By Kip Kolson, Special for USADT
A little girl is speaking to her daddy while he is reading the paper and dad is responding with the obligatory “A Hah.” The child firmly grasps dad’s face in her little hands, forcing him to draw his eyes away from the paper and look directly into her eyes. She says, “I want you to listen to me with your eyes!” That is a diagnosis for the disease that infects all families. There may be a lot of talking, but very little real listening taking place.
I have offered this historically proven statistic numerous times, but it needs repeating; “70% of family wealth is lost with each transfer to the next generation and gone in three generations.” It is called “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations,” the result of Entropy, the second law of thermodynamics, which means everything in the universe is constantly devolving from the complex to the simple. Because it is a law, entropy will always impact a family and its wealth unless it is overcome by other proven laws.
The major factors, in order of priority, are a breakdown in communication and trust, heirs are unprepared to properly steward the wealth they inherit, and there is no clearly stated and agreed upon long-term mission for the family and its wealth.[i] When family members are not communicating effectively, trust will always be eroded. Communications become more difficult when children marry and bring strangers into the family, and members are geographically dispersed. There was a time parents and children actually communicated around the kitchen or dining room tables. Now, everyone is gazing at their glowing cellphone screens. Like the little girl above, people may be talking but no one is really listening.
With this deficiency in mind, my pastor shared good principles and techniques for improving communications that will help readers of this article if implemented. I will present the L.I.S.T.E.N. principles this time and cover the S.P.E.A.K. principles in the next article.[ii] I share his acrostic in its entirety, then my comments on each in subsequent paragraphs.
Look at them with eyes of love
Invest as much time as needed
Share their feelings, NOT your solutions
Tune into any fear or hurt beneath the words
Engage them with open-ended questions
Never judge anything or anyone until you have all the facts
Look at them with eyes of love means giving the person your full, undivided attention. Remove all distractions. Turn off the TV, put the cellphone in the cookie jar, close the door to outside noise, and look directly into that person’s eyes; conveying to them they are the most important person in your life at that moment and you love them so much you want to be sure you hear and understand what is important to them.
This is a classic occurrence at networking events. You’ve done it and had it done to you. You approach someone you know, or someone you want to know, and engage in a conversation. You are talking and they seem to be listening, but you notice their eyes are scanning the rest of the room to see how they can disconnect from you and connect with that other individual they really want to meet. When family members do this to each other, they learn they are not that important, so why bother to communicate at all. If I cannot trust you to listen to me, how can I trust you regarding other important things?
Invest as much time as is needed. This is a big one! Time is our most valuable asset. How we spend our time defines our priorities. In many ways it is the only thing we can actually control. Yes, there are times other people or circumstances put demands on our time, but we still have the ability to choose how we respond to those circumstances and people. Dad tells his child he will be at his or her baseball, soccer, or basketball game that afternoon after work; but doesn’t show because the boss or a client called and wanted something. That happens numerous times and the children learn other people are more important than they are. A client is coming into town unexpectedly, so that dinner date with your spouse is cancelled. The spouse eventually gives up trying since he or she feels they are not that important to you.
There are no instant fixes to good communications with people, especially those you love, who are too important to give them five minutes of your time when five hours are needed. Family vacations and family mission trips can be the best opportunities for elongated conversations in environments where everyone can openly disclose their feelings.
Share their feelings, not your solutions. The guys may especially want to take note of this principle as it pertains to their wives. Wives do not want us to fix anything, they want us to just LISTEN! The problem for men and women, especially those in the business world, is our job is to fix things. That is why we get paid the “big bucks.” We are expected to perform by fixing problems. Likewise, parents want to fix their children’s problems, or fix it so the problems never happen. When we are being a fixer we are not listening, we are already coming up with solutions before we completely understand the what and why of the problem facing the person. We cannot achieve a good solution until we truly understand the person’s feelings. There are no one-fits-all solutions.
The second problem is we diminish the person’s ability to solve the problem themselves. I have never talked to anyone who hasn’t said they learned much more from their failures than their successes. Parents are too concerned about keeping their children from failing than gaining self-sustaining skills. This is a real problem in wealthy families because money becomes the preferred solution to everything. Rather than listening and spending time with the children, parents hire nannies and servants to take care of the kids and do the chores the kids should be doing. They substitute “things” for their time. This year we were introduced to a scandal around rich celebrities paying large bribes to university coaches and athletic directors to give their unqualified children athletic scholarships to major universities. What has this to do with listening? Some of the children were not interested in going to college, at least not to gain the skills necessary to succeed after graduation. An honest conversation with good listening might have avoided the arrests, trials, lawsuits, and destroyed reputations these parents and children now face.
Tune into any fear or hurt beneath the words. Money and people in every family are always in conflict. Sometimes the money is causing the people conflicts, other times the people are causing money problems, or both. However, it is also true fights over the things mask the fears and hurts that occurred since childhood but have never been exposed and addressed. All parents wonder how children birthed from the same parents can be so different in personalities, temperament, self-discipline, motivation, and maturity. What creates fear in one would be highly motivating in another. Saying or doing something that hurts one child who is unable to let go of that hurt would be brushed off and quickly forgotten by others. How hurts and fears are expressed can take a variety of paths, ranging from silence to verbal explosions to placation, despair and depression. The words you hear are not necessarily the issues you need to know.
Engage with open-ended questions. A sales person, psychologist, and therapist never ask close-ended questions that can be answered with just a “yes” or “no.” Open-ended questions seek to uncover the when, why, where, how, and what a person is feeling. The advantage of asking open-ended questions is it causes the person to consider what they are feeling and why and start to formulate their own solutions. Young children are masters of this. Son and dad are on a walk when son asks, “What is that bright circle in the night sky?” Dad, “It is the moon.” Son, “What is a moon?” Dad, it is big ball hundreds of thousands of miles away.” Son, “How did it get there?” Dad, “God put it there.” Son, “Why?” Dad, “To give us light so the night would not be so dark.” Son, “How does He keep it from falling on us?” Dad, “It’s your bed time. Tomorrow you can ask your school teacher that question.”
My point is, when you ask open-end questions, they lead to more questions and you will uncover more issues that need to be addressed. The best and simplest question you can ask anyone, certainly your family members when there are conflicts and problems is, “Tell me more.” Another follow-up question then is, “What do you think you should do,” or “What would make you feel good about your decision or action?” Solutions are long-lasting and more effective when the person experiencing the hurt or fear provides the answer that will work for them.
Never judge anything or anyone until you have all the facts. This seems to be a logical statement, but in today’s social media world anyone can post comments on their feelings and opinions with no facts to back them up, so reputations, relationships, and lives are destroyed. Unfortunately, this also happens in families, sometimes intentionally. Families are a composite of emotions and feelings. When communication is nonexistent, or poor at best, people envision scenarios based on what they think is happening rather than reality. Bob and Jane are two of four children. They work in the family business and the other two have other careers. Dad promotes Jane and not Bob to a higher management role. Bob perceives it was favoritism, Jane feels she deserves it. The reality is Jane has skills perfect for this role that Bob does not have. However, Bob’s imagination visualizes Jane’s clandestine meetings with dad when he (Bob) is not around and telling dad why she deserves it more than Bob. That never happened; however, Bob starts dropping a few “innocent” comments to the other two siblings that the promotion should have been his and Jane did not deserve it. The siblings do not question his opinions and start to see Jane in a negative light. Dad never explained to Bob why he promoted Jane rather than his son. He assumed Bob would understand. Poor communications always destroy trust!
In my book (see below) I backup principles like these with wisdom and laws that can overcome entropy and the forces that break up families by defaulting to the greatest wisdom book ever written and its author the Holy Coach. “God has given us eyes to see with and ears to listen with.” (Editorial comment: He gave us two eyes, two ears, and one mouth. Use them accordingly). “Anyone who answers quickly without listening first is both foolish and insulting.” “. . . we must bear the burden of being considerate of the doubts and fears of others. Let’s please the other fellow, not ourselves and do what is for his good and thus build him up . . .” “People’s thoughts are like water in a deep well, but someone with insight (uses open-ended questions) can draw them out.” “What a shame—yes, how stupid—to decide before knowing the facts. A person with understanding gets the facts and the wise person listens to learn more.”[iii]
Kip Kolson is the president of Family Wealth Leadership, a multi-family office and family coaching firm, and author of You Can Have It All; Wealth, Wisdom, and Purpose—Strategies for Creating a Lasting Legacy and Strong Family. You can order your copy at Amazon, the FWL website below, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
[i] Preparing Heirs, Roy Williams and Vic Preisser, Robert D. Reed Publishers, 2003 & 2012
[ii] Rick Warren, Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, Ca. September 7, 2019
[iii] Proverbs 20:12; 18:13; 20:5; 18:13+15; Romans 15:2 (Various Versions)