Conversations: Does “Uncomfortable” = “Productive”?
This week’s post was inspired by a recent Zoom call that I was on with a group of like-minded colleagues. The group consists of people trained in Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST), which became an interest of mine about five years ago.
Actually, I was more than just “interested” in BFST; I recently published a book about how it illuminates the field of intergenerational wealth transitions. (See Interdependent Wealth)
In the book, I also share my journey of learning and discovery of the fascinating world of BFST.
On that call, one colleague related a story about a recent meeting that she had had at her workplace, where some “uncomfortable conversations” took place.
She shared her reaction to the conversations, and how she was able to maintain objectivity towards the subject, not allowing her emotions to derail her thinking, thanks to her understanding of, and training in, Bowen Theory.
During the ensuing discussion, someone referred to that conversation, and dubbed it a “productive conversation”.
And suddenly in my head, there it was, “A-Ha!”, there’s definitely a blog post in this idea.
I know that lots of business families face these issues around “tough” conversations all the time.
Of Productivity and Discomfort
In the example from above, that conversation was deemed uncomfortable, and also productive. My understanding of the productive aspect is that it likely resulted in an ability to move forward on some important matter(s).
If I frame this question around just the area of conversations, I might ask, “Does every productive conversation have to be uncomfortable?”
Or, turning it around, “Is every uncomfortable conversation productive?”
I think everyone would agree that the answer to both questions is a resounding “No”.
Avoiding the Tough Conversations
So if we’ve determined that “uncomfortable” and “productive” are simply two adjectives that can be used to describe conversations, and that even though there is some overlap of these groups, it is not a perfect overlap, what is this really about?
My guess is that it’s really about the fact that even though we know a conversation could be productive, it will often be avoided if it is expected to also be uncomfortable.
I know there’s no rocket science in that last sentence.
In my notes to capture this as a blog topic that morning, I included the word “necessary”, because that word also came up for me as I considered the idea.
How many “necessary conversations” are being avoided, simply because they’re expected to be uncomfortable for someone?
Probably way too many to even begin to count.
Preparation and Culture
I want to share a few ways that we can have more productive conversations, that won’t necessarily be “comfortable”, but will at least be less “uncomfortable”.
First off, when people are prepared for a conversation, they can be more ready to hear things that they don’t always like to hear. When you can brace yourself before you fall, you won’t get hurt as badly as when you can’t.
Another important element that you can work on, is creating the proper culture for these conversations. If you can be in the habit of creating a safe and supportive space, that can certainly help with the comfort issue.
The more often you get together with people, raising some difficult issues and dealing with them positively, the more this can become a habit, and eventually part of your culture.
Make It a Regular Forum
In fact, one of the recommendations I typically make to families who say they really want to get serious about their planning for their eventual intergenerational wealth transition, is to begin to have regular family meetings.
These meetings don’t necessarily need to be held frequently (monthly or quarterly) but there should be at least one or two a year.
The important thing is to make sure that everyone knows that there will be an opportunity to have important conversations, around matters that will affect the whole family, over the very long term.
Start Slow, Add “Big” Topics Later
The initial few meetings can be used to get the attitude and culture right, hopefully dealing with simpler issues at the outset.
With time, some of the more sensitive topics will typically be added to the agenda, as people will have become used to working on important aspects around how things will evolve.
Hopefully, you can be productive, without being uncomfortable.