5 tips for having a productive family meeting
February 21, 2018
Regular family meetings can be a valuable tool for families to build open communication, resolve conflict and teach problem solving skills. They can be regularly occurring events happening consistently, or called by a family member if they have a particular item requiring discussion. Creating boundaries around difficult conversations may allow not only children but parents to feel reassured there is a time and place to address practical and emotional concerns, as well as connecting with each other over positive situations. This may help everyone feel prepared, and remove the mystery around when a conversation will happen, particularly hard conversations.
Family meetings can be helpful in creating experiences where people meet to celebrate successes and acknowledge hard work which can create the foundation for more difficult conversations. It is important to note that not every conversation needs to follow this format and at times the urgency may result in some family members not being available. Other times, boundaries will need to be considered and judgments used around what topics are addressed with siblings present. The subsequent list is not an exhaustive one and is merely intended to provide suggestions for implementing family meetings at home.
Have a brief orientation done by the parents. Particularly in the beginning stages this is an important step in order for everyone to understand what is expected and why people are meeting. This also creates a situation where the parents are demonstrating leadership and commitment to family functioning at the beginning of the meeting. Some potential topics for orientation include purpose, conduct, respect, participation, length and frequency.
Lead from behind. Allow children to feel that they have some influence over the subject matter. Follow children’s concerns and train of thought to make them feel valued and understood. Leadership can be demonstrated by teaching your children how to listen and validate someone’s opinion, even if you do not agree with it. Leadership can also be showing our children how we want them to respond if someone is being rude or how we express feelings in a healthy way. Creating a culture in family meetings where children’s concerns can be met along with those of the parents can help this strategy be sustainable. This does not mean that parents do not address their concerns, but are mindful that family meetings are for everyone. To feel meaningful, everyone should have a chance to be heard.
Be attuned to emotion and body language. Often much of what is being communicated is non-verbal. Pay attention to these cues and ask about them in unthreatening ways. Avoid telling people how they feel and simply present your observation from a place of curiosity. Respect peoples emotional boundaries while showing them their feelings are important and it is safe to express them if they are ready. This also develops skills around emotional vocabulary and self-awareness. Many times emotional problems are framed as practical concerns. Arguments over chores may be more about feeling overwhelmed from a hard day at school. Asking open ended questions around what makes this issue so upsetting may help children see beyond the practical issues and connect their feelings to how they are behaving.
Don’t feel pressure to resolve all issues in one conversation. At times people may feel a meeting is a failure if it does not end with a happy feeling or when there is not enough time to address all issues. Difficult meetings can be the most productive as people deal with hard feelings and upsetting situations directly. Parents should put a premium on the process and ensure the children understand this. If children are participating and speaking directly about their concerns, they are honing their problem solving skills. After all, in order to master a skill we must first learn the skill; hence creating opportunities to practice has major value. This does not mean that parents do not attempt to resolve emotional problems, and often times speaking and validating each other’s perspectives will help clear the air. However, when compromise is difficult, simply beginning the process of understanding each other is a success in and of itself! Parents deciding beforehand what specific issue (singular) they want to address can help everyone stay focused. There is no reason you can't put a pin in a subject if things become too emotional or if they need to be revisited in a future meeting.
Don’t feel pressure to make 'in the moment' decisions. At times people may be expecting others to make decisions on the spot. This is particularly true for parents where children may push for them to make a decision around consequences or privileges immediately. Explicitly talking about the process where people’s needs are heard but everyone is allowed time to think and process before making a decision can help with parental unity (in two parent households), and also helps prevent emotional decision making. Although this is particularly true for parents, the same dynamic can occur with children where parents can push them to make decisions or accept decisions immediately. Often times this pressure can create push back even if both parties think the decision is reasonable. If options are provided, telling children they have the same choice after they know what their parents are expecting, then they can think about it and let parents know where they stand demonstrating respect and maturity. This does not mean the parents have to continually compromise on their decisions; it simply allows time for children and parents to make the most rational decision. An added benefit to this strategy is that it allows for emotional and cognitive processing before making a decision, which can be an important life skill. This also does not mean people cannot make decisions during meetings if they feel confident. However, if the above strategy is explained and accepted, when people are ambivalent it can allow the conversation to continue without the pressure of feeling on the spot.