The verdict is in. Family meetings do two things. They build stronger families, and they build stronger businesses. They empower the farm plan for the future in an orderly and constructive way. They help it take transitions in stride, and let it escape painful and costly conflict by addressing issues that inevitably arise in any family business.
Family meetings work. But does that mean they’re happening on more farms?
It’s impossible to say. There’s no research to say one way or another.
Part of the problem has to do with definitions. Families talk a lot, so maybe you might think sitting down for dinner or that chat you had driving into town qualifies as a family meeting.
What farm advisors mean when they talk about family meetings is something different. They mean structured meetings that have specific goals, and which draw lines between family and business.
Those goals centre around the family itself, creating opportunities for learning and skills development, and strengthening and repairing family relationships, says Angela De Groot, a Stratford, Ont.-based advisor and facilitator for businesses, families and private companies and a member of the Canadian Association of Farm Advisors (CAFA).
Other goals include establishing a fair process for communication and conflict management, giving voice to all family members, and preserving family tradition and history.
When is the best time to start?
De Groot says it’s very beneficial to start having these meetings early in a family’s life. That’s because they build next-generation leadership.
“Children and teenagers can learn a lot by listening and participating in family meetings,” she says.
“I tell families straight up: Conversations matter, and not just informal conversations with family members here and there as things come up. Through regular structured dialogue, one family conversation at a time, families can really improve the odds of the successful continuity of their business.”
Yet for all the benefits that can come from holding these meetings, families do balk at the idea, and often need some convincing about why they should consider meetings on their own farms.
“The thing that scares people is this word ‘structured,’” says Monica Clare, a Tillsonburg, Ont.-based CAFA advisor and management consultant who specializes in finance, family communications and conflict management.
That’s because putting some structure around family interactions can be challenging.
Clare advises anyone within the family championing the idea of holding family meetings to start slowly.
A good first step
One very effective way to begin is to dig out family photo albums and initiate a conversation about the family’s story, she says. There’s no better way to start that than by looking at old photos.
“Go through a photo album or digital photos, and just start really talking about how did we get here. I think that’s the easiest entry point. Encourage people… let’s find out who we are, what we stand for,” she says.
Family meetings are intended to be where there is a sharing of values, history and traditions, agrees De Groot. They’re also places for sharing aspirations, providing love and support as well as a fair process for communication, conflict management and decision-making.
“And they’re also places to simply have fun together through games and activities and celebrating and having a sense of humour,” she says. “If you’re able to include some elements of each of these four things in every family meeting; you’ll balance your approach and appeal to various individual types, styles and interests.”
There can be underlying reasons why families resist having these meetings, however.
The root of that resistance is usually trauma, says Clare. Before you implement any change management program, such as these family meetings, it is fundamental that the family become “trauma informed” about themselves, she says.
What that means is becoming aware of the levels of stress and anxiety individual members are feeling, and then understanding the cause of that stress and anxiety.
Getting past the worries
Everyone experiences traumas to a lesser or greater extent, but we enter survival mode when our nervous system is in a constantly elevated state of anxiety.
It’s important to recognize that family farm businesses often live in this constant state of survival mode — and that there are limits to how much more stress they can add to their lives.
“I believe this is what is preventing a lot of people from going into those family meetings,” says Clare. “It’s because they’re already stressed out and they’re concerned that if they add any more stress, somebody is going to blow up. And when somebody blows up, it creates more damage.”
Helping clients recognize their own level of stress, how it has an impact on them, and how the stresses are affecting relationships is a vital early process, Clare says. “One of my goals right now is to help people become more ‘trauma informed,’ so they are aware of the presence of these elevated stress levels, and how the relationship dynamics are affecting people’s lives physically, emotionally, mentally and, eventually, financially.”
The right questions
As you prepare for your first meetings, the most important questions family members should be asking need to be directed at themselves.
“It is so important that everyone going into these meetings first ask themselves some questions,” Clare says. “Am I calm enough? Am I able to manage my anxiety levels? Am I able to manage my emotional state enough to be present for these conversations? If I’m not, then I shouldn’t go there.”
Instead, these individuals may need to start by getting help with their anxiety and stress.
“We’ve all got some anxiety and stress at some level,” Clare says. “If it’s too high, then you get some help and learn how to heal that first.”
Improvement is most certainly possible, she emphasizes.
“With a trained facilitator, you can heal,” she says. “If there’s collective trauma in the family system, you can heal it. And I can also say it’s absolutely worth it.”
Good for the business, too
Trauma in a family business system has an impact on the bottom line, too.
Studies have tallied the cost of conflict. Some have concluded that business managers can spend over a third of their time preoccupied by conflicts.
Every business is unique, of course. There will always be a range of these “costs of conflict,” Clare notes.
In family businesses, it’s very likely that not just one manager’s time and energy will be tied up when operations are not running well and that the entire family system will be affected by people’s “fight, flight and freeze” responses to trauma.
If small disputes are allowed to fester, they can divide a family and hurt the business. A key to successful conflict resolution is to help family members see that conflict is normal, not something to hide or avoid. And also to recognize that conflict can, in fact, be healthy and constructive when handled well, says De Groot.
To get there, though, takes a first step. Keep in mind, De Groot says, “family meetings can be a great forum for developing conflict resolution skills.”
“Then you’ve got a really great chance to hedge against the so often heard stories of farm transition gone awry which can result in family conflict and breakdown.”
Don’t set aggressive targets for how many meetings you’ll have, or how long they’ll last, says De Groot.“It’s better to have fewer family meetings that are done well and not lose sight of the broader purpose.”
Her advice for those preparing to hold these meetings includes making sure that participation is both sought and encouraged while not allowing any one or more family members to dominate.
Family members should be encouraged to be familiar with and share responsibility for the various roles in planning and carrying out family meetings, says De Groot.
“It is important that family members learn how to be team players, committing to leadership, participation, engagement, decision-making, and respect,” she says.
“Expect to be a contributor: flexible, informed, prepared and trusting.”