If you’re a member of a family, chances are you’ve participated in a family meeting. Whether you’re deciding about toppings on your pizza or which movie to watch, if there’s more than one decision maker, somehow a consensus arrives. My dad used to call us to a “Board of Directors Meeting,” which made me feel important, even when the subject matter was choosing between his famous grilled ribs or his famous grilled chicken.
In my work as a Mediator, I often discuss the value of holding a family meeting, typically concerning subjects with greater impact than Sunday night’s dinner menu. Whether dealing with aging parents, or telling the kids that you’re getting a divorce, having these difficult conversations within the context of a family meeting is generally a very good idea.
If you’re wondering how to get started, here are some pointers.
First: Schedule it a few days out. Let the members know that attendance is mandatory, and give them a heads-up about the topic so they don’t feel blindsided. If you’re dealing with kids, you might want to be less specific so they don’t worry. (“Your mom and I have some family matters to talk to you about” should be sufficient.)
Second: Set a start time and an end time, and try to make sure it doesn’t last more than an hour. Ask the participants to silence their phones and give their full attention to the family.
Third: Present the subject matter of the meeting without stating your opinion. Then tell your family members that they will have an opportunity to express their opinions without interruption for three to five minutes (set a timer). After everyone has been heard, you can open the conversation to questions and answers, and then brainstorm together if appropriate.
Fourth: Maintain respect and decorum. If you’re the one who called the meeting, it’s probably going to be your responsibility to keep on topic and defuse arguments. Adult siblings who disagree about their aging parents are notorious for creating chaos. This is not the time to talk about who gets the jewelry and the cars, or who’s been helpful and who’s been absent.
Fifth: Manage expectations, especially your own. Rarely are difficult conversations with family members resolved in one meeting. So here’s where your leadership skills come into place. Before everyone leaves, schedule the next meeting, and ask each participant to tell you one agenda item for next time. Be sure to write it down, even if you don’t think it’s important or relevant. Highly emotional situations demand that everyone feel valued, no matter their position within the family.
If, after making a sincere effort, you find your family at an impasse, you can reach out to a Mediator who has had specific training in helping people who seem to be stuck. In a family situation where relationships need to be preserved, it might be especially beneficial to seek the assistance of a neutral third party.