Thanksgiving dinner—for even the most socially adept among us, no two words conjure up more anxiety and dread. From Uncle Larry's forays into bitcoin to Cousin Betty's passion for souping, Thanksgiving represents that yearly trial at which each of us is forced to engage with our family members in all their quirky glory.
As the day approaches, all manner of blogs and articles will emerge with tips and tactics to help diners mitigate the pain. In essence, most of them boil down to this: here are the things you should avoid talking about to keep the peace at dinner.
As specialists in family business communication, we can’t help but cringe when well-meaning relatives add “the family business” to the list of conversational contraband.
We get it; a typical complaint is that family get-togethers too quickly devolve into talk about the business. For everyone outside the business, Thanksgiving dinner ends up playing out like a Monday morning meeting—only, with the turkey taking the place of a Polycom.
What if the conversation didn’t have to unfold in that way? What if talk about the family business united, rather than divided, by focusing more on the family than the business? What if you could draw everyone in and create a shared sense of joy and anticipation around the business?
In our book, The 5 Critical Succession Conversations we provide an overview of the life-giving value of key family business conversations. However, here are some practical ways to remember the past, glory in the present, and dream about the future as you enjoy a wonderful Thanksgiving meal together as a family.
First, Set the Ground Rules
Michael Hyatt—former CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers—has long advocated for what he calls the “One Conversation Rule.” The rule is simple: at a dinner gathering, only one conversation can happen at a time. No side chats allowed—period.
While, this may sound like an imposition, Hyatt shares 6 powerful benefits of this rule:
- Everyone gets a chance to be heard.
- Each person is validated and honored.
- Real connections are forged between family members.
- Participants learn to listen to one another.
- Hosts can breathe a little easier.
- Everyone feels much more comfortable.
You know your family. If you’ve got 26 people at the table, this rule might not entirely apply. Even so, the rule can be modified to provide you with some semblance of intentional order where everyone—in the business or out—has a chance to be heard.
Ultimately, what this does is provide a set of guardrails within which you can have an intentional conversation. It creates a space for the family to come together and speak as one so that no single member feels as though they’ve been nudged out by “shop-talk”.
Frame the Conversation
Once you've set the ground rules, it's time to shape the conversation. This isn’t a board-room, and you aren’t a moderator. Still, with minimal input, you can steer the conversation in a way that feels more like a family gathering than a business meeting.
We suggest you frame the conversation around three ‘historical moments’ in the family:
Honor the Past
One of the hardest elements we’ve seen in family business succession is the achievement of harmony between outgoing incumbents and their incoming successors.
Unfortunately, merely telling your successor what you think about honesty, integrity, and the like isn’t enough to instill in him or her that set of values.
Stories, on the other hand, can do precisely that. They create a shared passion for the legacy of the business and the efforts of the older generation. Honoring the past by sitting around the table and talking about the business’s history—origins, war stories, wins, and losses—creates a shared narrative space where values are better caught than they are taught.
Celebrate the Present
After you’ve spent time talking about where the family business has been, it’s now time to talk about where you are. Once again, this isn’t a board meeting. Spreadsheets and statistics can stay out in the car. Personal and professional struggles, however, are fair game.
Talk about how things are going on a human level. Ask open-ended questions:
- How do we feel about where the business is today?
- Where do we think we’re headed?
- Are we all on the same page?
- What are we trying to accomplish right now?
- What do family members outside the company think?
Anticipate the Future
For younger members of the family, there may not be an easy way to broach the topic of becoming a part of the legacy by joining the family business. Likewise, members of the older generation may be ill-equipped to have the conversation about family business succession. But if the conversation never happens, the results for both family and business can be disastrous. This is why so much effort is usually spent on helping family businesses navigate their succession.
Dreaming together about the future is important. The beauty of this moment in the conversation is that it unfolds in a non-threatening space. Potential successors voice their thoughts about new possibilities and innovations and the current owners could look to the future with hope as they consider how things will look like once they’re gone.
Thanksgiving is indeed a wonderful time of year—an opportunity to come together with loved ones and give thanks for all we've been given. It would be a shame if we had to leave the family business at the front door when, with a little bit of intention, we could use the occasion to reflect deeply on all that the business has afforded us.
Bu following the frame we've shared above, you will accomplish precisely that. Moreover, you’ll create a safe conversational space to begin laying the groundwork for the future. Thanksgiving isn’t the time to make detailed plans, but with the right intent, you can set the foundation for what follows in the coming weeks at the office.