Activities such as games and outings can help families cohere and build feelings of togetherness. Planned, regular family meetings, or “family councils”, can yield particular benefits. Family councils can improve communication, deepen relationships, improve decision-making, and develop a greater sense of belonging for all. Carefully-conducted meetings can also help children learn to voice opinions, problem-solve, and make decisions cooperatively, respectfully, and effectively.
While it is important that families use methods for conducting their meetings that work best for them, the following guidelines may be useful to get started:
Hold them at a regular time and place. Regularity fosters feelings of continuity, engenders consistent participation, and gives family members an opportunity to plan and prepare for the meetings.
Minimize distractions. Turn off all electronics, and avoid answering telephones if possible.
Encourage but do not require attendance. Forcing attendance can inhibit the warm, collaborative atmosphere that can make meetings so effective. Parents might instead let logical consequences follow from non-attendance; for instance, family members might be bound by agreements decided at meetings, even if they do not attend.
Set up ground rules that all family members agree upon. Examples of ground rules might include speaking respectfully and not interrupting others. Rules are most effective when all family members have input into them.
Parents set the tone, but are not the “bosses”. Dictating actions or punishing poor behavior during meetings can inhibit the warm atmosphere so important to the success of family councils Parents might instead redirect the dialogue or give children activities such as coloring if they become disruptive. In initial meetings, parents should serve as “chairpersons” by helping the family move through the agenda and maintain focus. As the family becomes familiar with the meeting process, other family members can take on this role.
Begin and end each meeting on a positive note. Begin meetings on a positive note, perhaps by recognizing positive achievements or events or telling jokes. Giving compliments, offering encouraging statements, or even playing short games at the end can leave positive impressions for everyone.
Make sure each family member has an opportunity to participate. Each family member should be encouraged to voice their point of view during the meeting. Those who may not be inclined to participate verbally can be given a task. Tasks may include: note-taker (for ideas), time-keeper, chairperson, or preparer of drinks and/or snacks.
Make accommodations for individual needs. Younger children in the family usually need short meetings, and may keep their interest if they have a task to do, or crayons or blocks available. Older children may benefit from having a prominent role in the meeting.
Follow an agenda. Agendas help family members come away from meetings with feelings of accomplishment. Topics might include: a review of positive events; vacation planning; and improving relationships. Many families use the meeting time to hand out allowances and assign chores. You might keep a list on your refrigerator so that people can write down proposed topics for discussion prior to the meeting.
Listen actively. Listening actively means making sure that you demonstrate an understanding of what people say; it is a powerful method for helping people feel included and heard. One example of active listening is reflecting, or paraphrasing/summarizing peoples’ statements.
Engage in structured problem-solving. Meetings can a great venue for working out differences. It is best to begin problem-solving only after the family has familiarity with the meetings and have practiced communicating productively. Problem-solving is most effective when blame is avoided and parents encourage everyone to take a role in solutions.
Make certain decisions by consensus. “Consensus” is different than voting; it means that everyone comes to an agreement on a decision. When voting is used to make a decision, those who are “voted down” may feel that they did not have a say. Of course, not all topics discussed are amenable to consensual decision-making; for instance, children might offer ideas about curfew time, and parents might consider them in the meeting, but the curfew will still be set by the parents.
Use methods to break deadlocks.
Consensual decision-making can lead to stalemates and inaction if certain methods are not applied. One method, called brainstorming, is where everyone suggests possible solutions to a problem. When the brainstorming period is over, family members talk about the pros and cons of each one. Another method is the trial solution, wherein the family gives a solution a try for a period of time. Families can also table a discussion until the next meeting.
Limit the length of meetings. Regular, short meetings are more effective than exhaustive (and exhausting) infrequent ones. Limit meeting times to 20’ at the beginning. As the family gains experience with meetings, you might extend the time to 30’, especially if the children are older.
Family meetings can be useful for all types of families, including single-parent families, stepfamilies, and families with foster children. Thoughtfully executed meetings can help family members feel more unified, understand each other better, improve their communication, and make better decisions. They can be a place for children to develop their ability to communicate, collaborate, and make decisions, making them better prepared to interact productively with others as they grow and develop.
Posted by Jonah Green
-Covey, Stephen, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families Golden Books: 1997
–University of Missouri Extension web site
Special thanks to Ann Scheiner for assistance with the post!