Effective facilitation can improve family council meeting productivity

Successful family council meetings are often elusive. Picture a family council meeting where the CEO and patriarch sit frustrated, waiting for several members to show. Some members are distracted. Others are having side conversations. The patriarch checks his watch. The meeting was supposed to start seven minutes ago. He rereads the agenda as stragglers trickle in slowly. The meeting finally begins once the youngest son walks in, 13 minutes late.

The council discusses its first few agenda items. When the recent family reunion comes up, tensions emerge. The eldest son is quite vocal about how the reunion went—or rather, how it should have gone. The youngest son disagrees, obviously feeling just as passionate. The patriarch, still frustrated by the group’s tardiness, refuses to interject and lets them continue to hash it out. The eldest son’s wife sits uncomfortably. She and other family members want to move on and discuss other agenda items. She wonders to herself, “Why are these meetings so difficult?” It’s obvious this meeting was derailed by a “hot button” topic. Now the rest of the council can’t get any momentum. They’ve lost the opportunity to effectively communicate with one another.

This is an example of a family council that would greatly benefit from a well-facilitated process of communication, engagement and decision making.

Benefits of a well-facilitated meeting

When effective preparation and facilitation become ingrained in family council practices and culture, the results reinforce the family’s core values and help sustain the vision and mission of the family enterprise. In other words, good meetings make people feel good about the people who are there and what is discussed. Participants feel engaged and have a positive outlook on the future. Well-facilitated meetings are more fiscally responsible because they make efficient use of people’s time and promote good decision making. When the family grows and council members represent multiple generations and branches, order and structure become even more important. The group’s divergent interests, the increased complexity of the issues they must confront and the mix of personalities can stifle progress.

Facilitation is not necessarily the same as managing a meeting. A skilled facilitator attends to the level of trust and safety within the group as well as the mechanics of getting things done. The facilitator sets the tone: “We care about you and what you have to say, and this meeting will be conducted in a way that will provide the environment and structure so both goals are achieved.” The facilitator is the guardian of those principles: order and safety. After all, family dynamics can get rather messy at times.
Intersection of family and business systems

A family discussion around the dinner table generally feels different from a management meeting around a conference table. The family enterprise is where these two constructs intersect and, in some situations, collide.
The previous scenario represents a dynamic that creates frustration and disengagement from the council. An argument arose between two brothers who had different opinions about a family reunion event. The patriarch responded passively and the daughter-in-law, eager to move on to other topics, was left feeling uncomfortable and discouraged about the meeting. If not addressed through careful planning and skillful facilitation, these types of meeting dynamics can create a division between the G2 brothers and trickle down to their G3 children, threatening the sustainability of the family enterprise. Unresolved conflicts between and within G1 and G2 can manifest in unhealthy ways into G3, G4 and beyond. Sometimes, the pattern continues until a “transitional person”—perhaps a grandchild or great-grandchild— refuses to pass it down. These next-generation family
leaders emerge to reshape the family legacy with courage and conviction.
Within family systems, there are deeper psychological patterns that influence behavior in council meetings. This is especially true when council members are not coached in navigating business meetings that involve difficult decision making and dynamic tension. The unintended consequence of simply inserting family members into councils without training or orientation may be unproductive council meetings.
Bringing managerial fundamentals such as “meeting management” and decision making into the family council can positively influence productivity and outcomes. The chair of the council must model emotional objectivity toward all council members and commit to honor absent family members (even if they have created tension in the family) while practicing effective meeting management basics. This is a weighty responsibility, but training and outside support can lighten the burden.

Emotional intelligence in the family council

Family councils should consider providing some foundational training in “emotional intelligence” to develop group guidelines and behavioral norms. Emotional intelligence refers to the capacity to be aware of, control and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships effectively and empathetically. Emotional intelligence is the key to success in both the personal and professional realms. If trust is the barometer of a healthy relationship, emotional intelligence is the mercury in the barometer.

Eventually, conflict and tensions will emerge in any group that must navigate issues of generational wealth and make decisions that affect future generations. A facilitator or meeting chair with high emotional intelligence is capable of disarming tensions and bringing important issues to the table.
We tend to fear strong emotions, and we worry that what we say will hurt feelings, diminish trust and create divisions among family members or entire family branches. However, conflict avoidance will not resolve the family’s issues and in fact will likely perpetuate them. Addressing disagreements effectively will free the next generation from unhealthy patterns.

A skilled facilitator does not shy away from emotions, but instead artfully and empathically interacts with family council members to reflect, translate, probe and at times set boundaries so everyone feels safe when strong feelings emerge. “When emotions like fear, anger and desperation become the pervading lens through which we see a situation, we see only what supports that emotion,” writes Larry Dressler in his book Standing in the Fire. “In this low state of self-awareness, we are like an artist who paints with only one color.”

We all need “psychological air” when feelings well up inside us. For example, a council member might express strong emotions through nonverbal behavior. Simple reflective statements can help draw that person out and constructively guide his or her comments. The facilitator might say, “I can tell you have some strong feelings on this topic; can you briefly describe your concerns?”

Basic facilitation skills

Effective meeting facilitation involves directing traffic at times and faithfully translating participants’ behaviors and motives at other times.
For example, consider an overly excited family member who uses generalizations and assumptions when discussing a new volunteer program. Other council members are getting turned off. A faithful translator acknowledges the excitement and good intent behind all the enthusiasm: “I can see how hard you have worked to research this opportunity for the family, and that it is important to you. Let’s do a pulse check with the council to see how we might prioritize this in relation to the other programs going on this year. Hang in there, and we can see if there is strong agreement to move forward.” A good facilitator can read emotions and intent in a fair and objective way, then summarize to the group so the person feels validated—even if the council ultimately decides to go in a different direction.

Well-facilitated meetings are more fiscally responsible because they make efficient use of people’s time and promote good decision making.

One specific technique to foster participation is called “nominal process.” The facilitator calls on each person to react to the topic at hand. The facilitator sets the guideline on the front end: “Let’s go around the circle and hear from everyone on that topic. We’ll go in order and keep our comments concise so we can see where there are themes and gauge the level of agreement.” If someone starts to “story-tell,” vent or venture outside these guidelines, the facilitator can respectfully but firmly move on to the next person to maintain productive and healthy group dynamics.
A skilled facilitator also models active listening—carefully reflecting both content and feelings as they occur. A good facilitator understands when it’s best to focus on what an individual is saying, and when it’s more productive to reflect the broader group’s interaction and summarize a group theme.
An effective facilitator will also weave in examples of shared values and connect dots on topics. For example, he or she may cite a brief example of a successful outcome from another family council that is relevant to the discussion and reflective of a core family value, such as helping those less fortunate. These intermittent examples or case studies can help the council stay connected to its core purpose and the family values while maintaining some level of objectivity. Otherwise, families may struggle with something I’ve heard called “terminal uniqueness”: the belief that “we are so special or unique that no one outside the family could possibly understand us.”
The repeated use of these techniques from meeting to meeting will gradually increase council members’ self-awareness and instill healthy communication norms and guidelines, ultimately making the facilitator’s job easier.

Internal or external facilitator?

Skilled facilitators emphasize inclusion, build trust and encourage healthy dialogue. Just as in business, these competencies can be developed from within the organization as well as hired from outside. The family council chair should receive training in running effective meetings as well as in developing emotional intelligence so an outside consultant is not required to facilitate every meeting.

In the early stages of family council development, it is often a good idea to engage outside support for facilitation and training. Skilled professionals can also establish an atmosphere of discipline and energy at annual retreats and other high-level meetings, such as strategic planning sessions. The presence of an external facilitator frees up the council chair to participate in the process.

When considering an outside facilitator, it is important to assess whether the person has the skills to help your family council address its issues, and whether he or she has experience working with groups of similar size and complexity to yours. This requires a degree of self-awareness: Are you hiring someone to help with policy development, or is family therapy really what you need?

A skilled facilitator does not shy away from emotions, but instead empathically interacts with group members to reflect, translate, probe and at times set boundaries so everyone feels safe when strong feelings emerge.

Skilled facilitation, whether within the family or provided by an external professional, is the vehicle to foster effective communication and decision making. These qualities are the currency of healthy and thriving family councils.