This week, Eefje Chalmers, a family business advisor with Deloitte Netherlands, discusses the dynamics of family meetings.
Many people are creatures of habit. When given the choice they like to sit in the same place at every meeting. They may like to see the door – out of comfort or cultural habit – or they might prefer sitting next to a particular person. Even in classes and courses, the same people always sit in the front row and others might feel more comfortable in the back row.
A seating arrangement can psychologically influence a meeting however. Looking at family meetings, people tend to seek a comfortable place, next to someone they like. Individuals often also try to sit as far away from people they do not like as much or feel dominated by. Someone who wants to exert influence may seek direct eye contact with the person she or he wants to influence, and this person may therefore choose a strategically powerful position. People who want someone to take notice of them often sit to the right or opposite of that person. Or better still, take a seat next to the leader as everyone will be looking at the leader and will therefore automatically look at you as well.
If the aim of a particular meeting is problem-solving, the person organizing the meeting may want to encourage an environment of open discussion with a high level of interaction and participation of all people involved. A round table is an excellent option in such a case - all seats are considered neutral and there is no head of the table.
However, in the case that the purpose of a meeting is to make a decision, a rectangular table with a leader at the head of the table can be preferable. One should try to avoid conflicting personalities sitting next to or across from each other - it can be preferable that these conflicting personalities are spread within the group.
In a family I have previously worked with, one family member often has an opinion, but can feel insecure as a result of some issues in the past. In this case, she had decided that her opinion was not worth sharing.
We therefore knew from the start that it would be challenging to get this family member to speak up and be part of the discussion in family meetings, which we took into account during our preparation. In fact, we decided that one of us would sit directly across from her, so that we were able to notice her reactions (verbal and non-verbal) to the topics discussed during the meeting and to ensure she was involved in the discussion. The result was that all family members were actively involved in the discussion.
Later in the process, this family member shared with us that during the second meeting, she sat next to my colleague who had been keeping her involved in the discussion during the first meeting, hoping that by positioning herself this way she would be out of my colleague’s line of sight (and attention) and that she would be able to lapse into old habits. She realized afterwards through reflecting on her previous experience that, in fact, engaging in the conversation was better for the family as a whole and for her personally.
For her, these two meetings changed her role within the family and the family dynamics in general. After two intense meetings of being involved in the discussion and sharing her opinion with her family members and being heard, she was committed to make the transfer of ownership of the business a family success.
Family meetings can be important to ensure the continuity of the family business and to build a stronger business as well as a stronger family. It is vital not to underestimate the importance of your position at the table during such meetings.