This is the time of year when families gather together â€“ college students are on break, young adults return home to visit, and the extended family celebrates Christmas and New Yearâ€™s together.*
So it is also the time when parents who have been successful in business turn their focus to their family. This is both a good thing and it creates difficulties. It is generally good for parents to engage relationally with their family; unfortunately, for some this is an infrequent occurrence due to their focus on work (or hobbies). But when we try to â€œre-enterâ€ into the family relationally, the style and manner in which we do so can create tension, discomfort, and result in conflict.
Having grown up in a family owned business with a father who was an extremely hard worker, but who also cared about his family, we would experience this pattern. Through the year dad would work long hours, and my mom was the primary conductor of family matters. (This is not to say that he wasnâ€™t involved at all, but until later in his business life, she had the primary responsibility of interacting with the kids regarding our daily affairs.) But around the Christmas holidays, dad would refocus and engage at a higher level in family matters. And, right or wrong, this pattern has largely continued in my own nuclear family.
So, both from observing and experiencing this pattern as a child, and now as a parent, I have seen some ways that â€œparent re-entryâ€ can go better, or not so well. Let me share some of these observations.
Leading a family is different than leading a business. In business, there is a formal hierarchy with established patterns of communication and decision-making. In family matters, the structure, communication patterns and decision-making procedures are more fluid â€“ largely influenced by which family members are involved and the specific areas of discussion or decision â€“ and obviously, tend to be more relational. As a result, â€œtop downâ€ communication and decision-making that many business owners and executives try to transfer to the family doesnâ€™t go over well (in some families, this is a extreme understatement.) The implication? Donâ€™t try to run family meetings during the holidays like you run business meetings.
Influence is largely a factor of the quality of the relationship in families. Many parents want to utilize the time with their children and grandchildren to communicate important information â€“ their goals and desires for the family, what is important to them, principles they want their children to live by. And this is good. However, the method by which this is done can â€œbackfireâ€. If the parent does not currently have a positive relationship with the child (or whoever the family member is), the message will, at best, be ignored, and more probably may create a response of anger, resentment or disdain. I would suggest the following:
a) Spend individual time with family members. Talk with them, listen to them, ask them about their lives: what they are excited about, what they are learning, what are some challenges they are facing.
b) Share personal stories about your life. Rather than give a lecture (along with a handout) with your â€œfive core principles for lifeâ€, share stories about experiences you have had and possibly the lessons you learned (sometimes the principles are better left unsaid). Think about what makes a good story: build the context, focus on the people involved, share sensory experiences (what it looked, sounded, smelled like), and share your thoughts and feelings throughout the experience.
c) Be aware that you may first need to rebuild relationships with others before they are going to be willing to receive input from you. If you havenâ€™t ever read it, read The Five Love Languages by my friend, Dr. Gary Chapman. Then discuss it with the family member and see in what way love is best communicated to them. Then do it!
When planning activities for the family, give options and choices. Let the family give their input on what they would like to do and how they would like to spend the time together. Although your ideas may be great (and I am sure they are, just like mine are), they may not be what the others in your family want to do. If you want to have positive â€œfamily timeâ€, then it makes sense that the family should be able to choose what would be fun for them.
I hope these suggestions will help your time together with your family over the holidays to be fun, positive and lead to significant interactions with those whom you love.
*Note: This is a reprint of this posting from December 2007.Â However, I received so many personal comments and emails from people who appreciated it and forwarded it to others, I decided to post it again.