We’re All One Big Happy Family

Released: Monday 20 December 2021

Real and Work Families.

Audio version

Text version

Alex MacLaren: Hello, and welcome to You Can Talk to Anyone, the podcast in which we open the bonnet and our communications engine. I’m Alex. And I’m Tom. And in the run up to the holidays, we thought we’d talk about an issue which is going to be very important to all of you in the next fortnight. It’s about families. And we’re interested in this question of how do families affect the way we talk to people? And what does it mean for our working lives as well as for our lives away from work?

Tom Salinsky: You and I have rather different families, Alex.

Alex MacLaren: Yes, we do. So let’s get started. Do you want to go first or shall I?

Tom Salinsky: Well, I was just thinking, you know, it’s often said that when you’re growing up, you accept all of your family’s eccentricities as normal, because you don’t know any better. And so it was only when I’d been at school a number of years and had been back to a number of different friends’ houses that I realized, in several quite significant ways, my family was the unusual one. For example, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, Alex, but sometimes, when families get together and interact, laughter ensues.

Alex MacLaren: Yes, I don’t think I’ve ever sat down with the whole of your family together. But I can imagine that being quite difficult for someone with your sense of humor.

Tom Salinsky: They were occasionally smiles or nods of appreciation for a particularly elegant bit of wordplay. But teasing and being playful with each other is just not the kind of people that my parents are.

Alex MacLaren: Oh, God, it’s so important. That thing about teasing really strikes me as well, because that is something that we do have in common, it was quite difficult to tease… Well, actually, no. I’ve got three brothers. And we obviously we ripped into each other a lot. But we didn’t really tease my parents until we were adults, when we realized how healthy teasing can be and how absent it had been before – although it is something that I do with tremendous tentativeness around my mother. And I know that we’re on a really good day when we can tease my mum and make her cry with laughter. But it’s quite a rare occasion. I think that that point you’re making about what’s normal in our own family circumstances when we’re small is really important, because that’s where we learn a huge amount of stuff about, “Oh, these are the rules of the game.” And we don’t realize how local those games can be, until we actually venture outside those family circumstances into communication rules elsewhere. Do you remember those moments when you suddenly notice the way another child is relating to their parent, and you realize how you could not do that with you parents and sometimes you can be actually relieved that you don’t relate that way. And then sometimes you can be jealous. I remember seeing a kid I knew when we were at secondary school. But his father had been a teacher of mine at primary school. And so seeing somebody in a family role, as opposed to a sort of a formal school or authority role was very different, because they would tease him in a way that we hadn’t been able to tease him as schoolchildren.

Tom Salinsky: Yeah, you don’t have permission to do that

Alex MacLaren: You don’t have those permissions at all.

Tom Salinsky: So family is a sort of unit, where there’s an unspoken set of rules that everybody just knows. And I think the most treacherous situation is to be the one coming into that unit from the outside. So if you’ve got a relatively new partner, for example, you may have decided to spend Christmas with your partner’s family. And you will discover that there are all sorts of traditions and just ways of being which everyone else knows – and so therefore, no one’s gonna think to sit you down and explain them to you – but you can very, very easily put your foot in it,

Alex MacLaren: I think possibly I have been a little bit too careful. I think I was very clear that… So my missus’s family is very different from mine, much quieter, the curtains were always closed. And as a consequence, for her, she’s always been very reluctant to get back there for Christmas. But we’ve been pushed into doing it much more often lately to get together with her family out of duty because they’re simply so much more elderly than my parents and more vulnerable. And so we feel that duty more seriously. But I do remember one tremendous family occasion where we’re all sitting together and my late father-in-law was making some grandiose speech and we realized my son had run off. And when we went to get him, he was in the other room. And when we asked him, he was must have been about three-and-a-half or four, we said, “What’s happening, Frank?” And he said, “I don’t want to be in the room where people aren’t having fun.” And I genuinely think that if we’d explained this to my in laws, they would have been absolutely mortified. Because the other thing about being a newcomer coming into a family situation, is that it’s actually at that point that you can sometimes see your own family, from the perspective of somebody who hasn’t been completely indoctrinated into the way we do things here – for good or for ill. And so I think those interactions between one family set of circumstances and another family set of circumstances can be extremely healthy, if sometimes somewhat jolting.

Tom Salinsky: And something similar happens in the world of work, doesn’t it? If you are sent to someone else’s office – and that could be a brief visit, because you’re just there to have a meeting or deliver a pitch or something like that, or it can be because you’re some sort of consultant, and you’re now being embedded within another organization. And again, you have to learn their culture and their rules. And I think one of the dangers here is that, uncertain how we’re going to be received, we sort of put forward a bland, middle-of-the road-version of ourselves with all the edges sanded off. And it’s so difficult to actually build relationships from that base.

Alex MacLaren: I mean, we were we’ve worked together for years. And so being inside very large organizations is something I’ve only ever done as a visitor, so I’ve only ever joined the family for lunch or supper. But people within those organizations will sometimes confide in outsiders about their feelings about the culture. They can be incredibly strong, people who have been part of an organization for most of their working life will, will find it very difficult to change the way they communicate, because that’s not the way we do things here. Whereas sometimes sideways hires who come into an organization, it seemed to me that there are two ways that they deal with it. One is people keep their mouth shut, try to figure out what the rules are and function like they’ve been there all along. And that I’ve seen be incredibly stressful for many people, particularly those people who are quite entrepreneurial in tone, and they want to generate and innovate and make things change. And then the alternative point of view is people who come in and one way or another, they feel they have the confidence – or sometimes the explicit permission – to actually shake things up. And this can sometimes be the case that somebody is hired, in order to jolt the culture, in order to change things. And so it can be a tremendous disappointment, however threatening the organization finds it, if they actually learned the rules of this organization and joined the family in the way that perhaps they imagined that’d be welcomed to do

Tom Salinsky: Yeah, they’ve been sent to pull people out of the quicksand. But they end up just being drawn down into the morass along with everybody else. But it’s quite a tricky situation, I think, to come in and say, “Everything’s going to be different now. And this family unit, which you’ve established, looks to me to be less than optimal, or even looks to be toxic. And I’m now going to change it.” But that toxicity can be reassuring simply because it’s familiar. And so now you’re the person coming in going, “everything you knew is wrong, and I’m going to change it all” and to do that benevolently is genuinely difficult. But it comes back to some principles I think we’ve talked about a lot in the past. And so if you’re able to express yourself, with clarity, and with a certain amount of status, but you’re not trying to take that status away from anyone else, then I think you least have a chance of being listened to.

Alex MacLaren: I was just thinking about the position that people sometimes take when they’re talking to me when I’m visiting and talking about the way people communicate, and giving people permission and confidence to do things in a new way. And I often will come back to the metaphorical family, because we learn how to communicate from our mums and dads and our carers and our brothers and sisters. That’s where a lot of the patterns get learned and where a lot of the habits get formed. And very often, the idea of a family is used as a kind of a metaphor, we talk about the father and the mother of the nation, you know, for government. And so, not only is it in our patterns of behavior, but also in our language that we talk about things as if they’re a family when perhaps they’re not – or are they? And I’m interested in what you think about this, that people will sometimes say to me, you know, to think about this pitch as if it’s a hospitality situation, that you’re welcoming someone round to your house into the family for an interaction, or as if you’re visiting somebody else’s family for a moment that – well it’s not that. No, no, no, this is a business meeting, we mustn’t think of it like that. When we talk about the way we engage with our colleagues, you know, sometimes you’re gonna have to be a big sister figure here, sometimes you have to allow them the permission to be a tough guy because they that they’ve been here longer than you, so it’s like your big brother. People will sometimes tell me that they don’t necessarily connect with that way of looking at things. And I’m wondering what you think about this? Is there a way in which we think about families, that is not useful at work? And I’m thinking maybe about boundaries? Possibly. Maybe that’s what they’re getting at?

Tom Salinsky: Yes, I think something I’ve said in the past is – a little informality goes a long way. Just as it would be a mistake, I think, to go into a situation such as this, where you’re going to be there for a short while, but you’re hoping this is going to be the beginning of a longer relationship, such as delivering a new business pitch, it’s tempting to want to go in and not make any overt choices, and just be this sort of bland, middle-of-the-road version of yourself. And if your pitch is good enough, that might be successful, but the getting-to-know-you bit is going to have to start after that, because nothing of you has walked into that room – an empty suit just walked into that room, okay. But equally, when you’re really at home with people, when you really do feel like family, you do all sorts of things that would be quite inappropriate. You can’t come in in your underpants, crack open a can of beer and then fall asleep on the couch. So a little informality goes a very long way. If you can put just five or ten percent of your genuine personality on display, and have one little joke where you just experiment with a little status raise or lower here or there, or just a tiny little off-the-cuff remark, any kind of little hint of color, you’ll start getting a sense back very quickly, either “This is welcome,” or “Gracious, no, dear boy, we don’t behave like that.” And you can modulate as a result.

Alex MacLaren: Absolutely. And in fact, sometimes the changes, positive as they are, have happened almost by accident. I think particularly in the last 18 months, what you’re saying about don’t show up in your underpants…

Tom Salinsky: You haven’t actually had a client show up in their underpants?

Alex MacLaren: Well, for all I know, I’ve been on a Zoom call with somebody who…

Tom Salinsky: Oh, of course, yes.

Alex MacLaren: So, in the last year, there’s been this real, almost enforced, shattering of boundaries between the domestic life we lead with our own family circumstances. I just remember particularly early on, this wonderful period where of all the children were at home, of course. And so I used to just keep a tally of children appear in meetings. And I was always impressed that I didn’t think on a single occasion – possibly it was to do with the nature of the meetings I was attending on Zoom – I never felt that people weren’t delighted to have family life break into the business circumstances. People have been wearing the kind of clothes they wear around their loved ones rather than around their colleagues. And so we have seen a side of the family person that we have never seen before, I think in most people’s cases. And I think most of the people I’ve been working with has seen that as a positive. What’s been your experience there?

Tom Salinsky: Yes, I think that’s true. I think on the whole it has been a positive. But I think there is also a certain anxiety. I think if you are on a Zoom call, and you’re feeling as if that once rock solid boundary between work life and domestic life has become noticeably more porous, then that can create alarm, because you don’t know if in the next 30 seconds there will be a naked child charging through the shot, or a dog going berserk, or the washing machine will explode, or your partner in another room will start getting into a full and frank exchange of views on their own Zoom call very much within earshot. And so you’re suddenly having, in your private domestic space, people you work with. And you would have to work with somebody, I think typically for a very long time, before you said, “Shall we carry this on in my front room?” So I think it is partly a trend that was ongoing anyway. But if I just think about the way men dress, when I started doing this kind of work, if I went to somewhere like a law firm or even an advertising agency, certainly anything in the financial sector, most of the men would be wearing shirts and ties and suits. And then after I’d been doing this for a while, once or twice, I found as I looked around the room, I was the only man wearing a tie. And if I turned up in a tie today, I am pretty sure almost no matter what the environment, I would be the only person wearing a tie. And if there was somebody wearing a tie would it almost certainly somebody older than me. Occasionally you see very, very young men wearing a tie. But it’s really unusual. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see something much more like jeans and a jacket becoming much more commonplace even in places like law firms, which typically would always have been suits.

Alex MacLaren: Yeah, it’s funny. I think, for me, there’s been one dimension of my client base where that bleed existed beforehand. And weirdly, it was among very, very senior people. So I remember doing some work with a bunch of C-suite, people talking about the kind of networks they wanted to build. And they were simply talking, particularly international groups, when they were spending time away from their families, when they actually really did dig themselves in with the personal lives of the bosses that they were wanting to work with. It was almost more like, I mean, historically, it’s terrifying that you’d actually hand over children to the opposite side for them to raise, there are gangster movies about this issue, in which, in order to build a strong alliance, we actually gave sort of genetic hostages to each other. And so it feels that like on a certain level, it might relate to that. And so I feel in the last 18 months, we’ve all slightly moved into that world a little bit. And we’re beginning to find different sorts of relationships with each other, which allow for a bit more of the vulnerability and the humanity that we have tended to reserve for our family lives. I remember once about 15 years ago, and I was doing some work with a consultancy firm. And I remember talking to this woman, and she said that for her success in life was going to be when her work persona, and her home and family persona, were indivisible. And they were exactly the same. So the implication was clearly that she was very different when she wasn’t around a family and I said, “Well, what, what is the difference?” And she said that she felt that at home, she was somewhat more compassionate. And that was interesting to me. I think in some families, it can be the other way round. At home they have permission to be absolutely ruthless in a way that they don’t have at work. But I think that resistance depends on a kind of mutual understanding of real loyalty. And I’m just wondering whether there are expectations within our actual domestic families that actually would never have the same sort of feel at work. And I wondered what you thought about family firms?

Tom Salinsky: Well, we use that phrase, don’t we? We talk about families. But I think, to a greater or lesser extent, it’s a little bit of corporate storytelling. It’s somewhat of a fiction. And I think the key difference is, you can’t be fired from your family, except in very specific situations. So that kind of loyalty is actually relatively easy to engender, provided you don’t expect it to last. You know, we can go and run – not that we really do this kind of thing – but we go and run a team building event and you arbitrarily divide group of people into the red team and the blue team, then the red team, the blue team will be fiercely loyal within their teams. But then as soon as the game is over, or certainly within 24 hours, all of those loyalties, and all of those enmities will be entirely forgotten about. And as actors, we’ve both had the experience of joining a company, that’s what they call a group of performers. And not just performance, but also stage managers or camera operators, like the whole team, depending on you know, stage, film, whatever. And that becomes a unit, that becomes a family unit that’s devoted to each other. And sometimes you make friends for life, but not every time. Sometimes the people that you were pouring your heart out to, are people that when that project comes to an end, you will literally never see again for the rest of your life.

Alex MacLaren: Yes, completely. There’s a great film by François Truffaut called La Nuit américaine, which is about the assembly of a film crew into this very, very tight, very intimate family unit, which lasts only for the duration of the shoot. And the moment at the end of it when everybody gets in their cars incredibly quickly. People waving at each other at a distance as they say “see you in Paris,” and then it evaporates and they’re never going to see each other again. And that that tightness is really interesting in temporary family spirit in showbusiness, and I wonder – I want to kind of tentatively go into this as well. This links to the kind of the dark side of families as well. People are terrified of strangers, but you’re much more likely to be abused within your family, okay? And I think sometimes the loyalty expectation that is connected to that family narrative within organizations can sometimes be unhealthy.

Tom Salinsky: Yes, your loved ones, the ones closest to you, who know you the best, therefore, also know exactly where your weaknesses are.

Alex MacLaren: They know how to wind you up, and torture you, and hurt you.

Tom Salinsky: Yeah, so these kind of overly close family units can have issues and then you end up –this is possibly a topic for another podcast – in the area of workplace flings, which can sometimes bust up existing families. So I think the thing to bear in mind is that what we think about as this family unit can often feel much realer than in fact it is and can feel much more permanent. We can’t imagine when we’re in the midst of these feelings, that life could be different in any way. But experience teaches us that actually, these can evaporate very quickly. So from the point of view of somebody who’s hoping for the success of the project, or the success of the company, engendering this feeling is very, very helpful. But it shouldn’t be confused with what happens in a real family, which is for life.

Alex MacLaren: Yes, I think also, there’s something important about your own experience of families, everybody listening to this, is that people can sometimes appeal to family feeling as if it is something not just sort of permanent, but eternal. Whereas the reality is that, in a healthy family, it does actually change – a toddler becomes a school child, a school child becomes a teenager, teenagers start to form their own very, very strong social groups, which begin to be more important to them in the immediate term than their family relationships, they then will possibly go off and form new relationships and start building families of their own, they will then have a new alliance with a completely different family, they’ll then start establishing their own identity as this is my family. And then there’s those other families in the history of – and so it keeps on mutating and changing. And you have to give yourself permission to change families in order to keep the whole idea of it alive. Otherwise, you can get stuck in a pattern that people tell you must never change, which in my experience tends to absolutely kill relationships. And I think this is true at work as well. That however, fixed and immutable, the patterns and dynamics of the way you’re relating to your colleagues, your peers, your bosses, if you accept that there’s something permanent about it, and there’s nothing you can do about it, it will begin to start to have its problems for the way you’re engaging with others. You’ve got to give yourself permission to be flexible and try out different ways of engaging and risk it.

Tom Salinsky: Are we going to give our listeners the gift of homework and this holiday season, or do they get time off a good behaviour?

Alex MacLaren: Time off for Christmas? Although if you will be spending time with people who have known you very well for a very long time. Some of you for the first time in actually a number of years after last Christmas was canceled in the UK.

Tom Salinsky: And so maybe this could be a time gently and tactfully if needed to try and reset some expectations. If you do feel as if going back home to your family means you’re infantilized, you’re not given the respect that you would ideally like, see what you can do to have an open conversation about that, and really, really listen to what the other person is telling you about how they’re feeling. And see if you can therefore open the door to them making changes in how they relate to you. But maybe do that on Boxing Day.

Alex MacLaren: With a sandwich, we’ll include a recipe for sandwich in the shownotes. Thank you all so much for joining us. We deliver training days to people in business in person or via Zoom on all of the topics we’re covering in these podcasts. We do client meetings, better negotiations. We do lots of work on presentation, storytelling, networking and more. If you want to discuss what your company’s needs are, send an email to info at the hyphen spontaneity hyphen shop.com. Or give The Spontaneity Shop a call on 020 7780 4080.

Tom Salinsky: And we’d love to hear from listeners as well. If you’ve tried out any things we’ve been talking about if you’ve got some family horror stories you want to share or some stories of great success that came about because you were able to create that family feeling and have everyone pulling in the same direction then do let us know. You can send us an email podcast the-spontaneity-shop.com, or you can record your thoughts in the form of a voice message and send it over to us and we might play it on a future show.

Alex MacLaren: Until next time I’m Alex.

Tom Salinsky: And I’m Tom.

Alex MacLaren: Thank you very much for listening and goodbye.