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Wealth Planning

How to have a more meaningful family meeting

Your guide to hosting a productive family meeting—even if the pandemic means your get-together has to be virtual.


Family meetings often coincide with the year-end holidays, when people traditionally travel to celebrate together. If your family members are staying home this year because of the global pandemic—or are worried about gathering at this time—there are other ways to have a productive conversation and maintain healthy connections.

While meeting virtually has become common in the workplace, doing so with family members can help build a sense of unity and shared purpose in responding to external challenges. This, in turn, can help family members look beyond individual views and opinions that may have grown more divergent this year, or help ease tensions heightened by the stress of the pandemic.

Whether meeting in person or virtually, the effective practices and suggestions below, developed over decades of our working with families, can help you and yours successfully gather to celebrate milestones, gain new insights and information, enhance communication skills and discuss important financial matters.

Define success for your family meeting

Articulating in advance what you would like to accomplish by convening the family can help you steer the meeting and set expectations for all family members. For example, you might use the meeting as an opportunity to:

  • Communicate and share important updates about the health and well-being of family members, celebrate important milestones or report on the status of the family’s assets
  • Educate family members on strategies that help steward the family’s wealth, including financial and investment principles, cybersecurity practices and basic estate planning techniques
  • Decide the future direction of  family assets, philanthropic commitments, investments or banking activities

Suggestion: Set realistic goals to increase the likelihood of family members being satisfied with the outcome(s) of the meeting. For instance, sharing ways to effectively manage stress is more likely to engage family members and create goodwill than trying to get everyone to agree on matters of government policy.

Set the stage

Whether your family meeting is a formally structured event, hosted by an advisor, or an informal gathering, to help make your discussion successful:

  • Determine what communication tools and/or materials you’ll need. For videoconferences, select a platform everyone can (and knows how to) access, and have a backup plan for connectivity issues
  • Invite a facilitator or guest speaker who can aid discussion on certain topics; keep the meeting on track; and make sure everyone is heard
  • Designate a note taker to capture important details and agreed-upon follow-up steps
  • Involve others. To optimize their engagement, consider polling family members in advance for topics they want to see addressed

Suggestion: Ask younger family members for agenda topics. You might say: “We’re planning to review our family business results for the year. What topics would you like us to cover so we don’t miss anything?”

Create an agenda

Clarify what will be discussed during the meeting. Sample topics to consider discussing:

  • Risks to sustaining family wealth, including asset concentration, spending, leverage, taxes, family dynamics, liability and government actions; identify the challenges that most concern the family
  • Family values and core principles that family members want to adhere to as they conduct family matters and set priorities
  • The family’s philanthropic intent, strategy and goals, especially during giving season

Suggestion: Say to the group: “To help us all recharge and reconnect during what has been a challenging year, let’s each share: 1) what we’re grateful for; 2) risks that we need to prepare for together (e.g., lack of estate planning); and 3) charitable causes you’d like to support now or in the new year.”

Establish ground rules

Let everyone know ahead of time how the meeting will be conducted:

  • Outline simple ground rules for the meeting (e.g., no cell phone usage during the meeting, listen respectfully, limit interruptions, avoid personal attacks, end on time)
  • Clarify which subjects will and won’t be addressed during the meeting
  • Engage family members by sharing the hosting, asking them to lead conversations, and encouraging everyone’s voice to be heard

Suggestion: Begin your family meeting with this introduction: “Thanks for your time today. I know we all want to talk about [our beloved sports team/other favorite family topic]—but let’s wait until later in our call. For the next hour, let’s devote our full attention and listening skills to covering our agenda. Before I turn the meeting over to [name] to kick off our discussion, can we agree to place our phones aside so we’re not tempted by them?”

Guide the meeting

Keep the discussion focused on key topics:

  • Note which if any issues will be deferred to the end of the session or future gatherings and follow-up communications
  • Be prepared for difficult conversations, and plan in advance how to handle conflict and defuse a situation; for example, by offering to address certain topics in a separate conversation, or restating a family rule to avoid hurtful statements
  • If feasible, make a recreational activity, such as a family hike, part of the gathering to strengthen family bonds. If the meeting is virtual, consider an online game or round-robin sharing of favorite movies, television shows and books

Choose your battles

A family meeting is unlikely to change anyone’s personal views or opinions. For those families with divergent views, consider these points:

  • Pick topics carefully. It may not be worth trying to discuss issues the family is unlikely to agree on. If there is a compelling reason to discuss a sensitive issue, consider inviting an outside specialist to moderate the conversation
  • Be curious. If family members are willing to bring up a potentially divisive topic, encourage all participants to approach the conversation from a place of curiosity, and be willing to listen and learn
  • Don’t feel compelled to complete a debate. Agreeing to disagree may help to advance the conversation to other topics

Emphasize common values

A family’s shared values and principles can serve as a powerful north star in acknowledging what the family has in common, and they can guide the decisions and conversations of a family. Questions to help identify values include:

  • What core beliefs does the family affirm and represent?
  • What qualities do you wish to convey to future generations?
  • What do you care about most?

Suggestion: Acknowledge the political differences of your family’s multigenerational members, then work together to articulate your common values and define your philanthropy goals. For example, one family (committed to education) defined success as identifying organizations that aligned with their mission and vision. Separately, family members used donor-advised funds to support causes that synched with their individual ideologies

Share stories and insights

Family meetings can be a wonderful venue for learning about each other’s passions, hopes and interests. Consider using questions such as these to guide conversations: 

  • What is the best advice you have ever received?
  • How did your life change after losing someone close to you or meeting someone new?
  • What is your life’s dream?
  • What do you look forward to most when the pandemic ends?

Learn from the experience of other families

Family meetings can help participants develop their communication skills, and build trust so they can meet challenges together down the road. Learning about the family’s wide-ranging activities can also help individual members find new ways to become involved. Speak with your J.P. Morgan team on potential topics for productive family conversations.

 

 

 

 

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