More and more families are recognizing the importance of equipping their heirs with the appropriate tools to sustain and be stewards of the family’s hard-earned wealth. While these families are expending effort on important concepts such as improving financial literacy, defining family shared values, and creating family mission statements, such efforts are likely to be wasted if the family does not first focus on one fundamental aspect of a successful family: Communication.
How many of us have experienced an attempt at communication that went something like this:
You: “Son/Daughter/Mom/Dad, I’d like you to know…”
Recipient (thinking): “Does he think I’m stupid? Is he still angry about what I did last week? How come he’s never mentioned this before? What’s he really trying to say? Will he be mad if I say no? Is my phone ringing?”
Effective communication is an ongoing effort that requires constant attention. But learning a few tips and tricks can go a long way to helping families connect their wealth and purpose.
What is Communication?
While most people learn to speak and write at a relatively young age, we often assume that having those physical skills brings with it knowledge of how to use them effectively. In reality, the process of communicating is a far more complex process than most people believe.
The mechanics of communication are very similar to the game of “telephone” in which the first person comes up with a phrase and whispers it into the next person’s ear. That person then whispers it into the ear of the person next to him. The message makes its way to the last person in line who shouts it out. More often than not, by the time the message migrates through multiple people, it gets unintentionally changed to one that is very different from the original statement.
The graphic above was created in 1954 by William Schramm and it illustrates how effective communication must include two distinct parts: Clearly discerning what you want to articulate, and knowing how to get your message understood by the other person.
The “What” of Communication
The communicator should also remember that while he has taken the time to ruminate over the “what” and choose his words carefully, the message will be new to the receiver. Often times, communication breaks down when we expect the other person to read our minds. An effective communicator must have patience and be prepared to reiterate points in a different way if the first attempt does not seem to resonate with the receiver.
In terms of affective communication, the communicator will have a better chance of conveying or eliciting the intended emotions if the focus is on helping the other person understand how he feels and avoids statements of blame. Starting sentences with “I feel…”, “I want…”, or “When you…, I …” can help to put the recipient in the right frame of mind.
The “How” of Communication
As important as our actual words are in effectively communicating, the non-verbal aspects of communication are equally as important. First, the environment needs to be appropriate. You cannot expect to have a productive conversation about important financial topics while you and your child are watching your 14-year old grandchild’s hockey game. It’s just not going to happen. It’s important to find the right time and place.
Next, it is critical to think about all of the non-verbal signals we transmit when we communicate. Are you making eye contact? Are you standing or sitting in a way that makes you approachable, or are your arms crossed defensively across your chest? Does the expression on your face match your message? Are you smiling or a scowling? These cues tell the recipient a lot about what is being said, so it is important to be conscious of them.
Vital to effective communication is active listening. We’ve all been told that communication is a two-way street, but all too often our brains are running at breakneck speed trying to think about what we are going to say next, that we completely ignore what the other person is trying to convey. The art of active listening involves not only paying attention to what the other person is saying and how they are saying it, but also giving them feedback to confirm they are being heard. Skilled active listeners ask probing questions to help the speaker dive deeper into their thoughts and feelings. They also restate, rephrase and recommunicate what the speaker is saying to demonstrate that they understand. Active listeners also validate the speaker by showing that they appreciate his or her message, even if they disagree with it.
Finally, the frequency of communication plays a role in its effectiveness. Communicating with someone only once a year increases the potential for miscommunication. Increasing the frequency of communication allows for more opportunities to understand each other’s communication styles. Those more frequent communications, even if they are about less critical topics, will set a smoother stage for the important discussions when they do arise.
We are not born with effective communication skills. Too often, we are hindered by our own experiences and viewpoints and sometimes we don’t allow ourselves to give the other person the benefit of doubt.
Furthermore, too often we don’t open ourselves up for good communication. But as with any other talent we’d like to improve, awareness and practice can help us develop our skills. Improving your ability to communicate, and encouraging the other members of your family to do the same, will likely improve the effectiveness of all of the other initiatives you are taking to connect your wealth with your purpose.