Communicating Across Generations in a Geographically Diverse Family

Many people think communication differences are mostly generational. But even within generations, people have different preferences when it comes to communication.

Different Communication Styles

Most people fall somewhere in between the two extremes, introverted and extroverted. Extroverts tend to be super engaged. They want to participate in all the meetings and all the social events. They’re quick to speak up during in-person meetings, even in large groups. In the same generation, you may have other family members who are introverted or who have experienced too much family conflict to want to engage at that extroverted level.

It’s easy to cater to the extroverts who enjoy group interaction, but you also have to provide opportunities and access to the more introverted family members. You have to pull them into the group in whatever way they’re comfortable. During in-person meetings, some people might be more comfortable working in break-out sessions or in small groups. Groups can be divided by generation, or formed inter-generationally. Introducing the material in a webinar in advance of the meeting allows more deliberate thinkers to mull things over before they’re asked to share their opinion in a large meeting.

Geographic and Employment Diversity

In addition to communication styles, many families face the challenge of geographic diversity, or have members whose work schedules are very different from one another. Some people may have strict jobs with long hours, while others don’t need to work at all. You need to accommodate those with restrictive schedules with off-hours phone calls, webinars, and meetings on weekends to maximize participation for people who have less flexibility.

In some families, the older generations believe the only productive conversations one has are in person. As your family gets into its third, fourth, fifth or even sixth generation, it’s more difficult to have every conversation in person. The first and second generation may have conducted all their important conversations in the board room or at the dinner table. That becomes more and more unrealistic as the next generations rise into leadership roles. They may not have the same flexibility or geographic proximity to accommodate so many in-person conversations. Today, technology can create that proximity and intimacy without asking everyone to fly in for a four-hour conversation.

Maximizing the Value of In-person Meetings

When a family needs to have a conversation, leaders need to ask themselves–How important is the topic? How many people need to be involved? How can we accommodate the stakeholders’ communication preferences, their geographic locations, and their time restrictions? in order to determine the urgency of the situation. For the most urgent matter, is it worth having everyone drop everything and come together, or is it something that can be done over the phone or with a video conference?

If something is very important but not urgent, it’s best to wait before meeting in person. Take time to prepare the family for a productive conversation at an in-person meeting. You can prepare the family by sharing information in emails, and by holding webinars or conference calls in advance of the meetings. These preliminary steps allow you to communicate the background and the history necessary to understand the topic at hand. The family understands why this decision is important, and then you can move forward. When you gather for an in-person meeting, the family is prepared for the conversation, and you’re maximizing that precious time together.

Case Study

One of the large geographically dispersed families I work with has the following communication plan. It includes a mix of communication strategies–online, in-person meetings, webinars, and conference calls. The family was careful to set this up so that the whole plan aligned with their values of inclusiveness, stewardship, transparency, empowerment (education), engagement, and relationships.

  • Annual family assembly meeting in person (3 days.)
  • Quarterly in-person family council meetings
    • Held on weekends to accommodate those who work.
    • Open to all family, but council members are expected.
    • One is held at a different manufacturing location each year.
    • Family council members who have kids bring them. Babysitters are provided for the children.
    • One social night during the meeting
  • Monthly conference calls for family council.
    • All are invited, family council is expected
  • Quarterly corporate communication (written newsletter.)
  • Quarterly board packets (sent out to family on company-purchased iPads.)
  • Quarterly board debrief webinars with CEO/COB and whole family.
  • Quarterly postcards with upcoming important dates.
  • Monthly email blast, including high-level overview of family council activities, and links to further details on the family portal.
  • Bi-Annual next generation program with outdoor educator (for relationship-building, teambuilding and development of leadership skills in the youngest population)
  • Task forces – as needed
  • Additional Webinars – as needed

In this format, there are in-person meetings, online communication, conference calls and webinars. This system allows all generations and levels of interest to engage in a way that is technologically comfortable to them and offers ways to stretch themselves.

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