When I suggest that families should be able to “talk about anything,” that may seem daunting to some and even outright impossible to others. Consequently, some families avoid certain topics, especially those topics regarding wealth, money, relationships, family fairness, issues of entitlement, and death. If families do feel compelled (or forced) to have these difficult conversations, some families jump into the conversations without skills, then wonder why things crash and burn. But these skills can be acquired through practice and confidence. Communication is a skills-based sport.
To get you started, I’ve listed below 8 habits of successful family communications:
1. Ask questions
Most conversations are like a tennis match, with opinions volleyed back and forth until someone wins the point. When I want to break a volley of opinions in conversations I facilitate, I will not allow people to give a retort opinion until they ask 3 questions of the person who spoke. It’s good practice because it’s the first step in understanding other people's perspective.
2. Match tone to desired outcome
Our tone of voice dictates how people will interpret what we are saying, regardless of what we actually say. I will often have someone practice restating a simple question such as “Where are you going?” in 5 or 6 tones (aggressive, empathetic, intrusive, sincere…), so they can hear how the different tones sound. When people have unexpressed feelings that are different from what they are saying, their real sentiments often come through in their tone of voice.
3. Respond vs. react
If the “check engine” light means that something inside a car engine needs to be investigated, our reactions are the same—something is going on inside us that we need to explore. Generally we blame someone else for why we are reacting, and project the reason for our reactivity onto them. Reactions should always lead to reflection; “Why did I react? What just happened in me?” This reflective look inside slows down the process and keeps the reactivity from escalating, getting aggressive, or becoming highly personal.
4. Avoid absolutizing
"Absolutizing" is a big word but an easy concept and skill. Simply do not use words or phrases—e.g., always, never, hopeless, forget it, I’m out of here, don’t talk to me—in a way that makes the conclusion absolute and cuts off the conversation. Effective communication gives people space for an opinion, leaves room for dialogue, allows for benefit of the doubt, and creates opportunity for engagement.
5. Process out loud
Learning to verbalize what you are thinking and feeling in a way that others can hear is a skill that can be developed. Often people come to me and say something like this: “I really want to talk with my kids about my estate plans…but we’re not good at sharing our thoughts out loud…the kids have very different views on wealth…are often confrontational with each other…so I have avoided talking with them at all and just make the decisions secretly myself. But that doesn’t feel good to me, so what do I tell them?” My response is easy: “Your feelings and fears about having the conversation is the real agenda you need to discuss with them,” so make this statement at the beginning to help frame the discussion.
6. Reprocess bad process
What is bad process? Shouting, hollering, reactivity, put-downs, walking out, shutting down, and anything else that does not foster healthy communication and relationships. Reprocessing bad process is more than saying you’re sorry. It is processing out loud what you were trying to say, and how you feel about the bad process.
7. Cultivate positive attributions
Attributions are the beliefs you hold about other people—and all speech and behavior follow our beliefs. I often have family members list all the attributions they hold about each other. Once we identify any negative attributions, we can work on changing or reframing them in a way that allows us to engage more effectively. Thinking or saying “you’re greedy” is a negative attribution versus “help me understand what you might need.”
8. Do not personalize
Like beliefs, we sometimes forget that we can choose to take something personally or not, even if it was meant as a personal attack. If a spouse asks you to pick up your shoes, you actually have a choice: “Ok, they are my shoes, and I pick them up.” But, even this small request can be personalized simply by weaving a story that says your spouse is a nag. Now, what if it’s really true? Your spouse is relentless, doesn’t appreciate you, or doesn’t help you very often. You can still choose to NOT personalize and to (1) pick up your shoes and (2) have a nonreactive conversation about how you feel and what you would like to change in the relationship.
As with any hobby or sport, learning to communicate will take commitment and dedication to ensure progression. But by applying these guiding principles, your family communications—whether the discussion is about estate planning or health issues—become not only an opportunity to resolve concerns affecting multiple generations but, most importantly, an opportunity to inspire a collective investment in the most important asset of all: your family.
Next steps to consider
Use Fidelity's Health Event and Medical Information Worksheet to help your family.
Use our planning, conversation, and resource guide.
Here's how to discuss health, wealth, and legacy plans.