The Family Meeting: Creating Order from Chaos
If you have a family, you have most likely experienced the periodic disintegration of routines, norms, respect, and effective communication. The kids aren’t doing their chores, we aren’t eating dinner together anymore, snarky comments and sarcasm outweigh genuine empathy or statements of understanding, morning and bedtime routines are marked with chaos, siblings are constantly fighting, and often even the parents are at each other’s throats. It can get ugly. And for many of us, we feel shame; a sense of failure at our apparent inability to create and maintain a “happy and healthy” family. On top of that, we can feel helpless or powerless to change it.
What we often don’t fully realize is the tendency of all systems to move from order to chaos. It’s simple physics. The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics states that without effort or external pressure, systems will always descend towards chaos. Disorder always increases. This is as true in the physical universe as it is in relationships.
If you want to put things in order, to move your family in the direction of your values, you will have to apply relatively consistent effort over time. You can be certain that within days, weeks, or months after creating a great plan, you will notice a break down in the system.
Here is the solution
Learn how to facilitate a family meeting and then hold these family meetings regularly and NOT just when the house in on fire. The family meeting done well is done proactively most of the time, meaning, you are not trying to solve a problem every time you meet. In fact, much of the time you are meeting to connect, tell a joke, acknowledge efforts, self-evaluate, or re-state and re-establish norms.
Let’s start with how a family meeting ought to be structured.
SEATING ARRANGEMENTS: The family sits in a circle like formation around a table or in a living room. TVs are off. Electronics are put away. These norms need to be firmly established from the beginning.
TALKING PIECE: A talking piece is chosen. The talking piece is usually an item of significance to the family or a member of the family, like a stuffed animal, a small toy, or a figurine. It can be fun to rotate who brings the talking piece and for the meaning of the talking piece to be shared at the beginning of the meeting. The talking piece is held by the person talking, all others are in the role of listening. When one is finished speaking it is passed left or right to the next speaker. The talking piece decreases the problem of interruptions and the common family phenomena of talking over each other. No one talks until it is their turn with the talking piece.
ROLE OF FACILITATOR: A family member (does not have to be a parent) facilitates. This person in in charge of the agenda (the meeting questions) and ensuring that the talking piece is used and honored.
FIRST MEETING: The first time you hold this type of family meeting it will be necessary to explain the purpose of the meeting, making your goals explicit and your expectations clear. A sample script to initiate this process is shared here.
”So thanks to all of you for coming to our first formal family meeting. I want to explain why I’m asking us to do this. I feel like we have an amazing family made up of amazing individuals. I want us to be our best both as a family and as separate people. Nobody is always at their best, so this meeting I think can help us stay accountable to ourselves and to each other and to make sure that everyone’s voices are heard and respected in this family. Each time we meet, we will sit here and we will use a talking piece. This week I brought to use as a talking piece. I picked it because _____. The person holding it is speaker and everyone else is listener, until the piece is passed to them. Each week we will have 4-5 questions to answer about ourselves and how we’re doing as a family. Is everyone understanding and on board so far?
NORM SETTING: It is important to give norm setting as much time as it requires to get full agreement from all family members. This is a moment when you establish the importance that everyone feels comfortable and safe expressing themselves and knows that their opinion is valued.
“First, we have to decide on how we want to act while we’re in these meetings. These are called norms or values. For example, I’ll go first. I would like it if we were all try to be really good listeners and to be open to other points of view. I also feel like we should all put our phones and electronics in the other room, so we are not distracted by them. What do you all think?”
Send the talking piece to the left or right. Each person states a norm they would like to add.
Other examples might be things like: Not laughing at others only with others; Being on time to meetings; Try to be positive; etc. Passing without contributing is acceptable. But in the end agreement on the norms must be unanimous.
When everyone has stated their desired norms, you can do a consensus round, meaning ask if everyone is in agreement with all of the norms stated. If someone disagrees with a stated norm, they are given the opportunity to express this and the group can decide to keep or get rid of that norm by sending the talking piece once around the room.
- After norms (which always goes first in every meeting), the first question can be a fun one about a favorite animal or vacation spot or candy, etc. This round is just to break ice and build connections and positivity.
- What are your goals this week for home and school or work?
- How did you do last week with your goals?
- In what way could others help you this week?
- Give someone in the room a compliment or say something positive you noticed about someone in the family this week.
When everyone has answered all of the questions, the meeting is over. It is a great community building ritual to end all meetings with food or a treat of some kind.
The family meeting done regularly and proactively increases positive feelings and closeness in the family.
A couple of Dos and DON’Ts:
- Don’t fall into a pattern of criticizing each other during the meetings.
- Do acknowledge efforts and movements in the direction of the family’s values.
- Don’t give unsolicited advice.
- Do ask permission do give advice, e.g. “Is it okay if I make a suggestion.“
- Do stop yourself from persisting if they say any version of “No.”
- Don’t use family meetings to discipline recent bad behavior.
- Don’t ignore flagrant norm; i.e. interruptions or disrespect or invalidating behavior.
- Don’t be focused on yourself, your concerns, and your judgments while others are speaking.
THE PROBLEM SOLVING MEETING
The problem-solving meeting is a meeting that is designed to address a pattern of behavior that is affecting relationships, causing hurt feelings, or disrupting set routines. It’s very important that this meeting is not held in the heat of the moment or when people are emotionally flooded. Just like the regular weekly family meeting, it always starts with norm setting, i.e. How do we want to act/be during this meeting? However, in a Problem Solving meeting, the questions are designed to get each person’s perspective on a specific issue. The following questions can be used in almost any situation, though it is also alright to design questions, as long as the aim is not to judge others, point out who is good and who is bad, or to just punish behavior. A way for a family member to “make up for” bad behavior or hurting others often is naturally generated in the last question. For example if one family member broke something that was not theirs, they may make up for it by taking responsibility, apologizing, and replacing the item or doing some other act of service for the harmed person.
Each person answers each question from their own point of view and then passes the talking piece until all questions are answered.
- What happened?
- What were you thinking at the time?
- What have you thought about since? Or what are you thinking about it now?
- Who has been affected by what happened?
- What do YOU need to do to make things right?
The last question is geared for the speaker to say what they will or can do differently, not to tell others what to do. If anyone has a suggestion for someone else, they would do well to ask if the suggestion is wanted before speaking.
There’s No Shame in Asking for Help
If your family struggles to do either of these types of meetings with everyone respecting the norms, you may need a little help getting them going, possibly agreeing to a few family therapy sessions where the therapist acts as facilitator for a few meetings training everyone in the Whys and Hows of the effective Family Meeting.
If you or anyone in your family is experiencing mental health concerns please call The Center for Collaborative Counseling and Psychiatry at 847-440-2281.
Wishing you all the best in taking your family from choas to (relative) order!
The Family Meeting
Dr. Piper Stratton, Ed.D, MA, LCPC
The Center for Collaborative Counseling and Psychiatry