Family Meetings – How to Talk, Listen, and Strengthen Your Family

A family meeting is a group discussion of events, feelings, changes, plans, intentions, rules, expectations, praise, support and whatever else the family can think of to discuss. The important thing is that the whole family sits down together at a set time and focuses on the meeting. You may find that pre-school children have difficulty sitting through this process, so they may have to be included only for part of the meeting. Or, it may be best to hold the meeting with children who can contribute after the little ones have gone to bed. Some teens will balk at having to spend their time with younger siblings, or having to discuss family issues that don’t directly relate to their immediate needs. But if you establish this as a routine part of your family life, the objections and obstacles will diminish with time as each child and parent realizes the advantages.

Advantages of Family Meetings

Family meetings strengthen families by helping each child and each parent learn how to appropriately express feelings and concerns. It also gives family members an opportunity to practice listening and talking skills and to learn the arts of negotiation and conflict resolution. As well, family meetings are a concrete demonstration of the importance of your family and they give each family member an opportunity to provide, or to seek, shelter with one another.

As they grow older, children and youth learn that they can broach difficult issues in a non-hostile manner. And, parents learn that their children have important issues and can offer solutions when given the opportunity to present them appropriately.

Heather told me about how family meetings affected her ability to relate to her parents.

Heather’s Story:

Heather, age 21, is a student nurse about to graduate. She hopes to work in a Third World nation and wants to hold off marriage and children until she is older, “like maybe 30” (here I go feeling old again). Heather grew up in a family of two parents, an uncle who lived in a suite that was semi-detached from the house, and she has a younger sister and an older brother.

Heather told me that her family always had family meetings. She says that she can remember her mother putting crayons and paper on the table to keep her younger sister occupied while the others held their discussion and how proud she was that, at age 6, she was old enough to be a full participant, rather than an annoying observer, like her 3 year old sister.

“We had family meetings on whatever nigh us kids had nothing else going on, so it generally changed at the beginning of each school year and after Christmas since those were the times when mom signed us up for extracurricular activities. We would have them after the dinner table was cleared. We took turns taking notes, and we took turns opening the meetings. When we were little, it was mostly about mom and dad telling us what was going on in the week. I really liked that because I’m not a very spontaneous person by nature and that helped me to feel like I had a handle on the my life.”

Heather found that the tone and purpose of the meetings changed as she and her siblings got older.

“When we started to get allowances and to want to do things with our friends, we used family meetings as a place to negotiate money and curfews. My brother and I would try to unite for more money or later curfews, but it never really worked for us. Mom and dad had their rules and standards and they stuck to them. When we had problems with my uncle, we had family meetings that included him and we were able to work the problem through.” (The uncle had period of alcohol abuse that was a time of difficulty for the whole family).

I asked Heather what she got out of the family meetings.

” What I liked best was that I talked with my parents more than most of my friends did. That didn’t seem very cool at the time, but because we knew we could bring up any issues in a calm and team-like atmosphere, we just got in the habit of doing it. Now that I’m older and on my own, I feel that my family is my support team because I am used to talking to them first. I think we have informal family meetings now, mainly through email. One of us will present an issue or concern in our lives, and copy it to everyone else. We get feedback and support and ideas from each other. Most of my friends are replacing that kind of family closeness and support with friends, but my family is still my number one place to go when I need to talk.”

About a month after the interview, Heather telephoned me and told me she had been thinking about it and that she realized that there was something else she really liked about family meetings.

“We used our meetings as a sort of announcement place. So, if I got a good grade in one of my worst subjects, or my brother had something really exciting happen at school, we would tell about it and everyone would clap. I didn’t get it at the time, but when I look back, I can remember how good I felt to be appreciated by my parents and my siblings. Brothers and sisters don’t often say nice things to each other when they’re kids, but family meetings gave us a chance to do that for each other. I don’t think most of my friends got that kind of formal acknowledgement from their families.”

Historically Speaking

Looking through history, it occurred to me that the prototype for today’s family meeting was the famous, and perhaps mythological, Round Table of King Arthur’s court at Camelot. I thought it would be a good example here because basically, according to the legends, the King took a bunch of quarrelling Knights (none of which was noted for his communication skills and all of whom wanted to be first and win the most) and gave them all an equal voice in decisions that impacted the kingdom and in deciding how to allocate the resources. The Knights dialogued and used verbal problem solving skills to sort out their various problems. Arthur, as King, was the final arbitrator in conflicts in which they could not come to agreement, but that is just how it is in family meetings where the parents have to be have the final word.

Anyway, the Round Table was a great improvement on the Knight’s former style of conflict resolution, which had been drawing swords, fighting to the death, killing siblings and other rivals, and storming castles. The pay off to the ordinary citizens, was that they didn’t have to live with the Knights in charge of their area conscripting them into service when they needed to raid a neighboring Knight’s village, and the money that was formerly used for war, could be used for the minimal social services available at the time (building bridges and barges and what not).

This same process works in family meetings. Instead of family members arguing and working things out individually, most of the family rules can be negotiated at the family meeting, with everyone having some input at the same time. And, when the entire family is involved in the decision making about how to allocate family resources, then there is less likely to be argument later when individuals realize that the decision isn’t working so well in their favor.

If a bunch of rowdy Knights who were used to resolving conflict with a sword could learn to use this format for resolution, think what your children can learn in the same way.

Family Meeting Skills

Family meetings are vulnerable to misadventure and problems when you first start having them. Children may not understand the purpose, adults may resort to power plays to get the kids to try it, and everyone may get confused about the agenda. It may also be hard to find a time that doesn’t conflict with other activities. And, if your children are in different stages of growing up, it can be a challenge to find ways to interest them all and to keep them all attentive as you progress through the agenda.
If you think you would like to try using family meetings as a way to strengthen your family, these tips might be helpful to you.

o Have the same time and same place set aside on a weekly, or bi-weekly schedule. In order to keep this happening and functional, all family members have to understand that their attendance is required. Pick an evening when other activities or time limits don’t interfere. If there are special programs on television at that time, agree to videotape them for viewing later.

o State the “rules”. Everyone participates. Everyone has a turn. No one interrupts. Everyone is positive. No meanness or teasing allowed.

o Begin by asking for an agenda. Each person can say what issue he would like to discuss and it can be written down as a formal agenda.

o Keep a record. Someone should be designated to keep the notes. This can change weekly, or it can be assigned to one person in particular. Each person’s topic is written down, as well as the results. This is useful later if there are disagreements about what was said. Keep the notes in a special book that is not used for any other purpose.

o Start with a positive tone. Begin the meeting with each person saying something positive that happened in the week. Some families may also want to have each family member acknowledge something special that another family member did, or, others may want to be less personal and have each family member tell about a kindness that they witnessed or that was done for them.

o Use a talking stick. A candle, or empty toilet paper role, or spatula etc can be used. The rule is that only the person holding the talking stick is allowed to speak and the others have to wait their turn.

o Consider the attention spans of individuals. Very young children, or those who have attention deficit disorder or learning challenges, may not be able to sit and stay focused for any length of time. Have crayons and paper, or drawing tools, or play clay, for these family members to amuse themselves with while the others stick to the topics. You will find that this becomes less necessary as the process becomes familiar and successful.

o Use moderators. When the process is first starting, or when the children are all still very young, the parents will have to be the moderators. This means that they role model appropriate negotiation skills, prevent interruptions, keep the notes, makes sure the agenda is followed. As the children become older, or the family becomes more used to this sort of meeting, a different person can be assigned the role of moderator each week.

o Shut off distractions. The television, radio, or other audio/visual distractions should be shut off for the family meeting.

o Set the mood. Children often enjoy adding ritual to any event, so consider turning off the lights and having the meeting by candlelight. Or, make sure the table is clean, the plates and food moved off, and there is lots of room for elbow leaning and reaching as you pass the talking stick. Or, consider always adding a vase of fresh flowers, or a potted plant, to give a symbol of health and beauty during the meeting.

o Have snacks on the table. Younger children and teens can last longer at the table if you have some snacks. Raw vegetables, cheese, and fruit, can all help keep them focused. If you have the family meeting right after dinner, this can substitute for desert.

o Don’t use this as a forum for private issues. If you have issues with your spouse or children that are really personal to that person, keep it off the agenda. No child or teen will appreciate having his issues laid out before the rest of the family. Curfews in general, allowances, in general, are perfect here. But, deciding what to do about the twelve year old who just got caught shop lifting should be done privately (don’t try to tell me I am not the only one whose children misstep from time to time).

o Use this as a forum for role modeling and practicing your talking and listening skills. This is a great venue for the parents to show the children how to talk to each other and how to listen to each other. The rest of the week, things can be rushed and complicated, but just like eating at grandma’s is a great place to practice good table manners, family meetings can be a great place to practice how to talk and listen.

o End with a ritual. This may be a prayer, or perhaps the family members can join hands and say “Thank you ” in unison, or, each family member can thank the others for listening and for contributing. The ritual itself is less important than what it represents, that is, the close of the meeting and the acknowledgement of contributions.

Family meetings are a positive and effective way for family members to stay connected and to be reminded weekly that they are each other’s primary source of caring and support. These gatherings allow the children and teens in the family to participate as partners in the communication process and to realize that they have an important contribution to make to the overall strength of the family unit.

Family meetings are also a valuable way to get everyone to sit down and look at each other. It is sometimes amazing how we can go through the week without ever stopping to really say “hi” to each other, or for siblings to notice that they are growing, or changing. Family meetings provide a stage on which you can really get to know each other and begin to establish the foundations for the kind of relationships you hope your children will have with each other when they grow up.

Exercise

Think about how your family communicated important issues and resolved or negotiated change. Consider these questions:
1. Did your parents communicate change and other issues with the children in your family?
2. How did you work out family rules? Decisions?
3. If you didn’t use family meetings, was there any times when you all sat down together and talked? Resolved? Questioned? Organized?
4. How did you communicate with your siblings about what was important to you?
5. Did your family members know what was happening with each other?
6. Did your family plan things together?
7. Were you and your siblings ever included in decision making processes that impacted you directly?
8. Did the method of presenting and discussing issues weaken your family?
9. Did the method of presenting and discussing issues help you to feel bonded to your parents and siblings?
10. Did your method of presenting and discussing issues last into adulthood?

Now, think about your current family, or current important relationships and consider the following:
1. Do you have a means of communicating issues, events, plans, in your family today?
2. Do you have an organized means of seeking input on family issues from your children?
3. Do your children ever express that they wish they had some input on decisions that impact them?
4. Does your method of presenting and discussing issues help you all to work toward resolution of disagreement?
5. How do you feel when you have not been included in decision making or information sharing in your family today/
6. How can you use family meetings to strengthen your family today?

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