By Kip Kolson, Special for USADT
“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” (Scholars question whether this quote can be attributed to Mark Twain, but if he didn’t say it, he should have!) “You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, your ideas won’t get you anywhere.” by Lee Iacocca.
My last article covered listening skills, especially as it relates to family relationships. Flipping to the other side of the conversation, I will cover speaking skills that can improve communications and relationships. Again, my synopsis is based on a sermon by pastor Rick Warren on Creating Life-Shaping Conversations using the following acronym.[i]
Save it for the best time and place.
Plan what to say and how to say it.
Empathize with THEIR NEEDS first.
Affirm the POSITIVE alternatives rather than the negatives.
Keep calm and do not argue.
Save it for the best time and place. In today’s fast-paced, information-overload world, we often turn to spontaneous, shoot-from-the-hip responses to actions or comments that anger, disturb, or frighten us. Even good intentions can be delivered at the wrong time and in the wrong place.
Likewise, a quick response to an unkind comment or criticism in the heat of an argument, especially in public, is always the wrong time and place. When emotions run high the tongue can be a two-edged sword used to defend the speaker from more assaults and scar the other person with verbal slashes. Some cuts never heal!
This is especially troubling for a child whose parent(s) overreact to even minor infractions of performance standards that strive for perfection when perfection is impossible. “Why did you only get a B+ when I expect you to get all As? “That was an easy fly ball for an out. How could you drop it?” That latter comment was made in front of other parents and players as the young boy or girl walks back to the dugout.
Plan what to say and how to say it. In light of the previous discussion, I will add “when” to say it. There is wisdom in the old recommendation to count to ten before speaking. It may mean taking hours or days to settle your own emotions and think about what you want to say and how you can say it to improve the situation and achieve a result that benefits everyone rather than perpetuating a bad situation. A teenager walks through the door at 10:20 pm and dad or mom is waiting. “Your curfew is 10:00 pm. You are always disobeying me. I just cannot trust you do anything right! You are grounded!” Or, the university student has a credit card to buy school supplies and essentials. When the parents get the monthly statement there are more non-essentials on it than there should be. Parent is immediately on the phone screaming at the student that he or she is irresponsible and untrustworthy.
There may be legitimate reasons parents respond negatively in these examples, but it is also possible a pattern of behavior has developed because the parents conditioned the child through bad examples and lax discipline. Every conflict involves two or more people, and in every case every participant has somehow contributed to the problem. There are exceptions, but children are normally the product of the examples their parents set. The value of planning is it should require a person to look into the mirror and analyze their role in the conflict because they, not the other person, may be the one who needs to change and improve. Planning also requires an understanding of the objectives and desired outcomes, the alternatives, the strategies and tactics, the processes and methodologies, and the emotions and feelings of everyone involved. Words one person would find helpful could devastate another person. Even the tone and body language can be interpreted very differently. Planning is the ultimate “counting-to-ten.”
Empathize with THEIR NEEDS first. The important words are “their needs.” Most conversations are one sided; the speaker is more interested in telling the listener what the speaker wants rather than hearing the needs of the listener. They start with phrases like, “Let me tell you what is bothering me;” I think you should know what I think (or what I am feeling);” or, “Here is what I think you should do.” As I mentioned in my “Listening” article, this is the trap most husbands consistently fall into. Wife says she is having a problem with something or someone or feels depressed about something. Husband’s response, “If it were me, I would do _____” or “Here is what you should do. _______.” Not much empathy in those comments or understanding of what his wife really needs from him.
The same thing happens with our children. Parents can be too quick to tell their children what to do rather than asking what the children want to do or need to do to get the best result for them. Revisiting the news story about celebrity parents bribing athletic directors and hiring proxies to take their children’s SATs, we must question if those parents ever asked their children what they wanted to do or which school they preferred, or if they even wanted to go to college. The embarrassment and damaged self-esteem may stay with these children for a lifetime.
Affirm the POSITIVE alternatives rather than the negatives. I remember a motivational speaker using this analogy, which is appropriate right now since the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros are in the World Series as of this writing. It is the bottom of the ninth inning in the seventh game, the score is tied, there are two outs, the bases loaded, and the count is 3-2. The pitching coach approaches the pitcher’s mound, puts his hand on the pitcher’s shoulder and says, “Do not throw this guy a chest-high fast ball.” Can you guess what happened? The batter hammers a chest-high fast ball over the center field wall. Why? Because the coach planted a negative thought in the pitcher’s mind. The pitcher is focused on what not to do and since that is his dominant thought, his body automatically does what he is focused on. It is the same with family and children. Parents tell their children what not to do rather than what they should do. Every parent quickly learns when you tell Johnny what he should not do, it guarantees that is exactly what he will do. Affirm the desired positive outcomes.
Focusing on negatives reinforces to a child he or she is not worthy and valued because they are constantly criticized for their mistakes rather than praised for their successes. It does not mean their mistakes should be ignored or overlooked. It just means they will become better people and feel better about themselves when they are taught what to do rather than what not to do. I do not mean this to be an inappropriate comparison but if you have ever trained a dog, you tell it “no” when it does what it should not do, show it what it should do, and shower it with praise and positive stroking as a reward for accomplishing what you want and expect of it. That works with people too.
Keep calm and do not argue. I mentioned this a couple of times, but the worst thing we can do is let our emotion take over, especially if the conversation is about hurt feelings, being treated unjustly or unfairly, or being challenged for something we did or should have done but did not do. This may be the most important principle, yet the most difficult to achieve. If we feel we have been attacked, our normal immediate response is either to counterattack or retreat. Counterattacking will be met with another counterattack and the argument escalates until one or both combatants are verbally and emotionally bludgeoned.
As stated, this principle leans toward the counterattack, but retreating can be more devasting because it eliminates the opportunity for reconciliation. If the hurt person refuses to talk about their hurt there is no chance the offender will correct or apologize for their attack, or at least explain why they felt the attack was justified and necessary. The retreat emboldens the attacker to continue attacking at will since there will never be a rebuttal.
This can be especially severe when it occurs between parents and children because children feel inherently subservient and inadequate to fight back. If they attempt to “fight back” verbally, they will be put in their place for disrespecting the parent. If all they ever hear is angry words, or worse, physical punishment, they will become introverted and unable to communicate and properly interact with people when they are adults.
So, what do these listening and speaking principles have to do with wealthy families and family offices? The vast majority of families completely lose all the family wealth within three generations precisely because little and poor communications leads to trust being destroyed. I am sure none of the above principles will be demonstrated around the attorney’s conference room table when the wills and trust documents are being read.
Second, families are complex and emotional by nature. As the number of members increases through marriages and births, that complexity increases, creating more difficulties, especially through marriage since non-family members are brought into the family with biases and baggage from their families.
Third, as the number and types of assets composing the wealth grows and expands, the number of potential issues and emotions surrounding those assets also becomes more complex. What is not stated is left to a variety of interpretations and assumptions that may not be correct and in conflict.
Fourth, if the objective is to retain the assets within the family and grow them through multiple generations, it requires family members to be tight knit and interactive. Traditional estate planning that gives everything to kids, encouraging them go their separate ways, means they may never have to or want to communicate with each other again. In a family office environment, they must learn to communicate effectively.
Finally, holding it all together is difficult and must be intentional. It requires a steadfast commitment of time, energy, dollars, compassion, and forgiveness. Every family has conflicts. The families that do not apply these principles will inevitably fail. The families that make effective communication a foundational value, and keep reinforcing that foundation, can erect a structure strong enough to withstand the storms of life.
“…There is a time to be silent. And there is a time to speak.” “…the wise heart will know the proper time and procedure, for there is a proper time and procedure for every matter…” “Intelligent people think before they speak; then what they say is more persuasive.” Everything you say should be kind and well thought out so that you know how to answer everyone.” “Speak…only what is helpful for building others up, according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” A mature person is known for his understanding. The more pleasant his words, the more persuasive he is.” “Those who are sure of themselves do not talk all the time, and people who stay calm have real insight.” Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.”[ii]
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 Website: www.familywealthleadership.com
[i] Rick Warren, Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, Ca., September 7, 2019
[ii] Ecclesiastes 3:7; 8:6; Proverbs 16:23; Colossians 4:6; Ephesians 4:29; Proverbs 16:21; 17:27; James 1:19 (Various versions)