Codes of conduct bring families together to listen

By Dennis Jaffe

Families have a natural tendency to fragment over generations. But when a family shares ownership and oversight of—and dependence on—shared investments, they must stem this tide. Enterprising families must work continually to head off and manage conflict within an ever-enlarging pool of family members.

Cousins in the third generation and beyond may be relative strangers, but they share ownership of significant business, investment, real estate and philanthropic assets. Because of the deep emotional family history, they often cannot act like partners coming together to exercise rational self-interest. There can be other considerations, such as what an uncle did to your father, or how your siblings are being treated in the business. Actions that are “just business” can hurt personally, and the personal hurt can lead to anger and conflict in other areas.

To manage these issues, a family that remains together as partners over three or more generations should put communication, conflict resolution and alignment of interests at the top of their list of critical challenges.

Many of these families seek professional help to deal with their current or anticipated differences. The professional often tries to help by convening a family meeting to discuss an issue and suggest ways to address it. Seems reasonable and simple, right? Yet, I hear many stories of family meetings that weren’t just unhelpful; they sparked emotional reactions that made further contact even less likely, while the problems continued simmering. Poorly planned and executed family meetings can further traumatize a family.

Setting the stage for a meeting

Nothing is as difficult as the first moments when a multigenerational family comes together. They may all be heirs of a business started generations ago. They have different lifestyles, viewpoints, values and ways of working. Although related by blood, they feel anxious about whether they can find common ground and work together.

Family members may fear that one person will dominate the discussion and others will not be heard. They may be anxious about the prospect that a business issue will trigger deep family emotions. This feeling of awkwardness often leads to avoidance: They will find it difficult to schedule the meeting, postpone it after it has been scheduled or allot a very limited amount of time.

The problem is that the family members do not know how to create an environment for effective communication—how they can act to overcome the emotional traps and bad habits that have evolved over time. The first priority is to make the meeting safe so people can talk to each other in a respectful way, and be listened to by others. One way to create a safe harbor is to develop a code of conduct.

The code is a list of rules (or expectations) for communication to which everyone agrees to adhere when they meet or interact as a family. It governs how participants talk to each other, not what they will talk about.

Family members may have bad habits—dominating discussions, interrupting, blaming—that inhibit communication. These bad habits arose over time, in response to personal relationships and emotional realities; they are counterproductive for family meetings. Like addicts who must support each other to make difficult changes, family members must confront these bad habits and commit to abandoning them.

Creating the code of conduct

As your first step in developing a family code of conduct, consider asking each family member to list a statement that he or she feels the family must agree on in order to create a safe harbor for communication. This gives all participants a chance to share their anxieties at the outset.

It is not hard to list behaviors that inhibit communication. The first things that inevitably come up are statements like “Don’t interrupt,” “Get everyone to talk, not just the people who always dominate,” or “Talk about your own feelings without blaming others.” Each of these, and the reasons behind them, can be discussed and defined by the family as a principle of communication.

At the end of this process, write the principles on a large piece of paper and place it on the wall so everyone can see them during the meeting. The more each family member can express concerns and feel that others have heard them, the more committed the family will be to the code. They will recognize that the code marks the family’s entry into a new way of working together; however, it will be difficult because it means overcoming earlier habits.

Reminding people about good communication behaviors or the family code of conduct should always be the first topic on the agenda of a family meeting (even if the meeting involves just three people). Each person will come in to a family meeting with fears about talking and concerns that what he or she wants to share will not be listened to or respected.

There are many types of statements that act as “emotional triggers.” They provoke memories of hurtful events and cause family members to become upset or angry. A code of conduct can’t always stop these triggers, but it can limit them, and slow down the family as the feelings arise. At their best, rules can help a family consider other ways to deal with being upset. Also, the presence of other family members at a meeting can sometimes help two people who are in conflict to step back and look at what is happening.

The question arises: When there is a code of conduct, what happens if someone does not follow it? Who is in charge of policing it, gently reminding family members who slip up? This role can be handled by the person (a family member or outside helper) who acts as the facilitator, whose role is to make sure the meeting goes well. All other family members can serve this function, as well. A family often allows anyone to break in and comment that someone is not observing the rules. For example, they could say, “Let Joe finish speaking,” or “Let’s slow things down; people seem to be getting upset.” These “process comments” show that all family members feel responsible for adhering to the rules and are able to call each other to account.

Core purpose

Each family meeting should have a core purpose—a focus that guides the conversation. Examples include “To learn about the structure of the family trusts,” “To learn what we all want for our family philanthropy policies,” and “To plan for the new family leadership.”

Having a focus helps make the meeting safer because it provides a sense of what will be off-limits, or what issues can be shared. Sometimes family members agree that an issue can be raised, but any individual can decide that he or she doesn’t want to talk about it. Or there may be an agreement that decisions will not be made at a particular meeting; the purpose of the meeting is to learn about each other. These understandings about the nature of the meeting and its focus allow family members to feel comfortable with what will and will not be talked about. This sort of understanding is often critical to achieving broad participation in a meeting.

A family often has one general code of conduct that is in effect for all meetings, and they may also have some agreements about purpose they add for an individual meeting. Each meeting might begin with a statement of the ground rules for that discussion, beginning with the general code the family has drafted.

Beyond the family meeting

The shared understandings in a family code of conduct help make the family meeting a safe, comfortable and positive setting for family communication.

A final word about the code of conduct in the context of other areas of family governance and interaction. The family that adopts a code for behavior in a meeting may decide that the rules are important not only in meetings, but also in their relationships in general. The whole family may agree to strive to adopt these standards for all their communication and behavior together. The code of conduct may become part of their family mission, vision and values, and their family constitution.

Dennis Jaffe, Ph.D., is a family business adviser and a professor of organizational systems and psychology at Saybrook University in San Francisco (





Copyright 2012 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permssion from the publisher. For reprint information, contact

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September/October 2012


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