• Jonathan Goldhill

How to Resolve Negative Communication Styles

Communication is the foundation of any successful business. Without it, not much would get done. However, not all communication is productive or positive. Whether it’s non-existent or toxic in the extreme, poor communication leads to inefficiency, low productivity, disengagement, customer service complaints, attrition, and even legal issues.

I have worked with families as clients who yelled at each other and then hugged it out. I’ve also worked with other families who don’t even raise their voices or disagree with one another. Either end of the spectrum is a problem.


Recently, I interviewed Josh Baron, author of the forthcoming HBR book, Family Business Handbook, for my podcast. He concurs – too much conflict is as problematic as too little. He describes it as a “Goldilocks” problem, meaning it’s not sustainable no matter which end of the spectrum it comes from. In other words, that which appears harmless – such as avoiding conflict or showing extreme anger and then immediately making up for it – is not always what it seems to be.


Goldilocks might look like an innocent little girl, while in reality, she has zero respect for others’ personal belongings or the sanctity of their homes. Her claim to fame—her modus operandi, as it were—is unlawfully breaking into people’s houses and destroying their sense of safety and security.


Now, none of us enjoy conflict. It’s one of the many things in life most people try to avoid. However, some conflict is healthy. Conflict challenges your thinking and invites you to see situations through other people’s eyes. When you can look at a situation objectively and communicate with intention, it is possible to find healthy, constructive ways to resolve whatever conflict comes your way.


Finding The Right Level of Conflict

When conflict is absent, things are hidden. And while secrets are part of the human genome, they have no place in business. If your family avoids confrontations, it usually means something is lurking beneath the surface, and it’s bound to explode sooner or later.


However, too much conflict is just as damaging as none at all. Ideally, you want to exist someplace in the middle, and when conflict rears its head, you should have a strategy in place to manage it. If you don’t have a plan, it will inevitably escalate. Ignoring it won’t make it go away!


The key to overcoming conflict is in understanding and recognizing negative communication styles – and that’s what informs your strategy.


Negative Communication Styles

Not everybody fosters negative communication with malicious intent. Most of the time, we all want the same things – better relationships and positive outcomes. In the effort to facilitate those goals, we need to remain mindful of how we communicate.


Passive, Aggressive

Passive and aggressive communication styles are both inherently negative. A passive communicator (a bit of an oxymoron) avoids conflict. They feel less-than and often fail to express their own needs. An aggressive communicator has little regard for what others want. They’ll intimidate, verbally attack, and hurt others to achieve their goals. Neither tactic is productive, and either approach rarely achieves any results for anybody.


Conflict in the family business can arise from a rivalry between parents and children (founder and successor) or other family members. Nepotism might also be a factor, for example if the perception is that one child is favored over others. There might be money disputes or disagreements over the direction the business should take. Constructive communication can heal these rifts but allowing negative talk and action to continue almost certainly fuels the fire.


The Four Horsemen

John Gottman identifies four communication styles that spell disaster for any relationship: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. This concept holds true for the family business as much as it does for a marriage or a non-business personal relationship, probably why Gottman calls them the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”


  • Criticism shouldn’t be confused with complaining. Criticism attacks the person, not the situation. In a family dynamic, bad feelings can escalate quickly if the criticism is allowed to continue.

  • Contempt raises the stakes by showing disdain for the person under attack, pitting one person over another in an effort to show superiority.

  • Defensiveness arises in response to an attack. It could show up as casting blame elsewhere, but it’s really about doing anything to get the attacker to back off. When we’re defensive, nothing gets resolved, and the issue will continue to escalate.

  • Stonewalling is common in the face of unmitigated attacks. Sometimes it feels like the best thing we can do is walk away because we feel that resolution is impossible.


In my book, Disruptive Successor, I explore these unhealthy communication styles in great depth. To better understand how these traits show up, I encourage you to purchase the book – you’ll find some great analogies in Chapter Eight. Today, I would like to focus more on actionable advice on how you can overcome these conflicts.


Resolving Conflict in the Family Business

When conflict is issue-oriented, it is healthy. When it becomes personal, it is unhealthy. Healthy conflict is an opportunity to improve systems, find answers, and make the best decisions for the company. Unhealthy conflict does none of that and perpetuates bad feelings. If you feel a conflict has become toxic, you can still work it out, either through structured dialogue or a neutral third-party.


First, you’ll need to get clear on your needs. Only then will you be able to listen and focus on the other person’s concerns.


  1. Identify the issue and an example of the behavior or situation that needs to change.

  2. Clarify your emotions around the issue and what’s at stake. Identify your part in the situation, so the other person does not feel they are solely to blame.

  3. Demonstrate that you wish to resolve the issue.

  4. Invite the other person to respond; genuinely listen and be open to what they have to say.


In the book, I provide a few ground rules for effective conflict elimination. These will prepare you to deal with intense situations and help you turn conflict into powerful dialogue.


As always, get in touch if you need clarity. Next week we’ll talk about Priorities and how to leverage your time and energy to gain more power.


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