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November 2014: Family Relationships: What’s Your Strategy?

To business owners and leaders:

You say, “The business is important, but the family is more important.”

That’s a good-sounding motto, but do you really believe it?

If you did, you would be thinking about your relationships with individual family members. You would be thinking about your family the way you think about your business.

You would be thinking about what those relationships mean to you. You would be imagining all the ways that strong family relationships today benefit future generations.

You would be thinking about how stronger family connections might benefit your well-being and maturity.

You would be designing a plan for staying connected to every living family member. Think of it as a strategic family connection plan.

That plan would capture the same kind of attention that builds a successful business.

It would be based on the belief that family is more important than business. And that a strong family contributes mightily to clearer, calmer leadership in the workplace.

It would be based on the enlightened view that if you lose your family connections, you’ve gained nothing, even if the business is wildly successful.

What is a strategic family connection plan?

Let’s break it down, word by word.

First of all, it’s strategic. It doesn’t depend on emotional factors like whether you enjoy your sister’s personality. Or how comfortable you are inviting your parent to lunch. Or the fact that your father has ignored your uncle for the last six years.

You design a plan for staying in contact with particular family members. The plan makes good sense, though it might be uncomfortable or scary. Emotional reactions don’t deter your commitment to the plan.

Second, the plan is focused on family members. Which family members?

All of them. The ones who work in your business, and the ones who don’t. Your immediate family (spouse and children) and your extended family (parents, siblings, uncles, aunts and cousins).

That’s a lot of people. That’s why you need a strategic family connection plan. Without a plan, you will do what’s comfortable. You will devote your entire life to your work and your friends. You’ll interact only with the family members you like. You’ll miss a lot of opportunities to learn about yourself.

A strategic family connection plan recognizes the importance of non-family relationships, but it doesn’t address friends, partners or co-workers. The focus is on the family.

Third, the purpose of the plan is connection. Shared blood doesn’t, by itself, strengthen relationships. Anyone who thinks, “He’s my brother, of course we’re close,” hasn’t the faintest idea what it means to connect with a family member. Healthy relationships require intention and effort.

What does it mean to connect?

It means spending one-on-one time with family members. Just you and each other family member. One at a time, and separately. Individuals cannot get to know each other in groups. Family gatherings rarely facilitate individual connection. In fact, crowds can be a great hiding place.

Connection implies self-disclosure: “Here’s something about me; tell me something about you.” It’s not about the business, it’s about you and me. How are we doing in life? What’s new with each of us? What’s keeping us up at night? What are our thoughts about the future? What are we struggling with?

Connection results from fascination, and calculated risk. “I want to learn something new about this person, and I want to give her new information about me.”

Family business members can benefit from this at least as much as anyone else. Uninformed outsiders might think family members working in the same business know each other well.

That’s usually not the case. Keeping the focus on the business often discourages real interaction between family members.

One family business owner put it this way: “I work with my brother every day, but I don’t really know him. It’s as if we’re more co-workers than brothers.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. One – usually the more mature family member – can make an effort to build a more solid connection over time. It doesn’t happen overnight.

Your intentional, one-on-one connection with every family member offers the possibility to shift the emotional atmosphere in the family and in the business. Making connection a habit builds good will, clear communication and ease of contact. Collaboration increases. Better decisions get made.

Attending to family relationships delivers another big bonus: the opportunity for you to grow up in your own family. By “grow up,” I mean the process of becoming a more genuine self with your clan members.

Increasing meaningful contact with family members includes acquiring facts about their lives, getting interested in understanding each individual for who they really are and questioning the fictions that have been sustained over the years.

The pioneering psychiatrist Dr. Murray Bowen used the term “self differentiation” to describe this process of maturing within one’s family. Dr. Bowen’s own words offer an appropriate conclusion to this blog:

“The process of differentiating a self requires the motivation to do a research study on one’s own family. The study requires that the researcher begin to gain control over his emotional reactivity to the family, that he visit his parental family as often as indicated, and that he develop the ability to become a more objective observer in his own family. He can then begin the more complex process toward differentiating himself from the myths, images, distortions and triangles he had not previously seen. This is a big order and a mission that cannot be accomplished quickly.”

9 Responses to “November 2014: Family Relationships: What’s Your Strategy?”

  1. November 01, 2014 at 11:30 am, Sandi Tucker said:

This was a fantastic article and will provide for some thoughtful planning on my part in the coming year.

  1. November 01, 2014 at 12:36 pm, Robert I. Mathis said:

A few years before my father died, he connected me with his last living cousin. We live in Ohio and were in Oregon at the time for my son’s wedding. My dad knew the cousin lived in Oregon and called relatives in Arkansas to get a phone number! Since the connection, I have visited my dad’s cousin (now 92) whenever possible while in Oregon. The cousin has taught me more than I ever dreamed about how to live out a meaningful and joyous life. His energy, creativity, response to challenge, and stamina as he finds ways to manage chronic pain of aging are all very different from the experiences of other kinfolk I have known. Later this month I hope to introduce the cousin to our newly born granddaughter. Over-the-years, wherever I have made the effort to connect with extended family, it has been a road worth traveling! Thanks John for clarifying a way to take the journey. You say it well. –Robert I. Mathis, Ph.D.

  1. November 03, 2014 at 4:41 pm, Bonnie Hall said:

What a sobering and provocative article. Thank you for the clarity you bring to the process of creating a “strategic family connection plan.” I am challenged to move further out of my comfort zone and be yet more intentional about the work of differentiating a self in my family.

  1. November 04, 2014 at 2:42 pm, Erik Thompson said:

You have very skillfully expanded our view of what it means to be connected. This got me thinking about those closest to me, in business and family. Your point that “we work together” doesn’t mean we know what is on each others minds is true. Same for “we live together”. -Erik Thompson

  1. November 04, 2014 at 3:35 pm, MIchael Poole said:

Thank you. You have provided an excellent challenge. Particularly, your focus on “planned/intentional” individual interaction is helpful. You hit the nail on the head; without a plan we will simply do what’s most comfortable. Also, as a congregational interim minister I see a new way to appreciate and interpret biblical “begets!”

  1. November 04, 2014 at 5:19 pm, Catherine Rakow said:

Just a comment on one of those times when a family gathering can be very enlightening. A woman’s son died in his 20’s in a car accident. A cousin approached her at the wake saying “I don’t know how to talk to you. I heard you don’t believe in God.” The woman responded saying “Just speak to me as one mother to another.” But the comment was useful to the bereaved mother as she was unaware that her personal beliefs had cycled through the family. She was grateful to her cousin for this awareness knowing it had come via her own mother’s distress about this difference between the two. So family gatherings can inform us of the triangles operating in the family if we can manage to listen when emotion is high.

  1. November 05, 2014 at 3:38 pm, Miriam Bellamy said:

This was helpful. I have begun reconnecting with cutoff family members (cutoff by my Grandfather, the cutoff then maintained by my mother), and am blown away at times at the things I learn about my mother and myself. It’s such an emotional process, and reading articles like this helps me keep more on a thinking track. Thanks for your work.

  1. November 05, 2014 at 6:38 pm, Rosemarie Perla said:

What a great time of year to ask the questions regarding family relationship strategies. As I look forward, with some tension, to the big clan gatherings over the holidays, I realize that this year I can make a shift and use the preparatory shopping and cooking time as a way to plan one on one time with my individual family members-making those informatory connections that will may lower my anxiety and pave a way for more satisfactory, meaningful conversations during the larger gatherings. Becoming more of a self and growing into a fuller sense of this self in my family. Thank you.

  1. November 05, 2014 at 7:06 pm, Lorna Hecht-Zablow, MFT said:

This is an excellent article articulating many aspects of what it means to make contact with the extended family. I would like to know more of your thoughts about the effects of those efforts on one’s life overall and in the nuclear family.

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