Seven communication lessons I learned from my family reunion.
Since hanging out my solo shingle in 1993, my PR practice’s motto has been “Building Better Relationships Through Effective Communication.” I’ve just completed an accidental graduate course in the principles of effective communication.
Earlier this month, Randy and I celebrated my nursing-home-bound mother’s 91st birthday by hosting a family reunion in our home. The event included my mother’s remaining sisters.
One is an 89 year-old nun, who, like my mother, has advanced Alzheimer’s disease. The other is their “baby” sister from San Diego, a recently widowed, robust, 83 year-old who loves port, Shiraz and from-the-bottom-of-your-soul laughter.
She was accompanied by her two daughters, one a third-grade teacher, the other with talents that include animal communication. We were joined by two of my cousins from Texas, one whose new career as a country singer is blossoming, the other reveling in her retired life as a grandmother, including the newest grandbaby, two months old, attached to her mother, “the food source.” For the “big” party, we were joined by three cousins from Lancaster, plus my niece, her husband and their new baby. In other words: it was quite a crowd, ranging in age from two months to 91 years.
Through five jam-packed days of sharing meals, chores, photo albums, stories, elder-care, silly games and an ambulance trip to the local Emergency Department, we reconnected with one another in the most powerfully satisfying way. As I reflect on why we all had such a memorable time, it’s clear that it was all about effective communication. Here are some of the lessons I re-learned:
Our crowd included people of every age, life experience, political affiliation and belief system. Yet despite the many differences among us, we shared the recognition of something we have in common: family. We acted from that recognition by accommodating everyone’s special needs, learning about one another’s opinions and always assuming one another’s good will. Wouldn’t our public discourse be less coarse, our stress levels lower, our health better if we were to approach everyone with whom we communicate recognizing our common interests as part of the human family? Wouldn’t our corporate communication be more effective if we genuinely accounted for the diversity of our audiences?
We laughed, we cried and we talked about it. When the extent of her sisters’ declines became apparent, my youngest aunt expressed her sadness and her gratitude that she was able to spend time with her sisters again. We all wept when we watched my cousin’s video tribute to her recently deceased dad, my uncle. We laughed so hard during our games that we cried until our sides hurt. Imagine how engaged our organization’s employees would be if our employee communications found room for people’s hearts? Just think how our corporations’ reputations would shine if their communication included the recognition that people are emotional beings?
Ask for help.
When it became clear that I simply could not provide for my mother’s physical needs without robbing her of her dignity, I simply asked for help. Doing so didn’t make me weaker; it magnified my power. Every woman in our home rose to the occasion and lifted her up in a cloud of caring. When she took a fall, we called 911 and asked for the help of professionals. When we ran out of guest rooms, we asked our friends to open their home. Is it possible that our organizations would communicate more genuinely, more powerfully, more effectively if they were to ask for help in understanding what their customers, employees and communities really want from them?
It was a great gift to us that our dear friends and neighbors opened their home to two of guests. But we weren’t the only ones to benefit. Our friends told us they felt privileged that our relationship had grown so strong over the years that we would share our family with them so intimately. We, in turn, were inspired by their perspective. Helping can be a mutually empowering activity when it’s given and taken without guile. Take note, corporate philanthropy departments.
Say thank you.
We prepared for weeks. We had guests for five days. We made 12 meals. We worked from 6:00 a.m. to past midnight every day. We had one or two alcoholic beverages from time to time. There were many moments when we wondered aloud where we were finding the “steam” to keep going. But the fuel source was apparent: it was the sheer joy going on all around us and the barrage of non-stop gratitude that we had created such an opportunity to be together. Many people contribute to our organizations’ success. Remember to thank them for it.
We had a house full of grownups who were completely willing to throw themselves into play: games involving toilet plungers, pineapples and toilet paper, with goofy hats and silly prizes. No one was worried about looking foolish; in fact, that was pretty much was the point! Everyone left with their dignity intact, a happy heart and a boatload of memories. “Play” and “corporation” are not mutually exclusive. It’s OK to play.
Be open to new perspectives.
When it comes to faith versus proof, I’m a science kind of guy. So I tend to shy away from arguments and experiences that don’t include data. But when my cousin revealed her talent (and apparently, fame) as an “animal communicator,” I was struck by the appropriateness of the messages she delivered from our old dog, Buster, and our newest rescue, Zippy. Days after the event, she sent us a lengthy e-mail with details of Zippy’s pre-rescue life that she had gleaned from a cross-continental “conversation.” She doesn’t know if this stuff is real or imagined. I don’t either. But by being open to the idea that maybe, just maybe, my canines and my cousin are in communication, I am appreciating her in an entirely new way.
Could our organizations become more effective by opening up to different perspectives? Just ask Zippy.