Watch your language

‘Families and fortunes have been torn asunder by what family members say to each other and how they say it,’ one expert reminds us. Test your own tact on these four case examples of family business conversations.

By Andrea Grace Mackiewic

Words can hurt just as surely as sticks and stonesŃwhether those words are true or false, whether they are meant to wound or are simply uttered in haste. Particularly in a family business, the choice of words often requires the skills and tact of a Bismarck or Disraeli.

ŅFamilies and fortunes have been torn asunder by what family members say to each other and how they say it,Ó observes Wendy Handler, an associate professor of family business at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

Words, of course, hurt the most when they reflect deep-seated rivalries, ancient resentments, or fundamental disagreements over issues or values. Unless such basic conflicts are brought to the surface and resolved, the business may remain a conversational minefield. WhatÕs more, Handler points out, what people donÕt say to one another can often be just as damaging as what they do say.

Nevertheless, experts believe that much can be done to improve communication in family businesses, to prevent speech habits that develop at home from spilling over at the office, and to hone skills for discussing highly emotional issues. ŅFamily members spend years rehearsing their communication patterns,Ó says Susan Glaser, partner in a management consulting firm in Eugene, Oregon, that specializes in corporate communications. ŅThe way a father has spoken to his son since childhoodŃor a son to a father, a sister to a brotherŃwill be carried over into the work environment. In some cases, these patterns will not be appropriate, and can be embarrassing for nonfamily members to witness.Ó


What follows are four examples of typical discussions about issues that arise in family businesses. In each example, two versions of the same discussion are presented. The first shows what often takes placeŃa conversation that self-destructs, damaging the speakersÕ feelings, because of the manner in which the speakers address each other.

The second version is a rewrite of the first, recast to show how the conversation could have been carried out positively had the participants thought about their own words. For each conversation, comments on what the speakers are doing wrong or right are provided in the footnotes by experts in family business and personal communication.

We present these pointers for families that want to communicate more effectively on the jobŃand still remain on speaking terms.


Andrea Grace Mackiewicz is a senior editor with Business International, the global information network owned by The Economist. She was an associate editor on the BusinessWeek Newsletter for Family Owned Business.

A CEO’s Absenteeism


Mary perceives a problem with her brother, John, who is higher up in the company than she: The employees are unhappy that John spends so much time away from the office. She feels she must tell him about it, and knows he will take it the wrong way.


The Destructive Dialogue

Mary: John?

John: One second. IÕm busyÉOkay, what?

Mary: Now donÕt get defensive, but I think thereÕs a problem around here. I ran it by Dad, and he said I should talk to you.

John: Okay. Talk.

Mary: People are losing confidence because youÕre never here.

John: What people?

Mary: Everyone who works for us.

John: Wait a minute. Let me get this straight. You told Dad this garbage?

Mary: Yeah, I ran it by him.

John: Mary, he retired three years ago. Give me a break! All he wants to do is relax, travel, and play some golf. Why are you bringing up this nonsense? ItÕs not even true.

Mary: You may be the CEO but heÕs still the heart of this company. I knew youÕd get really defensive if I tried to talk to you.

John: So far you havenÕt said anything.

Mary: Okay, IÕll tell you whatÕs happening around here. YouÕre going off to your Rotary club, board meetings, symphonies, and art galleries. Whatever it is, youÕre not around. The supervisors donÕt like it.

John: I keep a high profile for this company and I meet a lot of new customers through my community involvement. What do you do? You come in late, you leave early; you go home and watch TV with your kids. Then you complain to me and mess up my day.

Mary: I knew you wouldnÕt listen to me. You never have. All I want you to know is that this entire company is in an uproar because youÕre never here.


The Constructive Dialogue

Mary: John?

John: One second. IÕm busyÉ Okay, what?

Mary: Is this is a bad time?

John: No, itÕs okay. Talk.

Mary: IÕm worried about something that is going on around here and wanted to talk to you about it.

John: What is it?

Mary: Let me tell you what happened this week. On Monday and Tuesday you had outside meetings and had to leave about 2 oÕclock or so. Now I know you need to go to those meetings, and theyÕre good for business butÉ

John: ThatÕs right.

Mary:Ébut a couple of supervisors had questions to ask you, and when they came to me I had to tell them you were gone for the rest of the day. They seemed discouraged because they didnÕt know what they should do.

John: Oh, I see.

Mary: It was hard for me to give them support. I know you have to go to those meetings, but I think weÕve got to come up with a way to handle questions when youÕre not here.

John: What do you think we can do? I donÕt want people bumping into each other just because IÕm not here.

Mary: Could we modify your schedule? Maybe establish certain times in, certain times outŃtimes the employees can count on?

John: I could be more diligent about telling you when IÕll be gone. Another thing you could do is hang out with me more and learn the procedures. When IÕm absent, you could fill in for me.

Mary: Okay. And if you forego a few meetings a week, I would be willing to work more hours.

John: You know I really love my meetings. Which ones could I drop?

Mary: I donÕt know. LetÕs both think about it. Maybe we can go to breakfast tomorrow and decide.

John: Good idea.

Critiques by Louis B. Barnes, professor of organizational behavior at Harvard Business School.

  1. Mary induces a negative response.

  2. Mary sets John up to be defensive, and she should not lean on her father.

  3. A very wide accusatory net.

  4. WhoÕs Ņeveryone?Ó

  5. Should warn Mary that she and John are on the wrong track.

  6. Deepens the disaster by agreeing with JohnÕs term Ņgarbage.Ó

  7. A massive put-down of JohnÕs role.

  8. Mary projects her insecurity by relying on the supervisors to get her point across.

  9. John could have started a real discussion here, but he now goes on the attack.

  10. Mary accepts her self-fulfilling prophecy.


  11. Shows concern instead of accusing John.

  12. Good use of specific examples of JohnÕs absences.

  13. Tactful handling of the issue.

  14. Mary includes herself in the search for a solution.

  15. Willing response from a non-threatened John.

  16. Nicely moves the dialogue from a statement of problems into suggestion of remedies.

  17. John indicates heÕs open to compromise.

  18. Good resolution. Both can think for a bit and discuss the issue at a more convenient time.

A Nonfamily Manager’s Demands


Founder Jack JohnsonÕs right-hand man, Mark Smith, 55, has made it clear that if he is not made CEO upon JackÕs retirement he will start his own company. JackÕs wife, Ann, and two sons who are in the businessŃPeter, 30, and Ted, 25Ńmeet to discuss their position.

Based on a case in the Harvard Business Review, Sept./Oct. 1989.


The Destructive Dialogue

Peter (to Ted): I canÕt believe you want to give up so easily!

Ted: What do you mean? Mark has been with us for 30 years. He owns 25 percent of the business already and manages much more than that. How was I suppose to know heÕd be so greedy? Anyway, Mark is bright and hard driving and has been working for Dad since he was 21. Now that DadÕs retiring, of course, Mark wonÕt settle for working under you or me. The truth is, ABC Inc. is his business as much as it is ours.

Mother: Your father would be furious if he heard you say that! He built this business so you or Peter could take over.

Ted: I knowŃbut MarkÕs been much more of a success at running his department. ItÕs grown by 60 percent.

Peter: More like 30 percent.

Ted: Look, IÕm sorry if this wounds your pride, Peter, but Mark is responsible for much more of the revenues than either you or I. Remember, IÕm the accountant.

Peter: Dad did not build this company so that you and I and our children would someday work for Mark Smith. I should be the one to take over from Dad so this company stays in the family.

Mother: YouÕre talking as though your father were already dead and buried. When he gets back from his business trip, heÕll straighten all this out with Mark.

Ted: Mom, you know that DadÕs playing golf with some friends in California. We have to confront the facts: The business is in a crisis and Dad doesnÕt want to face it. He wonÕt even talk about it! I say we give Mark what he wantsŃlet him be CEO. Or else weÕll all lose our shirts.

Peter: YouÕre out of your mind.


The Constructive Dialogue

Peter: Why donÕt we talk about MarkÕs proposal before Dad gets back? As I see it, he wants to be CEO when Dad retires.

Ted: I donÕt know how we could have seen this coming. ItÕs true, Mark has been with us for 30 years. He owns 25 percent of the business already and manages much more than that. But he does sound like heÕs being greedy. He is bright and hard driving and has been working for Dad since he was 21. So I can see why he doesnÕt want to settle for working under you or me. LetÕs talk about what he wants and what this business owes him. DonÕt you think itÕs fair to say that itÕs as much his business as ours?

Mother: But your father built it so you or Peter could someday take it over.

Ted: ThatÕs true. But we canÕt deny that MarkÕs been quite a success at running his department. ItÕs grown by 60 percent.

Peter: More like 30 percent.

Ted: Well, IÕm the accountant, and IÕm afraid itÕs more than that. Anyway, letÕs stick to the issue. Mark wants more. LetÕs talk about what we can afford to give himŃor not give him. Okay?

Mother: YouÕre talking as though your father were already dead and buried. When he gets back from his trip, heÕll straighten all this out with Mark.

Ted: Mom, you know that DadÕs playing golf with some friends in California. We have to confront the facts: The business is in a crisis and Dad doesnÕt want to face it. He wonÕt even talk about it!

Peter: YouÕre right there. Okay, where do we start?

Critiques by Deborah Menashi, David Paradise, and Michael Sales, of the Family Business Resource Center in Newton, Massachusetts.

  1. Never begin any discussion with an accusation.

  2. Ted is put on the defensive. The chance for an objective discussion already looks dim.

  3. Mother is not adding much by sentimentalizing the feelings of absent Father.

  4. A put-down of Peter.

  5. Inflammatory and hardly constructive.

  6. Mother just continues to get upset and doesnÕt contribute.

  7. Ted has arrived at his conclusion without input from the others.


  8. Good for initiating discussion. States issue without hindering othersÕ opinions.

  9. Invites team response.

  10. A tactful way of expressing an opinion that may be hard for others to accept.

  11. Gets discussion back on track.

Father Knows Best?


A son just out of graduate school suggests to his father, the founder and CEO, that the company change some basic systems.


The Destructive Dialogue

Son: Dad, I think itÕs time we changed the inventory system around here. ItÕs like something from the Middle Ages.

Dad: Well, Junior, I instituted that system 30 years agoŃand youÕve been on the job for two weeks now and want to change it. Forget it.

Son: Dad, look, inventory systems was one of my specialities at school. I know what IÕm talking about. YouÕre not listening.

Dad: All I know is that IÕve had a lot more experience around this place than you. I know what works and what doesnÕt. You listen to me.

Son: But you were so insistent that I get an MBA. What was all that studying for if you wonÕt even consider any of my suggestions?

Dad: You are not different from anyone else around this company. Lots of people come to me with suggestions but IÕm not obliged to institute any of them. Remember, I pay the salaries, and after 30 years I should know whatÕs best for this company.

Son: Well a lot of people,including me, are going to start walking out the door if you donÕt loosen up.


The Constructive Dialogue

Son: Dad, what do you think about our inventory system? Sometimes I think we could tune it to make it more efficient.

Dad: I donÕt think about it all that much. ItÕs worked just fine all these years. Are you saying somethingÕs wrong with it?

Son: No, but I studied a lot of different new systems at school. I think we should look at getting a computer program that can track outgoing inventory faster and more efficiently than the way we do it now. The purchasing department might be able to save a lot on ordering.

Dad: Oh, all this business school talk! The purchasing department doesnÕt know how to use the computers weÕve got. I donÕt know what good bringing in a fancy new system would do.

Son: Well, thatÕs the point. I think they could use a little retraining to come up to speed on a better system. Maybe itÕs time we became a bit more high-tech.

Dad: Well, remember, youÕve only worked here for two weeks. You donÕt know everything. IÕve had this inventory system for 30 years.

Son: I know, but IÕve worked up this plan on paper that will show you how much better we could all be with some retraining. Just take a look and give it some thought. LetÕs talk about it after youÕve had a chance to read it.

Dad: Okay, but no promises.

Son: Remember, you sent me to business school for a reason. You should hear me out every now and then, right?.

Dad: Yeah, okay. Go back to work.

Critiques by Jane Sullivan, Tom OÕLeary, and Robert Denmark of Personal Resource Management Associates in Montclair, New Jersey, management consultants to family owned companies.

  1. Off-putting, presumptuous, and cocky. Makes Dad defensive.

  2. Insults or exaggerations donÕt help.

  3. Nickname indicates the kid is still a kid, not a business colleague.

  4. Shuts door on a proposal that might have merit.

  5. Inflammatory, and the best way to ensure that Dad wonÕt listen.

  6. Dad pulls out all the power stops. HeÕs in charge, his experience means more than an MBA.

  7. Establishes that this conversation will not continue.

  8. A massive put down.

  9. Idle threat.


  10. Suggesting that a modest change should be considered is a sensible opening.

  11. Son shows respect for Dad; invites discussion.

  12. Indicates Dad is willing to hear son out.

  13. Positive points help make case.

  14. Son continues in a sensible, non-accusatory vein.

  15. Though DadÕs getting difficult, son doesnÕt lose sight of the purpose of this conversation.

  16. Son is reinforcing his credentials; indicates he deserves to be listened to like a business colleague.

Daddy’s Little Girl


A daughter recently hired by the family publishing company goes to her father for advice on a problem she canÕt solve. He decides to ask another employee to step inŃChuck, the manager who previously held the daughterÕs job.


The Destructive Dialogue

Daughter: Dad, I need you to help me out.

Dad: You know I always will. WhatÕs wrong?

Daughter: I have trouble getting the word-processing people to come to work on time. No matter what I say or how much I lecture, thereÕs always a few of them that come in late every day.

Dad: Well, honey, maybe IÕll ask Chuck to talk to them. After all, he had your job for all those years. He knows how to keep those people in line.

Daughter: Dad, youÕre so insulting! DonÕt you think I can manage six staffers on my own? I bet you never say those words to [brother] David when he comes to talk to you about a management problem.

Dad: Your brother has never brought this kind of problem to me. He has no trouble making his orders known. IÕm not saying itÕs your faultŃyouÕve never been as tough as David, and you shouldnÕt have to be. ThatÕs just fine.

Daughter: ItÕs not Ņjust fineÓ now that IÕm in management and earning a managerÕs salary. I donÕt want Chuck or you or David doing my work for me. I just want you to tell me how I can solve this problem.

Dad: DonÕt worry, the departmentÕs running okay. We all think youÕre doing a great job.

Daughter: Well, DavidÕs told me we wouldnÕt miss our press dates so often if the word-processing people were all in on time.

Dad: IÕll take care of David. I think youÕre doing a great job.


The Constructive Dialogue

Daughter: Dad, IÕm having a management problem that I think is important, and IÕd like to straighten it out on my own but IÕd appreciate any advice you have on the best way to do it.

Dad: IÕm listening. What is it?

Daughter: Although IÕve tried different things, there are still a few word-processing people who never get to work on time. WeÕve been late in going to press a few times because of it. I know that David would like to see my people get here on time so he can go to press earlier.

Dad: Well, maybe I could have Chuck talk to themÉ

Daughter: No, Dad. IÕm in charge of the word-processing department now. Chuck has new responsibilities. It would look bad for me if he came in and read the riot act to a few of my employees, and then left.

Dad: Right. What if I sent a memo to the department, announcing a new tardy policy?

Daughter: Dad, I insist that this policy come from me. I think the idea of a new tardy policy is a good one. Let me think about what it should be.

Dad: Okay. Why donÕt you come back to me after youÕve written down some thoughts on what should be included in the new policy, and then we can talk about instituting it. LetÕs see if you canÕt get the department to work more efficiently.

Critiques by Wendy Handler, associate professor of family business at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts.

  1. Is this an adult or a little girl asking her father for advice?

  2. Fosters dependency on the parent.

  3. Relates her own sense of incompetence.

  4. Too endearing for any employee.

  5. Dad protects daughter, and communicates that he canÕt work with her to reach a resolution.

  6. Daughter defends herself by blaming Dad, and starts a personal attack.

  7. Dad replies with a massive put-down.

  8. Mixed signals: daughter wants management responsibilities, yet wants to be told what to do.

  9. Dad placates daughter.

  10. Moves conversation away from problem-solving to emotion-soothing.

  11. Daughter relies on brother to get her point across.

  12. Reinforces daughterÕs sense of incompetence, and DadÕs desire to smooth it over.


  13. Daughter asks directly for problem feedback.

  14. Shows openness, not bias.

  15. Indicates difficulty but not incompetence.

  16. Takes the problem out of daughterÕs hands.

  17. Explains the limitations of DadÕs suggestions without attacking him.

  18. Shows determination to take responsibility, without being adverse to using her father as a resource.

  19. Suggests Dad is confident daughter can do the work. Also indicates availability, not control.

  20. Communicates that he sees daughter is in charge.


Non-communication in the Watson family

In his candid memoir Father, Son, and Co. (Bantam Books), Tom Watson Jr., IBMÕs chairman emeritus, describes a rivalry between himself and his sister, Jane. Tom felt Jane was ŅFatherÕs favorite.Ó He also felt that his sister had retained a negative impression of his talents, even after he had taken over IBM from Tom Watson Sr.

The second year after the fatherÕs death, Jane sold a million dollars of IBM stock, one-third of her holdingŃwithout consulting Tom. When Tom found out, he interpreted the sale as a vote of no confidence, and went to JaneÕs home in Washington, D.C., to discuss it. As he writes, the conversation went like this:

ŅŌOf course itÕs your right to sell whenever you want,Õ I told her, Ōbut why did you do it?Õ Jane was awfully surprised that I knew about the sale, because she didnÕt understand corporations well enough to realize that a million-dollar sale is reported to the chief executive. But getting an answer out of her was exactly like having a discussion with the old man. Sometimes when you tried to pin him down, my father would give a totally ridiculous answer. If you said, ŌDad, you picked up my bags and left me at the station!Õ his answer might be ŌOh, I thought you wanted to walk home!Õ ThatÕs the kind of impossible response I got from Jane: ŌI didnÕt think youÕd be interested.Õ

ŅŌHow can you possibly think that? IÕve been running this business and youÕve been a beneficiary of it. But youÕve never given the slightest hint that you think this record is worth tipping a hat to.Õ

ŅŌOh, Tom. You know I think that.Õ

ŅŌSo then why are you selling your stock?Õ

ŅŌBecause I have to protect my familyÕs future.Õ

ŅIn retrospect, I can see Jane was probably following the advice of some financial counselor who convinced her it was prudent to diversify her holdings. But at the time her selling off the stock really knocked me back, and it was the end of warm feelings between us for a number of years.Ó



Honing your conversational skills

Susan and Peter Glaser, specialists in corporate communication, say the way to correct a harmful communication pattern is to first recognize it as such, then explicitly change it.

The husband-and-wife team, founders of Glaser & Associates in Eugene, Oregon, has had such large clients as Weyerhaeuser, Hewlett-Packard, and Best Western. But they have a special affinity for family businesses, in part because they run one and have had to confront their own communication problems.

The GlasersÕ advice on improving communicative skills:




Parental No-nos

Parents must watch their tongues when talking to Ņthe kidsÓŃer, the younger generationŃat the office, if they want their sons and daughters to mature in the business. Below, some tips on language to avoid, offered by Thomas OÕLeary, Jane Sullivan, and Robert Denmark of Personal Resource Management Associates in Montclair, New Jersey.