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Faculty Insights

4 Poisonous Communications in Family Business

By Sherry Herwig

February 1, 2016

It’s February, and reminders of love and relationships saturate consumer store aisles, television commercials, and radio ads. Throughout our lives we engage in a spectrum of varying relationships: many are by choice, such as friendships with classmates, coworkers, and neighbors, as well as the romantic connections that form in myriad ways; while some relationships, however, are very specifically by chance—our families.
Ironically, it’s often the family relationships—the people that know us best and love us the most—that are the most challenging and can cause disruption in our lives. In the case of a family that is also in business together, unhealthy relationships can affect the overall success and future of the business.

Sherry Herwig
Sherry Herwig, Director of the Wisconsin School of Business Family Business Center

Few debate that effective communication is an important characteristic of strong, healthy relationships and families. Communication in the family business is extremely important because it allows needs, wants, and concerns to be shared with each other as well as providing an opportunity to express differences and appreciation for one another. And it is through communication that family members can resolve unavoidable problems that are part of being a family and working in a family business.
Unfortunately, communication is a complex skill, riddled with nuances that can be left to interpretation, both positive and negative. The first step is always to be mindful of the messages we are conveying both verbally and non-verbally. Renowned relationship expert and Ph.D., John Gottman, has identified four patterns of communication that can damage relationships and sabotage further attempts at effective communication. He calls them the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and often refers to them as poisonous.
The first poison: Criticism—A generalization of the issue that typically attacks one’s character instead of a specific problem. “You always” or “you never” often start the conversation.
The second poison: Contempt—Outwardly conveying disgust or disrespect with the intention to hurt another. Insults, eye-rolling, smirking, avoiding eye contact, and hostility are all regular examples.
The third poison: Defensiveness—The natural tendency when faced with criticism or contempt is to return anger with anger or blame with blame. It’s a victim’s mentality that leads to continued communication problems. The defensive party feels justified and wants to prove their point instead of listening and rising above.
The fourth poison: Stonewalling—One party withdraws and disengages, usually feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, or that the conversation no longer matters. Stonewalling is a signal of serious issues as one person is removing themselves from the relationship.
To change a relationship and engage in effective communication, these patterns need to be recognized and stopped. It takes effort and the willingness to accept responsibility for your part in the interaction. It isn’t easy, but it is worth it. The better family members can communicate with each other, the better they can deal with adversity and challenging decisions.
Ultimately, a family business wants two things: business success and family harmony. Healthy family relationships with effective communication can go a long way in creating family harmony. They build trust, cohesion, and commitment within the family, and consequently lead toward the lasting success of the business.
Learn more about the Family Business Center at the Wisconsin School of Business.