S1:E9 | Building Stronger Family Relationships Through Clean Language

Guest Speaker(s): Emily Bouchard, Head of Institute for Family Success, PNC Private Bank Hawthorn
Host: Melissa Mitchell-Blitch, MS, MA, Founder, Eredita Consulting & PPI Dean of Individual Development

In this episode, we explore the power of “clean language” in improving communication and avoiding conflicts within families. Emily and Melissa provide practical tips and insights on how to intentionally use jargon-free, simple, and clear language to enhance communication between family members. By learning how to communicate effectively, and differentiate between observations and facts, you can build trust and create a more positive environment for complex decision-making. Join us on this journey to better communication and stronger family relationships.

About Our Speaker

A specialist in family dynamics, Emily Bouchard focuses on the emotional impact of wealth on estate and financial planning. Backed by her extensive experience, she fosters better communication and leadership skills to help multigenerational families successfully transition their businesses, assets and values.

About Our Host

Melissa Mitchell-Blitch helps family members develop skills to navigate decisions, transitions, and conflict related to business and wealth. She is the author of “In the Company of Family: How to Thrive When Business IS Personal” and serves as Dean of Individual Development for the Purposeful Planning Institute.

MELISSA: Welcome to the Purposeful Planning Podcast. My name is Melissa Mitchell-Blitch, and I serve as PPI’s Dean of Individual Development. My focus is helping family members develop the skills they need to navigate decisions, transitions, and conflict. Today, we have thought leader Emily Bouchard, who is the head of the Institute of Family Success at PNC Private Bank Hawthorn. Emily, welcome.

EMILY: Thank you. I’m so glad to be here with you, Melissa. And it’s wonderful to get a chance to talk about one of our favorite topics. So I guess I should say the Institute is part of an integrated team of a multi-family office approach for the ultra-high networth population within PNC Private Bank Hawthorn. Our focus is on the qualitative side of wealth. How do you prepare the family for wealth, and all the things that go with that. And it’s exciting to get to have that be a new offering for the whole private bank. So it’s a wonderful place to be in. I’m new to the role; I started at the end of November of 2022. So I’m very happy to be here and to talk about communication.

MELISSA: Absolutely. So you’re new to that role, but not new to this work. You have been doing this work for many years. And as you alluded to, today’s conversation actually started last year, as you and I were walking to dinner at PPI’s annual gathering that we call The Rendezvous, and started talking about that shared interest that we have in helping families to use — it goes by a number of things — clean language, language that differentiates when they are making an observation versus an interpretation, and sharing their own experience. That is what really set us up to continue this conversation and share this information with our listeners today. So let me just start off with us, Emily. What makes this topic something that you are especially passionate about?

EMILY: Well, I think we both have this desire and passion for helping families to have more harmonious relating, less conflict, more ease of dealing with significant decisions that they might have to make together. And one of the things that I have seen over the years — so I started in this field with these families in 2004, so I’ve worked with hundreds of families across the US, Canada, and Pacific Islanders — and I have absolutely seen (and I know you have, too) that the thing that causes the most mischief in the family relating is when there’s a confusion between stating an observation very specifically versus stating an interpretation. And when we conflate those, and we think that an interpretation is a certainty and an observation, that’s where a lot of things get tripped up, and there’s nowhere to go in terms of the conversation. So giving some distinctions and some skills around kind of taking apart how we use language can make such a huge difference in families. And I’ve just seen it over and over again. Understanding what’s at play when we’re having these conversations, and then being able to communicate just some slight variations in how we speak can open up all kinds of new possibilities. And that’s what has me really excited about it, because I just see what happens.

MELISSA: So this is a very common phenomenon, and I would say it’s often really at the root of conflict. Two or more family members experience the same situation, but have a very different experience of it. Give us an example to really help our listeners make concrete what we’re talking about that is different.

EMILY:  Oh, okay, so just like to make it super easy. Like I’m sitting in San Diego right now. Let’s say I’m sitting here with my brother. And we look out the window and I say, “Oh my god, the weather is miserable right now.” And my brother (who, let’s say, got a farm in the California Valley) is like, “No, this weather is a godsend.” Because we can both look out and make the observation that it’s raining, and my interpretation is, “I can’t go do the things I want to do outside.” So I think it’s miserable. His interpretation is like, “All worries I’ve had about the drought in my crops are now behind me, so I’m so grateful that it’s raining.” So the rain is neutral and it’s an observation we can both make. And yet, we can have completely different interpretations of what it means based on what matters to us and what we care about. So I chose something pretty innocuous, like the rain, because you can imagine how it can get sticky pretty quickly within a family. Let’s say you have no clear distribution policy, and you have family owners of a business where somebody is working in the business, and somebody is considered an owner because of maybe some tax planning that happened and they have ownership in it, but they have no voting shares, and they’re not in the business. They may have very different interpretations when the profit happens in the business about what should be distributed versus what should be left in the business. And somebody working in the business might have a really clear interpretation of what needs to stay in the business, and those that are not working in the business might see it differently and have a clearer interpretation of why some distributions should happen. So that would be a much more sticky situation, where there’s a lot of emotion around it and a lot of different perspectives around what it could look like based on the role and the vantage point with which you’re looking at profit. So those would be some examples I would give.

MELISSA: And what a spectrum of examples from something as ordinary as the weather outside to these dynamics within a family enterprise. It can happen on a small but meaningful scale or a large scale. The opportunity for confusion, the opportunity for just a difference of perspective and experience is rampant. So with those two great examples on that spectrum of scale, to help family members start to differentiate these two things more and to communicate them more clearly, what are some tips that you might share with them?

EMILY: Yeah, so one of the most important things right out the gate is to really understand and be grounded in understanding the difference. So when we’re making an observation, we’re making a statement of fact. What you want to know is it’s observable and it’s measurable by some sort of standard that everybody’s agreed to. So what does that mean? It means if I say, “It’s 103 degrees out right now” (that’s Fahrenheit based on the US system), we can actually go to a thermometer, read it, and determine if that statement is accurate. Is it true or false? And that’s something that everybody understands. It’s obvious; we have an agreed upon standard. Now somebody who’s from Europe — maybe they only use Celsius — they might not be able to agree with that state, they might not be able to observe it. So you have to make sure you have that agreed standard you’re using. A great example would be how do you appraise the value of a property that a family has or business? What’s the shared agreed upon standard we’re going to use for the appraisal now? So that’s an obvious one. Now, the other side of it is the interpretation, like we talked about. So with the rain, and then it’s like, “Oh, this is miserable.” So the interpretation would be, “Wow, it’s really hot out.” And that’s somebody’s interpretation of the temperature that they’re feeling. Somebody else might feel like, “Oh, so grateful, it’s so balmy for me.” Because maybe they’ve just come out of a huge sauna, where it’s been 110 degrees and they’re grateful for it to be cool. We don’t know. So interpretation all has to do with the orientation and perspective of the person who’s saying it. And the thing I love to share with families is, as soon as somebody tells you their interpretation, they’re letting you know something that matters to them and they care about. So it’s an invitation to get to know the person when they share the interpretation, rather than arguing about whether it’s right or wrong. Because in a sense, if a person’s expressing their interpretation, it’s their opinion, it’s their judgment, it’s their evaluation. It’s theirs. It can never be right or wrong, true or false. It’s their interpretation. And where we get that mischief that we talked about is when we go to this argument about what’s right and wrong, and we treat it as if it’s fact and that we can observe it and somebody’s got to be right, somebody’s got to be wrong. That’s the biggest transformation that can happen in families. So that would be where I would start.

MELISSA: It’s amazing how challenging it can be to put things into observable terms, behaviorally specific. If I was a fly on the wall, I could see this. It’s amazing how hard it can be to do this. I was talking to a client last week and he said that one of their senior leaders was acting like a three-year-old and I was like, “Help me see that like I’m a fly on the wall,” and he really struggled to put it into behaviorally specific terms. But as you can imagine, if I am saying, “Yeah, he acts like a three-year-old.” I’m going to start to respond very differently than if I say, “I heard heavy footsteps (heavy is even subjective) coming down the hall.” You’re going to have a different reaction if you’re able to put something in observable terms versus subjective terms, like behaving like a three-year-old. And our experience matters. Whenever we share our interpretation, we’re sharing something about ourselves. So we’re not saying that the families need to have communication that is exclusive of the interpretation because how we experience that matters say more about how you would coach a family to make it clear when they are talking about their interpretation, their experience versus those observable behaviors.

EMILY: Yeah, there are a couple of key phrases I would give. So they’re really easy to interject into the vocabulary of what you’re using. So knowing that whatever you’re saying (unless you have a thermometer) is basically your interpretation of facts. The best thing you can do is say, “Hey, in my opinion…” and then say it. Or, “As I see it…” and then say it. This is my favorite one. It’s uncomfortable, but it really helps open up the conversation when you say, “Hey, I could be wrong but this is how I’m seeing it..” because that opens up other possibilities. But the main thing is to just be in this place of, “Hey, I have an interpretation. I have an observation.” And if you say observation, you want to give the things you’re observing. So in what you just said in that example, a couple of things I would say. Let’s say this is a stakeholder in the business, and a family member is working in the company, and the stakeholder has come to you and said, “Oh my gosh, so and so is acting like a three-year-old.” The first thing you’d want to do is connect with what they care about, which is, “Oh, I would imagine that whatever you’re experiencing is pretty difficult to have happen in the office. So I definitely want to know how it is for you that somebody’s behaving in a way that doesn’t seem to be in keeping with their role.” So again, you help them to articulate it, and maybe in a less judgmental way, but more of a this-is-a-challenge. And then the next thing would be to say, “Just to help to ground that assessment you’re making that he’s acting like a three-year-old and help me understand where you’re coming from, could you give me a couple of examples of what’s happened in the last week that have contributed to you thinking he’s acting like a three-year-old?” And then I always like to offer examples. “So okay, has he thrown himself on the ground and started a temper tantrum in the middle of the cubicles and then laughed?” “No, no, no, no.” “Okay. So that’s my interpretation of a three year old. So what is it you mean by it? Like slamming doors or one word answers.” So you can help them if they’re having trouble discovering it. So it’s really about noticing, and when you’re saying something, “Oh, it’s not necessarily true.” And being able to say it that way like, “I don’t know for sure.” Or if you’re hearing somebody else making a really obvious interpretation, encouraging them with compassion and empathy for whatever happens coming forward with it, and then exploring with them what that means. And the other thing I like to say is, “Hey, I hear you say, three-year-old, I have a picture in my mind about what that is, like tantrums and slamming doors, I wonder what that means to you because it’s your interpretation of what’s happening.” And so it’s empowering for them too. So those are a couple of thoughts I have about it.

MELISSA: I love how you meet them where they’re at. The compassion, the empathy of their experience of that was as if they were interacting with a toddler, and then inviting them to step back and observe it to have a different experience of it to describe more behaviorally what they saw, what they experienced, what happened.

EMILY: Yeah. A phrase I learned early on in this work that made a huge difference for me with this — and I offer it right now and it’s a takeaway, write it down — and it’s granting legitimacy to the perspective of whoever’s in front of you, and really avoiding going right to disagree or agree. Because that’s going to certainty and you want to stay in this kind of open discovery place and curiosity around: What’s going on over there? What’s so for them? And, let me get to know them better.

MELISSA: Words create worlds. I don’t know who to attribute that to, but words create worlds. If I am going through describing things in their behaviorally specific ways, or I am describing them, such as in this example, “He was acting like a three-year-old,” I’ll have a different experience. And so this is both beneficial for family members in their communications and in their relationships but it’s also just helpful in how I think about things. They even use phrases like,  “It seems to me,” or “I may be wrong, but…” to integrate that into my internal language, not just my communication with family members and others. 

EMILY: Oh, my gosh! I’m so glad you said that because that’s the other key takeaway I would want people to have is the moment you have a thought or you want to say something, you want to add to a conversation, or you feel strongly about something, take a moment and pause. And find out, “Hey, where am I grounding this? Where are the observations I’ve made that have led me to this conclusion?” So that again, you’re kind of looking at your own observer versus interpretation at the same time. So if you can have that within yourself, that’s really helpful. And I see this a lot right now. I don’t know what you’re seeing, but there are a lot of families where the elders in the family — the patriarch, or matriarch, the parents, however you want to refer to them — have become maybe more conservative and are watching certain news channels and getting certain information that they feel really strongly about. And they are very black and white, right or wrong. Whereas their children or their grandchildren might be coming from a different perspective, getting their news from different sources. And it creates a lot of conflict in families with different political views, different observations of reality, and this grounding that can happen around the assessments coming from different sources. And one of the things that I love is that granting legitimacy like, “Oh, given your sources, given what you’re listening to, what you’re doing, I completely understand why you would come to that interpretation. And are you open to hearing our interpretation from where we’re getting?” And then there’s a need to discount the news sources where it’s coming from, you’re going to have more discord, as opposed to there’s multiple, multiple ways of getting information. And then all we have is how we interpret the information we get towards how we see the world. And anything that you can do to open it up to find some sort of common ground, some information source that feels neutral that both sides can use to kind of triangulate and see, “Hey, how does that jive with this other thing that was said?” can be really helpful. So I know that that’s a pain point for a lot of families I’m working with right now. So I want to just bring that forward because that right-wrong certainty based on what’s actually not so much factual news as more interpretations of facts that people are taking as fact, that can cause a lot of problems and difficulties in communication.

MELISSA: And some of the tips that you’re suggesting and providing just help us to kind of pan out to remember, “This is my perspective, this is my opinion, this is my source of information. Here’s how I interpret that.” Just acknowledge we don’t have all the information that there is to know. We may be missing something. We may be missing something that changes our opinion or we may be missing something that just confirms our opinion, but just kind of acknowledges, “I’m seeing it from my perspective and owns that.” And it’s real, and it’s important, but do not assume that everyone has the same experiences, has the same values, has the same perspective on things.

EMILY: I was reading one of my favorite books, Living Untethered and Michael Singer is the author. And he brought forth this concept of what we can possibly know based on the infinity of the universe and maybe multiple infinities is like 0.0000001%. And when you get that it’s like, “Oh, I don’t know much of anything.” And you’ve heard the phrase ‘The more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know’ and I think that’s a great thing you’ve highlighted which is staying in that place of, “Oh, there’s way more here that I don’t know that I don’t know.” Like, I am, in a sense, unaware of and that I need to stay open to. That can be so helpful, rather than staying in this standing on that hill of what I know, because it’s actually not a very big hill. And helping us do that. It creates humility, it creates openness, and it creates that ability to really be with somebody else and what they know to be true for them. And always knowing that it’s never true or false. I love that quote, the Rumi quote about, “Out beyond the field of right doing and wrong doing, there’s a place where I like to meet you,” where we can get beyond the right and wrong, and that’s where magic can happen in families as opposed to mischief. 

MELISSA: In the families that we work with, they have some type of interconnection. Oftentimes, that may be a family business, it may be wealth, investments, assets. So they are combining a lot of different roles in relationships that matter. And differences can become divisive very easily. So just wrapping up today, I just want to check in, Emily, if there’s one more — we can have this conversation for days and days — but if there’s any one, just one last tip that you might want to share with our listeners, both who are advisors and family members themselves, as they seek to become more skillful to differentiate between observations and interpretations.

EMILY: It may seem a little tangential, but it’s probably the biggest thing that will make a difference, which is seeing if you can step outside of taking it personally. So what can happen in families, because of our roles, because of all relationships, because of how long we’ve known each other, we can automatically take things personally and get offended when somebody doesn’t agree with us. And what happens with that is that it triggers a part of our brain, that’s the survival part of the brain where we feel like we have to become defensive, and we have to be protective because something’s at stake for us. And we’re looking for that agreement or we’re looking for that alignment that will make it so that we can feel okay and safe. And it’s very primal, and it’s not necessarily spoken or understood. So managing that neurological reaction that happens when you’re having a conversation and somebody comes forward with a different assessment, a different interpretation, or flat out says you’re wrong, to be able to take a breath and remember that all they’re doing is letting you know that they have a very strong interpretation that’s different than yours. And granting legitimacy to theirs may actually open up them being more open to yours; not necessarily, but I found it to be extremely helpful. I work with a lot of blended families and step family situations. And automatically, people are coming from different perspectives. So it’s a little bit easier to see that. And it makes a world of difference when somebody is reactive, or they come at you really intensely with their interpretation as being true. If you can be in a place of, “Oh, let me understand this.” And even a place of gratitude that the person wants you to know more about them. It’s an amazing thing that can happen. And everybody on the planet wants to be seen, understood, and know that they matter. And so when you slow down, and you kind of get out of your way for a moment, and you just focus on what this person is trying to tell you that really matters to them. And just be in that place of curiosity and interest. It’s so helpful. And you gave a great example, Melissa, when you said that when this man said the other one was acting like a three-year-old, and then he couldn’t tell you what it was. Something is there for him that really matters. And just taking some time to unpack that for the person is so helpful for them, because they don’t even know. And I will often say this to people, don’t take it personally and don’t be worried about being right. I mean, with my stepdaughters I’d be like, “Whoa! The way you just said that, you must be so furious with your best friend.” And they’re like, “No.” Even though they just said I’m so furious with my best friend, you might repeat the exact same phrase, “No, I don’t care about that. It’s my teacher…” “Oh, oh, I miss that part.” So I don’t need to be right or prove to them like, “No, no, you just said this.” It’s more like, “Tell me more.” That’s another great phrase, if somebody is telling you something that they care about, and they’re upset about, or they’re passionate about, have them reveal it to you, tell you more. Listen and know that it’s not a reflection on you; it’s them revealing to you about them.

MELISSA: Emily, thank you for being with us today to really start this conversation. The client that I mentioned in that example that described a team member was acting like a three-year-old, at the start of that meeting, he had checked in and he was talking about what a difference that had made to become more aware of his thoughts and to change up his thoughts. And then we hit this challenge. And he laughed and he was like, “Oh, my goodness, I thought I’d made so much progress.” And I said, “You have made so much progress, more potential to continue to grow.” This is a growing edge that we will all be on. But you’ve given us some very practical ways that people can practice. They can train to start making improvements because with these families, there’s so much to lose and so much to gain. So again, you gave us some very practical tools that folks can utilize wherever they’re at in this growth journey to help them move along a bit further. So Emily, thank you for being with us.

EMILY: Thank you, Melissa. And you highlighted something. So the key to end this on is to have that beginner’s mind and have a good sense of humor as you learn, stumble, and discover how much there is to learn. So thank you so much for this opportunity to help further that along for people.

MELISSA: Learning and growing. Thanks, Emily. 

EMILY: Thank you.

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