Airing Grievances: 10 Tips for Better Communication with Family Members

Byline: Doug Baumoel

Estimated read time: ~9 min

The purpose of effective communication is to transmit information from one person or group to another and to convey a specific message that elicits a desired reaction or result. Communications among family members have an additional purpose: To deepen our understanding of each other, find accommodation for differences that remain, build resiliency and bring family closer together. Family relationships are uniquely permanent, so communication must serve not only the content of the communication but the relationship itself.

Problems arise, however, when we’re not clear in our communication, when emotions get the better of us, or when we misjudge the impact of our words on the other person. This can be especially true when having difficult conversations with family members. Lifelong relationships with shared history (i.e. baggage) and established communication patterns can easily and quickly seep into and derail discussions. Add to this scenario the relationship dynamics of operating a shared family enterprise or expectations regarding family wealth and suddenly the communication stakes are magnified. 

With more than 20 years of experience helping families address differences, we share these ten tried and true tips to ensure your conversations are more effective and productive:

  1. Choose the Right Time and Place
  2. Weigh the Importance of Raising an Issue
  3. Leave Assumptions at the Door
  4. Don’t Take Things Personally
  5. Don’t Play the Blame Game
  6. Avoid Triangles
  7. Show Respect in the Conversation
  8. Avoid Universal, Blanket Statements 
  9. Look Forward, Not Backward
  10. Get Feedback

1. Choose the Right Time and Place

Choose the time and place for a difficult conversation wisely and be aware of sensitivities. Know your sweet spot for being available to discuss potentially conflictual issues. Is it at work? During lunch? In the evening?  Do you have a time and place of availability at all?  Strive to carve out an understanding of when and how you can both best be approached for a potentially difficult conversation.

Look for clues to the other person’s availability or unavailability before launching into your issues. Strive for effective face-to-face communication, as email or letter-writing can lead to unintended consequences because ‘tone’ does not often come through accurately in written communications.

You might discover during a conversation that it is not the right time or place for the conversation, and it needs to be postponed. Acknowledge this and be respectful about rescheduling the conversation.

2.Weigh the Importance of Raising an Issue

Consider your motivation for raising an issue and the potential downside of bringing it up. Is there a benefit to the group or the person to have such a discussion now? Are they even interested? Should they be interested? What message is being sent by bringing something up?

Know your audience and understand their communication styles, priorities, and values and how they contrast with yours. To be effective, you should try to communicate in a style that is compatible with that of your audience and be sensitive to their values and identity to avoid potential landmines.

Also, consider what you are censoring. What are you not discussing because of fear of conflict? Maybe you are not ready to discuss the issue, but could you identify the topic and your fears about discussing the difficult topic? Be clear about your purpose, goals, and expectations when bringing up an issue.

When considering a difficult conversation, Greek philosopher Socrates suggested that one consider the following: “Is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?” These are good tests for calibrating your approach to a difficult conversation.

3. Leave Assumptions at the Door

When you make assumptions about how the other person will react, and you let those feelings distort what you need to say, you are allowing yourself a destructive shortcut around honest and open communication. Carrying old perceptions and expectations into conversations is like going into battle based on last month’s enemy troop positions.

Be open to changes that the other person may have made and acknowledge them and be aware of sensitivities. Be diplomatic, be respectful, and be kind━but be direct and be honest. Understand that there is a difference between intent and impact. Do your best to anticipate the impact and manage the impact as the conversation unfolds so that the impact and intent remain aligned.

4. Don’t Take Things Personally

If you expect your communications to be honest and open, then you must be able to hear others without judgment. Remind yourself that what the other person is saying is coming from their perspective, emotional state, set of current circumstances, and history.

Recognizing that people are rarely motivated simply by the desire to hurt others will allow you to better manage your reactions to misunderstandings, accidental insults, and overt offenses. The goal is to keep the conversation productive, and when you take things personally, the conversation can get sidetracked. Be on guard to avoid your own defensive posturing or feeding into a ‘tit for tat’ contest of insults.

5. Don’t Play the Blame Game

Listen with empathy and understand that conflict has a strong emotional component. Allow the other person to understand how you feel by expressing your issue in terms of: “I feel X when this or that happens,’ rather than “You made me feel X when you did X.” This helps avoid blame, and it’s blame that really kills conversation as it drives the other to defensive positions.

6. Avoid Triangles

‘Triangles,’ or consistently involving third parties in your conflicts, are symptoms of poor communication and personal limitations in dealing effectively with difficult situations. Try to identify and avoid ‘triangles’ by sticking to your observations and direct experience without bringing in hearsay or your perceptions of what others think. Don’t try to justify your position by adding third-party opinions to the conversation.

7. Show Respect In the Conversation

Mutual respect is the cornerstone of good communication. However, the content of a difficult conversation is usually to express dissatisfaction with someone’s abilities, attitude, commitment, or judgment━things that you may not ‘respect’ in the other.

The challenge is to communicate the dissatisfaction honestly while also expressing that the other is worthy of the effort to communicate with. A conversation can be respectful of the person and the space the two of you have carved out for the conversation, yet allow you to communicate dissatisfaction with behavior, results, and skills.

Throwing up your hands in disgust or frustration, walking away mad, or just ending the conversation with ‘just forget about it’ communicates that the other person is not worth the effort. If you need to end the conversation because it’s not productive, suggest another time or place to continue. Acknowledge your contribution to the lack of progress; maybe you’re too tired at the moment, too angry, or hurt.  Maybe you can sense that this is not a time that the other person can focus on the issue. Ending an unproductive conversation without blame and agreeing to reschedule can be a great solution when things aren’t going well.

8. Avoid Universal, Blanket Statements

Avoid dead-end words like ‘you never’ or ‘you always,’ and ‘it happens all the time.’  When such universal statements are made, they trigger defensiveness and get a conversation off track. Stick to specific behaviors and issues. Avoid labeling the other, as this is another type of blanket statement:  “You’re a narcissist so of course you disagree.” Labeling and blanket statements serve only to exacerbate conflict.

9. Look Forward, Not Backward

It’s hard not to bring anger from unresolved historical impasses into current conversations because they become part of how the relationship is defined. But it’s important to be aware of these feelings and not let them impact the current conversation. When these feelings are identified, they need to be resolved through a purposeful forgiveness process.

Choosing not to forgive someone is a choice and can be a dead end in a relationship. Choosing to ignore the impasse or cover it up with the band-aid of a cheap apology may make you feel better, but it doesn’t help the relationship and may deepen the rift. Genuine forgiveness is a hard-fought process that requires equal vigilance from both parties. It must be earned and actively maintained. It requires acknowledgment of contributory responsibility, genuine apology, and often a commitment to changed behavior.

When historical impasses get in the way, acknowledge them and find a place for them so they don’t overwhelm the current conversation. Often, the goal of a conversation is to prevent the current issue from becoming tomorrow’s historical impasse.

10. Get Feedback

Reaffirm the takeaways and agreements from the conversation. Check in with the other person about how they feel and strive to reinforce the value of the relationship despite the disagreement and ask how you might have communicated better.

When All Else Fails

Sometimes conversations fail to achieve the desired impact or response. You may have approached the conversation with the best of intentions, followed all the best practices for productive communication, and yet the other person remains angry and hasn’t heard anything you were trying to communicate.

You can’t force people to follow these best practices for communication and, even if you could, best practices may not be sufficient. Sometimes people simply carry too much baggage from the past into the conversation and are overwhelmed with their own issues. Sometimes the other person may simply disagree with your values, your facts, and your goals so that no matter how clear the conversation, differences will remain.

Arguments between family members can be extreme because the arguments are often more about identity than the substantive issue at hand. Arguments can escalate, with each party focusing on what separates them instead of looking for what strengthens their connection.

If this happens in a one-off situation or rarely, agree to disagree and move on. Time has a way of healing. If, however, failed communication is systemic in the relationship, you need to consider the value of that relationship in your life and if that relationship is tolerable and necessary, despite its problems, or if it is irretrievably toxic.

If the relationship is tolerable or necessary, then consider what boundaries and rules of engagement need to be developed to sustain the relationship so that it is less problematic and has the opportunity to develop into something better. If it is toxic, understand the implications of severing the relationship and consider how that might be done━and how it can be undone in the future.

We believe strongly in the importance of family relationships, but we know that these relationships require work. We can pick our friends, but we can’t pick our family. How you treat family in your generation models how your children will treat family in the future, and you may be on the receiving end of that treatment one day. This holiday season, try your best to communicate and to accommodate differences when they occur. Above all, value your family because they are the only family you have.

How We Can Help

Having a neutral, third party that is knowledgeable in family dynamics and family business to guide the conversation can be indispensable. Continuity Family Business Consulting specializes in family mediation and conflict management and can help navigate tough conversations.