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Facilitating Family Meetings During Holiday Visits


It is not unusual for families to try to make the most of holiday visits by having “important” discussions while far flung family members are together. While the intent is good, all too often such attempts backfire and even damage relationships. Whether you are the matriarch or patriarch of the family or the adult children “youngsters”, a bit of thoughtful planning can go a long way toward a smooth family meeting. Here are some tips to guide your family meeting.

The meeting convener must clearly articulate the time and place when the meeting will be held, the expected length of the meeting, and the meeting’s objective. Start by sending an invitation to those who will attend. This invitation can be transmitted in a phone conversation, via email and even by snail mail. For example, you might say something like, “Mom and I would like for all you kids and your spouses to sit down with us over brunch on Saturday so that we can share what we’ve been thinking about where and how we’d like to age.” A family meeting is best held at a time other than at the holiday meal! It is also preferable not to spring such a meeting on your family.

Next, create an agenda. What do you want to cover at the meeting? How long do you plan to spend in the meeting? Do you plan to send the agenda ahead of time for review by the participants or will you distribute it at the meeting? Try to limit your agenda to no more than three major topics and no more than two hours. If you have more material to cover use the initial meeting to set the stage and provide a framework for future discussions. Arrange for future meetings (either in person or virtual) to delve into various topics more deeply. Depending on the family dynamics, you might consider sharing the agenda with the participants ahead of time or you might to decide to wait until the beginning of the meeting.

Make sure that you define clear endpoints. For example, is your goal to share information with your family about your end of life wishes? Or is the objective to brainstorm with your siblings about Mom’s increasing cognitive impairment and reach a conclusion regarding what will happen if she can no longer care for herself? It is important for the participants to understand whether they are attending a presentation or a discussion. Likewise, they must know if the objective is to reach consensus about a topic or simply to allow each person the opportunity to voice his or her opinion.

It is helpful for the meeting’s convener to lay some ground rules at the very beginning of the meeting. For example, if confidential matters will be discussed, you might ask everyone to agree to keep the discussion within the group. If you have a boisterous family, you might have to ask for each person to allow others to finish and not to talk over one another. Some families even have an object that they pass around and the only person who is allowed to talk at a given moment is the person holding the object. Don’t forget to ask everyone to turn off their electronic devices, and make sure that any family members who are not involved with the meeting are occupied and have appropriate supervision. Remember that family meetings can often become emotional and tense, so plan some humor that you can pull out of your back pocket and be prepared for anything.

Give some careful thought to who will serve as the facilitator for the meeting. It does not necessarily have to be the person who initiates the meeting. In fact, you might consider having an objective third party who doesn’t have a stake in the game act in this critical role. The facilitator is the person who will keep the meeting on schedule by managing the agenda and make sure that the ground rules are followed. Depending upon the subject matter for your meeting and your family dynamics, using an outside facilitator may be the only way to accomplish a successful meeting.

Finally, be sure to discuss next steps before you adjourn the meeting and make assignments and set deadlines if appropriate. It is also very helpful to circulate a brief meeting summary to all participants within a few days of the meeting noting any follow up commitments or the date of the next meeting if you’ve set one.

If you need help crafting your plan for an upcoming family meeting, feel free to contact me at sheri@LifeBridgeSolutions.com.
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