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How to hold an effective family meeting

Dennis Jaffe is a founding member of the Aspen Family Business Group.

Family meetings are not a time to dwell on grievances or conflicts but an opportunity to to talk openly and honestly about any personal family and business issues relating to their legacy, says Dennis Jaffe

A family meeting is a gathering of all family members in a quiet and comfortable place – for instance, a vacation home – with the specific aim of talking openly and honestly to each other about their feelings, issues and desires.

The family meeting is a time-honoured practice of families who want to talk about the personal aspect of wealth, family business, values and traditions. The world of the family has many concerns that involve the family business, but also different people (non-active owners, spouses) who are not formally part of a business. Meetings might include discussions about values and mission, about family participation in wealth management, about compensation and distribution of funds, about fairness and about how the family's wealth will be used to make a difference for family members and the community.

The meetings need not lead to votes or decisions. But they provide opportunities to unearth and explore differences and discover ways to be fair to everyone. Better decisions can be made in such areas as inheritance and generational transition and people will better understand the intentions behind those decisions.

The value of such conversations is the sharing and passing on of the values that one generation honours and lives by and wants to transmit to future generations. These values concern the importance of family connection, how the family conducts business, giving back to the community and raising children. Legacy is an implicit contract and responsibility that goes along with inheritance.

There are many formats for a family meeting, but they have some elements in common. They should be held in comfortable places with no disruption. Phones and other intrusions should be avoided. There should be sufficient time to keep the meeting somewhat open-ended. It should be as inclusive as possible, with all family members invited.

A meeting sets up a process of communication. In many cases, families open up issues that offer no clear and easy resolution. Families should hold regular meetings – continuity is important.

Many meetings have a facilitator to keep the proceedings on track and make sure that everyone participates. This role can be rotated; some families hire an outside consultant.

At the first meeting, the family should agree on a set of guidelines for how to listen to each other, how to maintain order and what sort of behaviour is expected during the meeting. The meeting needs an agenda of issues and concerns which should be circulated in advance. Any decisions made at the meeting should be recorded and distributed to family members after the meeting.

Keys for Success
Here are some ideas for achieving successful family meetings.

Create an environment where people feel respected. Family members need to feel that they can talk about emotionally charged and difficult issues without recrimination. The convenor needs to pledge that confidences will be respected and everyone should try to maintain a positive perspective. Avoid non-essential discussions that create discomfort to some family members. For example, in one family meeting it was agreed that an issue would be dropped if even just one hand was raised.

Set your mindset for 'open' when you begin. One of the treasures of a family conversation is discovering something about someone you have known and loved for many years that you didn't know or, more likely, didn't hear before. In one family gathering, the discussion of career and family dreams helped the patriarch see that his children had very different ideas for their future than he did for them.

Conversations are about discovery, not making decisions. Yes, a decision must be made, eventually. A conversation is not a debate – there will be plenty of time to come to a decision later on. In one situation where parents were setting up a complex estate plan, they were open to listening to the fears and concerns of their children after it was established that the purpose of the exchange was to share ideas, not talk the parents out of any choice they wanted to make.

Talk about your history. Initiate a conversation about legacy. For a business founder, this would be a place to talk about how the firm was created, what it means and what makes him or her proud and satisfied. Legacy conversations are a living will and should be recorded. The family's job is to appreciate, and listen. Ask questions, request more details, but under no circumstances should you disagree or add your own ideas. This is about understanding where you have come from, and what you are heir to.

Begin with what you agree on. When family members see how many important things they agree on, it may be easier to place any differences in context. A family divided by the future fate of a family business began the discussion by articulating the many values they agreed on. This exchange enabled them to be more flexible in their difficult decision.

Take enough time, and stay in the room. Avoid expectations that people will change, conflicts will end or one conversation will do the trick. This is unrealistic. Agree to meet for a set amount of time. Attendees should pledge they won't walk out or, if they do, they will come back when they cool down. 

Don't interrupt. This is a sign people are not listening; they think they know what the other person is saying. There needs to be a ground rule that people can talk until they are finished, and that the others will hold their comments until they are done. Some familys use a device such as a 'talking stick' where you can only speak if you are holding the stick. It is then passed from speaker to speaker. This slows down conversation and gives many voices a chance to be heard without interruption.

Slow it down. When tempers begin to boil, the calmest person in the room should step up and say, "Let's slow down". Ask each person to take a break and then discuss slowly, without interruption, why they are upset. Silence gives people a chance to reflect and reconsider. Agree to disagree and listen to what the others have to say, even when you find this very painful.

Put the toughest issues aside. Don't discuss how the inheritance should be allocated in the first meeting. Talk about simpler issues before working up to the tough ones. The feelings of a generation cannot be resolved in one meeting. After working on less contentious issues move into the more difficult ones.

Speak for yourself, not others. Use the word 'I' not 'we'. Take responsibility for what you feel, and share those feelings. Don't presume to speak for others, or attempt to express what they feel or want. They are there to tell you themselves. One family matriarch who routinely talked about how "we" saw that these were her own preferences and was finally able to hear that her children had very different ideas and feelings.

Encourage everyone to talk. Start a meeting by asking all family members to say what is on their minds. If someone is silent, or one or two people are dominating the discussion, the facilitator should ask others to speak up.

Avoid criticism or blame. There may be strong feelings about past events. People may be angry and hurt and want to blame others. This is inevitable, but not productive. Try to focus on solving the problem rather than who is responsible.

Get to the concrete level. Family conflict builds up over many small events and misunderstandings. Over time, these misunderstandings develop into huge and hurtful areas of disagreement. When you unearth such a problem, take time for each person to talk about what happened to make them feel that way. Resist the temptation to interrupt.

Write down what is important. If you don't write down minutes, decisions and understandings from a meeting, you will lose valuable information and have nothing to refer to in due course.

Follow up with individual conversations. You can't always say everything you want to in the group. Sometimes, you need to have one-to-one talks. Agree at the meeting to hold some individual conversations among those who have the most difficulty talking to each other. When two people agree to have lunch together or arrange for another joint activity, one family member should write down that agreement and check to make sure the meeting happened. Some may feel this is too intrusive but in time they will begin to see the value.  

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