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Editorial Spring 2012: Choice words

Whether it’s working with family or handling customers, communication is the definitive skill.

April 16, 2012  By Laura Aiken

A couple of articles in this issue look at stories of positive succession in well-drilling businesses.

A couple of articles in this issue look at stories of positive succession in well-drilling businesses. Our cover story on J.B. Wilson and Son and our feature “The Art of Succesion” feature family tips for working alongside kin and eventually handing over the reins.

I have some personal experience with this issue, having worked alongside my dad very early in my career in a small publishing company. It can be challenging to work with family, particularly if you vary in your decision-making style, be it ‘shoot from the hip’ or slow and methodical. All stories I’ve heard, articles I’ve read and life experience I’ve gathered point to one fundamental skill that makes the difference between the family strife or success: Communication.


I’ve often wondered if communication is an overlooked skill. We all know it’s important, but how many of us diligently practise better communication? The ability to speak is easy to take for granted, as is the ever more difficult art of listening.

People need to ask the right questions to communicate effectively, and no one knows what those questions are if they aren’t listening. Listening has a best friend – paying attention – who is a keen consumer of all our non-verbal clues.

I sense most of us become better communicators through trial and error rather than through conscious effort and research of techniques that expert communicators use. We reflect on how we communicated based on the reactions we receive from others, but there is a lot more we can do to increase our effectiveness at exchanging information, and many good reasons for doing so.

Salespeople tend to be very talented communicators. If you own a business, you are a salesperson by default. However, successful transmission of knowledge is also needed to have a happy and strong family business. It takes more than love. It takes professionalism and a culture of communication.

A family well-drilling business would be characterized as small-group communication. In the early 1950s, social psychologist Robert Bales published the first important milestone on how small groups relate. Bales discovered that all small groups go through the same process when making a decision. There is opinion exchange, attentiveness to individual values underlying the decision and then the decision itself. He called this the linear phase model. His research also found that the most talkative member of a group tends to make between 40 and 50 per cent of the comments and the second most talkative member between 25 and 30, regardless of the size of the group. This observation is good to be aware of, as it seems two people can generally dominate a group decision to the detriment of others, whether there are 10 people present or three.

Whether you are the loudest or quietest in your clan, it is wise to reflect on how well you are listening and finding the right questions. The right questions give you more sales and empower the people you work with. The right questions can prevent a monumental oversight. We find the right questions by slowing down and listening without other thoughts rattling around in our heads (tougher than it sounds, as we all know). Although outgoing personalities tend to get a lot of airtime, our businesses would be all the sorrier without the often-thoughtful insights of our introverts.

Human communication is truly like golf: We can practise it forever but never perfect it, knowing the whole time the secret to the game is between our ears. However, there is an awful lot of satisfaction in getting as good as we can get.

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