In today’s whirlwind of responsibilities and distractions, it’s easy to become consumed by the demands of the present, frequently at the expense of our future selves. This can jeopardize our ability to focus on and communicate with others about difficult and complex, yet essential planning – whether it be financial, estate, business success, or family governance. Here, we delve into the psychological barriers to effective communication that sometimes hinder our efforts and offer strategic steps to become better communicators.
Barriers to Effective Communication
- Current vs. Future You: Humans have an innate inclination to prioritize the present over the future. When our thoughts dwell on our current selves, our brains buzz with activity. Yet as we project into the future, this neural activity wanes. Said differently, people typically think about their future selves the same way they think about other people – with much less concern and attention than how they think about their present lives. This cognitive bias presents a host of challenges, including avoidance and a lack of focus, which hinder our capacity for effective communication.
- Procrastinating: One of the most common outcomes of our present-focused mindset is procrastination. We put off tasks that will benefit our future selves, opting instead for instant gratification or comfort. This may look like delaying a critical work project until the 11th hour or neglecting important decisions until the last minute – in both cases, our choices have consequences for our future productivity and peace of mind. Procrastination often comes into play when dealing with tough conversations among family members, where there is typically no specific deadline to motivate faster results.
- Diminishing the Importance of Long-Term Planning: In an era of nearly instantaneous results, maintaining the patience and focus required for meticulous long-term planning can feel like a daunting task. It can be tempting to reframe this planning as unnecessary or less important than it really is. Thus, we tend to prioritize the here and now, inadvertently relegating communication around strategic thinking and future goals to the background.
- Dodging Uncomfortable Conversations: Another facet of our present-centric thinking is our inclination to sidestep challenging subjects or conversations. We push aside discussions about our health, finances, or relationships because we believe they are better left for “later.” However, this avoidance only amplifies issues and erects communication barriers with loved ones, leading to misunderstandings, uncertainty, and unaddressed concerns.
Enhance Future-Oriented Communication
To improve communication skills and balance present and future needs, consider these five strategic steps.
1. Focus on Your Future Self: The initial step to overcoming a natural tendency to deprioritize your future needs and goals is to intentionally focus on the idea that your future self is an extension of who you are today. Recognize that the choices you make now will profoundly affect your and your family’s future well-being.
By fully internalizing the idea that planning for your future is integral to your long-term success and fulfillment, you’ll be better equipped to make thoughtful choices and more willing to discuss these plans.
When you confront a decision or commitment that has only long-term ramifications, ask yourself, “If this was happening to me today, rather than in the future, how would I respond?” This deceptively simple question acts as a potent reminder to consider the long-term implications of your choices and encourage deliberate dialogue around forward-thinking actions and planning.
2. Acknowledge Future Demands and Set Deadlines: In addition to our tendency to emphasize the present over the future, we often tend to believe that we will have more time available in the future than we do in the present. Even though the amount of time in a day never changes, it nevertheless feels as though we will have more flexibility in our calendars a week, a month, or a year from now.
This misconception often leads us to put off important activities and conversations because we assume we’ll have more time to address them down the road; however, our schedules often remain just as hectic, if not busier.
Recognize that you’ll likely face similar levels of busyness in the future and that if something is truly important, you need to set clear goals and deadlines now. Imposing deadlines, even if they’re arbitrary, can create a sense of urgency.
Ahead of conversations about planning, establish a deadline for conveying vital information. It’s okay if not all the details of the plan are worked out by then – gaps or uncertainties can be acknowledged as “in process” or disregarded until a future session.
The important takeaway here is that self-imposed deadlines function as a motivational force to overcome procrastination, driving the conversation forward and ensuring that discussions translate into actionable outcomes.
3. Employ Visualization Techniques: Often, the reason we dismiss concerns about our future is because of its abstract nature. To bridge this gap, employ visualization techniques.
Spend time immersing yourself in the scenarios of your and your family’s future lives. What does this future world look like after your death if you never discuss your current plans with your loved ones or your business partners? What would you prefer it to look like? What realistic and actionable steps are necessary to help achieve that desired outcome?
This exercise not only makes your future seem more tangible, but also reinforces the importance of making decisions today that can positively shape tomorrow. By repeatedly connecting with a well-defined future image, you develop a deeper commitment to it, making it easier to engage in essential discussions that pave the way to that envisioned outcome.
4. Utilize a Structured Communication Framework: The complexity of certain topics can make them challenging to broach, especially when multiple issues are intertwined. A structured approach like the Situation, Task, Action, Result (STAR) method can streamline the conversation:
- Start by outlining the current situation, detailing the specific tasks or challenges at hand.
- Then, delve into the actions or solutions you're considering.
- Conclude by envisioning the potential outcomes or results.
This structured approach brings clarity, ensuring everyone involved understands the topic from all angles and making complex discussions more navigable – essentially breaking one large and daunting hurdle into several smaller, more manageable tasks.
5. Seek Third-Party Assistance for the Most Challenging Topics: In some situations, the nature of the conversation, the complexity of the subject, or the dynamics between the participants can make direct, effective communication challenging.
A third-party advisor, including BBH wealth planners and relationship managers, can be invaluable when emotions run high, the subject matter is dense and confusing, or there’s a history of miscommunication.
Often, such advisors have encountered similar situations throughout their careers and can rely on such experience to help guide successful communications among family and business partners. They also bring an unbiased perspective and help to facilitate the conversation, ensure all voices are heard, and guide the discussion toward a productive resolution.
Becoming an effective communicator necessitates transcending the pull of the present moment. You can harmonize today’s demands with future aspirations by engaging in activities that highlight your future self, recognizing the enduring demands of tomorrow, and relying on third-party advisors. While never easy, elevating your communication prowess is a crucial step toward building a more fulfilling and successful tomorrow.
To learn more about how we help clients navigate difficult conversations, please reach out to our Values-Based Wealth Planning team.
Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. (“BBH”) may be used to reference the company as a whole and/or its various subsidiaries generally. This material and any products or services may be issued or provided in multiple jurisdictions by duly authorized and regulated subsidiaries. This material is for general information and reference purposes only and does not constitute legal, tax or investment advice and is not intended as an offer to sell, or a solicitation to buy securities, services or investment products. Any reference to tax matters is not intended to be used, and may not be used, for purposes of avoiding penalties under the U.S. Internal Revenue Code, or other applicable tax regimes, or for promotion, marketing or recommendation to third parties. All information has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable, but accuracy is not guaranteed, and reliance should not be placed on the information presented. This material may not be reproduced, copied or transmitted, or any of the content disclosed to third parties, without the permission of BBH. All trademarks and service marks included are the property of BBH or their respective owners. © Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. 2023. All rights reserved. PB-06866-2023-10-30