This “Outside Consultant” column by Jon Keimig, director of the University of St. Thomas Family Business Center, ran in the Star Tribune on April 12, 2021.

Communication can be hard in any family. Layer business relationships and ownership issues on top? That can lead to a tangled web of communication, with family issues showing up at work and vice versa. There are structures and processes to normalize communication in a way that makes challenging conversations easier on all parties.

Before starting any family business conversation, think it through and plan it out. What’s compelling you to have this conversation? What goal are you trying to accomplish? What barriers may this person have to this conversation? Is now the right time? Should this take place at the family dinner table or in the boardroom? There are many questions to consider and not one right answer. The key is to be prepared, because there is a lot at stake when business and family come together.

When family members enter tough conversations, they may be doing so alongside past emotions, conflicts and issues. Understanding these as separate, but still valid, can help focus on what you’d like to accomplish.

Families who best handle challenging conversations have established structures to do it well, typically a formal family meeting. These are not a venue to talk quarterly goals, hiring and firing, or other business operation decisions, but about the business of the family. Topics like the roles of spouses, development of the next generation and ownership concerns are discussed here.

Families new to this format may bring in an outside facilitator. Some do it on their own, appointing the “other” CEO, the chief emotional officer of the family, to facilitate and neutralize business roles in the discussion. Consider starting the meeting with something to ground everyone, like a prayer, reciting a family code of conduct, discussing family values, etc.

As decisions are made by the family, document them. Enough family decisions can be the basis for a family charter. While not a legally binding document, it’s a set of rules the family can point to as an agreed-upon place to start for future tough conversations.

Remember the Chinese proverb: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago and the second-best time is now.” As we turn the corner into more hopeful times, develop positive communication habits that will have you better prepared to discuss challenges when they arise.

Jon Keimig is director of the University of St. Thomas Family Business Center.

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