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How to stave off conflict and hit a happy compromise in business

Dennis Jaffe is a founding member of the Aspen Family Business Group.

Families and their businesses do well if they have effective communication skills and regular forums for sharing information. Dennis Jaffe describes how to extract the best outcomes and reach emotional stability in the potential cauldron of family business

A few weeks ago I was locked up in a holiday home, with two generations of a business family—two parents, their four adult children, and two spouses. Three of the siblings and a spouse worked in their successful business. Absent physically, was the matriarch, who had founded the business and ran it successfully for 30 years. The challenges were deep – the matriarch had sold the business several years before, but continued to come into work every day as if it had never happened, two siblings who worked closely together had different visions of what was to be done, and the parents felt caught in the middle of the two generations. Everyone felt there was difficulty communicating in the family, with the result that nothing ever improved, causing more and more distress to all parties.

What did they mean by poor communication? It was clear from the moment they began to talk – each person would complain about the behaviour of the others. The person accused would argue back with other accusations. Each person had come to the retreat with the idea that they would berate someone else into submitting to their view, but also with the knowledge that this wasn't likely to happen.
Now you could argue this was progress. Before the family meeting, people had made the accusations to a third party – a form of communication known as "triangling" where one person who has conflict with another deals with their feelings by talking to a third person, who is then caught in the middle. What could I do? I could ask them to try to talk to each other differently. But I needed to get their attention, and most of all, to shift the tone from one of blame and recrimination, to a focus on the business.

I used a tool that has had an impact on many types of organisations – from large corporations, to non-profits and communities. While it is deceptively simple, it has a powerful effect on a group. The process, called Appreciative Inquiry, developed by David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney, suggests that change can best occur in a group or organisation not by focusing on solving problems, or finding who is responsible for them, and fixing each one, but by shifting the focus to what the group, organisation, family or community is doing well, and increasing those activities.

I stopped the bickering, and asked people to step back and take a few minutes to talk about what went well in the business. The tone changed markedly and people even had some nice things to say to each other. They talked about each person's skills and the long history of the business through three generations. They recalled successes and achievements, and recognised their grandmother's wisdom. The tone of the group softened, as they looked at their common heritage.
Then I framed a question to them, "How can we develop what we have that works well and prepare the business to succeed in the new millennium?" I asked each one to make positive statements of what they would like to see, not to say what was wrong with someone or something. After a while, they started talking about how to make things better.
The appreciative attitude is one that you can take into any meeting. It is a view where the focus of the discussion is not on what is wrong, or who is to blame, but on the future, what you want to achieve and how you can do it. Rather than try to fix the negative you build on the positive. Critics suggest that this practice glosses over and avoids facing real difficulties, and sometimes that can be so. But the experience that I have with warring families is that the search for someone to blame, and the kind of discussion where people talk about what is wrong with each other, just leads each person to turn off from each other.
This attitude can help pairs of people in a family communicate better. Consider an exchange between two family members with a long history of disagreement. One of them begins, and the other gets upset, and an emotional trigger is pulled. The person listening reacts and the heat rises. Family members have spent years learning each other's emotional triggers, and then get stuck in exchanges, which are all emotional reactivity. To build communication what must be done is to help people step back from their emotional responses to each other.

There are several ways to do this. One simple technique is to just allow each person in the family to talk without interruption. Think about what a change this can be in a family. People who are used to interrupting, arguing, blaming and never listening to each other now have to step back, and listen. They listen not just to the other person, but to their own emotional response as well. Sometimes, they can learn to watch their emotional response, and ask themselves why they are so upset at what their sibling or parent is doing. They also learn that even if they are upset at what someone else is saying, they don't have to get angry or fight back when they are upset.

Another way to work on moving from conflict to understanding is to help family members to understand that the effect that someone's behaviour has on others is sometimes not what is intended. One person's intention and the effect of what they do are quite different. If you don't say hello to your brother in the morning, that does not mean you are angry, or don't like them. There are many reasons for that behaviour. If the other person assumes that the intention is to snub the other, and then adds their own assumptions about what the other is thinking, then emotions begin to escalate. By checking out with the other what they were thinking and feeling, one can begin to see how communication becomes more difficult when one family member reacts, and assumes the other's has certain intentions, without making sure they are correct.

One can consider a family to be an emotional system, where people react to each other in ways that have developed over the years, and find it hard to step back and see that people have matured, changed and are often different than they were in earlier stages of life. In order to build working relationships, as adults, each family member must get beyond emotional patterns formed in childhood. The personal hurt that a person feels because of what took place in the family makes it difficult to step out of one's own perspective and see things through the others' eyes.

This ability is part of what Daniel Goleman and his associates have called emotional intelligence (EI). This quality is essential to effective family leadership and transition between generations. If more than one family members is to work in the business, and the members are to develop good professional relationships, the individuals must learn EI skills. These include the ability to notice and understand one's feelings, the ability to listen to the feelings of others, and the ability to moderate one's impulses.

In a family meeting, these skills may be practiced. One can learn about one's own feelings by stopping oneself from ­reactive blaming of others, and ask oneself, "what is making me so upset with this other family member? What am I afraid of?" In this case, one's attention shifts from what one wants from the other, to pay attention to one's own reactions and their nature. In a family meeting, another way to slow down the emotional roller coaster is to ask an upset individual to explore and learn about their own feelings. Like appreciative inquiry, this shifts attention and leads to a more reflective, open tone.

Another technique that helps family members come to an understanding, is to ask the person whose response has triggered an upset reaction, to talk about their feelings, and how they see the situation. The upset person is asked to stop and listen, and try to understand how the other feels. This sort of learning helps family members develop the EI to learn how to work together.

It is hard enough staying connected as a family, without adding the complexity of money, inheritance, and work relationships to the mix. In order to navigate these multiple layers of complexity, family members must work together to develop the skills of good communication using techniques like appreciative inquiry, and emotional intelligence.

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