How come they don’t listen?

January 6, 2015

Thomas D. Davidow, Ed.D.

My daughter and my wife recently went to get their hair done. My daughter came back having listened to the hairdresser who suggested that she have her hair “lightened" with "streaks."  My wife was in a state of semi-shock, not because our daughter had made a poor decision, but because my wife knew that if she had suggested to my daughter that she lighten her hair, my daughter would have rejected the idea outright.

Why was my daughter able to listen to a stranger and not to her mother? Parent/child relationships are filled with history which includes hundreds if not thousands of suggestions from parents that their children interpret as criticism or rejection even when they are not meant that way. If my wife were to suggest that my daughter’s hair be streaked, my daughter's interpretation would be, “Why? Do you not like my hair? Is there something wrong with the way I look?” 

That thought process can continue into a state of defensiveness:

“I didn’t mean it like that. I think that it looks great as it is; but I just thought it might it look nicer, better, add a little body, etc.”

“See, you don’t like my hair."

There is no reasonable dialogue available to pull her out of that original stance of interpreting that simple suggestion as criticism even when that suggestion/feedback is a good one (which is my daughter listened to the hairdresser).

So what do we do? How do we handle that same emotional content in a family business where the parent/boss has a responsibility both to the next generation and to the business to provide feedback? Many parents/bosses just ignore avoid the feedback and periodically explode at the next generation, which only promotes the cycle.

Here are a couple of suggestions:  One is to assign a trusted senior non-family member to act as a mentor. You can check with him/her to see if he/she shares your perception regarding the next generation’s progress and their receptiveness to evaluation/feedback. This relieves you of the parental feedback/criticism loop and gives you the freedom just to ask your children how it is going as well as the opportunity to listen to them. The only cure for changing the parent/child relationship into an adult/adult relationship is participating in many hours of listening to them. (cf. Eric Berne –Transactional Analysis)

Secondly, you can set aside a structured time with the next generation which you both agree will be a business meeting in which there will be open dialogue. This is a little more demanding, but it does create the possibility of interacting with one another in that adult/adult relationship.

Listening to your children is the ultimate antidote for them listening to you. It takes time. However, once you get there, your confidence/trust in them improves; and succession becomes a significantly easier process.