Handling Inevitable Conflict in Family Business

JoAnne Norton
JoAnne Norton

Even though conflict is 100% predictable, completely unavoidable, and decidedly uncomfortable, many family owners avoid having disagreements at all costs. They don’t realize that smiling sweetly and yet again swallowing bitter bile only causes resentments to grow and unresolved issues to fester. Putting issues on the back burner causes emotion to boil over—probably at the most inopportune time.

An old axiom to remember is: “Choose your battles wisely.” Ask yourself if the conflict is a big deal in the first place and really needs to be addressed. It helps to remember Thomas Jefferson’s advice: “When angry, count to ten before you speak. If very angry, a hundred.” Screaming and yelling when you have a conflict with a family member is guaranteed to make a bad situation worse. Wait until you have calmed down or maybe even slept on it before broaching a sticky subject in your family business.

If the shoe is on the other foot, and your sibling is screaming at you, heed the advice of famed psychologist, Murray Bowen, who recommends in Family Systems Theory: “Don’t attack; don’t defend; don’t go silent; just remain neutral.” Bowen taught that screaming only escalates the fighting, but not saying anything at all could worsen the situation too.

If your cousin begins to lose her cool, agree to talk about the issue later when both of you are not in the heat of the moment. You will have a much better opportunity for successful resolution when you have two calm, composed people who are honestly and openly sharing their concerns. Carefully listening and paraphrasing back to each other what has been heard can be most productive.

In my family, we have a wonderful expression: “No matter how thin the pancake, there are always two sides.” Sometimes the solution is serendipitously obvious when each person is heard and feels understood. Family relationships are some of the most precious sources of happiness in our lives, so learning to deal with conflict constructively and confidently is worth the time and effort.