It is the compass that guides the process of planning for a meaningful conversation. Begin with what you need to have happen and use that to guide the rest of your decisions.

The greater the gravity of the scenario, the greater the need of the framework for meaningful conversations.

Meaningful Conversations are reserved for the things that are truly important.

Not every exchange is the same, and most conversations do not need a rigid framework. A Meaningful Conversation is reserved for the topics and themes that are vital.

An important idea for you is a fully developed map; a 3d model in your head. New ideas often take time to ramp up in other people’s minds. For them, your important idea is a sheet of blank paper. Even more complicated, are the scenarios where the shape of the idea is known to both parties and is disagreed upon.

To effectively address important topics, be they greenfield idea, point of contention or otherwise, we need to be present by preparing for the conversation, we need a clearly defined message, we need to be authentic and active in our dialogue, and we need to be intentional in how we guide the conversation towards our desired outcome.


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