A successful business depends on effective communication between employees and staff. Unfortunately, it is easy to learn poor communication habits with those you are closest to. But when unhealthy communication patterns develop and make their way into the workplace, it can threaten the family business.

The Importance of Communication Within Family Businesses

A thriving family business depends on strong interpersonal relationships and a commitment to a common business goal. Both require clear and healthy communication. Within the family business structure, it is all too easy to allow the unhealthy communication patterns developed at home to get in the way of the shared vision of a successful business. Relational baggage and poor communication habits can take hold quickly. Once they do, these bad habits can be hard to break.

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Types of Unhealthy Communication Patterns Between Family Members

Poor communication can take many forms, from conflict avoidance to confrontation. This can negatively affect any business. But when your coworkers are family, you are much more likely to face communication challenges rooted in relationship issues than when coworkers walk away from one another at the end of the day. Here are seven ways unhealthy communication patterns can emerge within the family business:


Relatives within a family business can easily fall into patterns of judgment, where they seek to prove they are right, rather than working through conflict in a collaborative way. If one or more coworkers has already made up their mind at the start of the conversation, they aren’t communicating and may be judgmental.


When blame and fault finding is more important than problem solving, it can interfere with productive communication. Family businesses are especially at risk of carrying forward family myths and applying assumptions and labels within the business setting. This can prevent the next generation from contributing to the growth of the business.


The other side of labeling is defensiveness. If you believe you are going to be blamed for something that has gone wrong at work, it can make you escalate conflict as a protective action. You may become confrontational or point to others’ responsibilities instead of your own. However, while defending, you cannot hear the changes being proposed that would benefit the company as a whole. If you feel defensive, try to listen instead. Take responsibility for your part of the situation and find ways to contribute to the overall solution.

Jumping to Conclusions

Often, family members think they know each other so well they can predict what someone is thinking, or what they will do. However, jumping to conclusions or assuming outcomes can create blind spots within your business. Anytime you start a conversation convinced you know its’ outcome you may be jumping to conclusions instead of listening and communicating.


Shutting someone out of important communications can be catastrophic within the family business setting. While giving someone the “silent treatment” at home is hurtful, excluding them from business decisions can directly impact your bottom line and result in contradictory communication with important clients. Stonewalling family members at work should not be tolerated. If an employee is feeling overwhelmed, they should be invited to take a break and then come back to the stonewalled coworker to find a productive outcome to the conflict.


Family businesses can often be casual spaces where jokes and sarcasm are common. However, this can sometimes cross the line to disrespectful and demeaning language. When coworkers start to put themselves above one another it breaks down lines of communication. Instead, even if a family member has made a mistake, think about how you can build them up, rather than cast them down.


Criticism often requires a careful balance in family businesses. You want to make objective assessments of your coworkers’ performance, but when they do not measure up, it can be easy to take negative comments too far. This is especially true when criticism focuses on a person’s character instead of their conduct. When correction is needed it should be paired with positive statements and support.

How to Improve Communication Between Relatives and Coworkers

Healthy communication skills are learned. Within the family business context, you can improve communication by modeling good habits, setting policies against disrespect and inappropriate criticism, and fostering open communication in your meetings. However, breaking the bad habits of unhealthy communication patterns takes time and commitment to the task. You may need to jumpstart the process by bringing in a consultant to help you analyze the communication in your workplace and train your relatives and coworkers on better ways to make the voices heard.

David Stanislaw is an organizational development specialist with over 25 years’ experience helping family businesses with internal conflict. Through executive coaching, strategic planning, and facilitated mediation, David helps family businesses grow. Contact us to meet with David to start resolving conflict in your workplace today.