(as originally appeared on FOBResources.com)

Sustaining relationships with our siblings or other family members as we grow older is not always easy. Being a sibling or parent or cousin in a family owned business is even more complex. When we no longer live with our nuclear family we continue to grow and develop but our nuclear family members are obviously not privy to our developmental and personality changes, and we are not privy to theirs. And yet we and they often assume we are the same people. As a matter of fact we have all changed, and it’s very likely that our assumptions no longer apply.

The following scenario illustrates how holding on to ‘old assumptions’ creates problems for us as we communicate with our family members. The context for the scenario is the relationship between a brother and a sister who are both shareholders in their father’s business. The sister works inside the business as an SVP of Human Resources and her brother owns his own small janitorial business.  The sister’s old [untested] assumption is “My brother always has been and will always be a ‘playboy’ first. He only thinks of himself, so we don’t expect very much of him.”

Critical Event

Last November his sister was hosting Thanksgiving dinner for her parents and some of the operating executives of the family business.  She phoned her brother the week before Thanksgiving and asked him to join them for Thanksgiving dinner and added that dinner would be at 12:00 pm  He said he was sorry but he couldn’t make it. His sister was very angry and yelled at him on the phone (“you never think of anyone else!”). She immediately phoned her father to let him know that her brother wasn’t coming to dinner and added “I don’t know why I bother — he probably has plans to go out the night before and he wants to sleep in.”

Later that evening her brother called back and asked if it would be okay if he came over for dessert and coffee about 3:00, explaining that he had drawn the second shift at the soup kitchen and needed to serve meals until 2:00. She shakily said yes and hung up the phone. She felt terrible and then she felt angry that he had never told her that he even did anything like that.

Can you see how her old assumption caused her to have a certain perception that was not accurate anymore? If her brother had not called back can you see how her this assumption would continue into the future even though it may have been inaccurate?

Let’s now take a look at her brother’s reaction to their telephone conversation. He has just told his sister he can’t make it to Thanksgiving dinner. His sister is yelling at him and right before she hangs up she says “you never think of anyone else!” He sat staring at the phone for a few moments and thought about what had just transpired. He thought to himself “Janie has always been so emotional, it sounds like she never really grew up. I can’t for the life of me understand how she holds down such a responsible position in Dad’s business. Maybe I should get more active in Dad’s business to see what really is going on. I’ll let her cool off and then call her to see if I can come over for dessert and coffee.”

In this example both the brother and the sister seem to have an interest in having some kind of family connection. If this is the case both parties have a responsibility — the sister has a responsibility to “test” her assumptions by getting to know her brother’s life right now if he will let her. And the brother has a responsibility to stay in a relationship with his sister so that she has more information and more context for updating her assumptions about him.

Unfortunately, this updating of assumptions of parents with children, children with parents, siblings with one another, etc. is not very common. But it is a powerful tool particularly for families who must work together. It is also very helpful as we manage our own responses and behaviors when miscommunications occur.

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