Families that work together successfully while maintaining positive family relationships have figured out how to have difficult conversations and reach agreement on challenging matters. Conciliatory gestures, doing something or saying something that expresses a concession or a willingness to make a concession, can play an important role in this success. Conciliatory gestures help create a safe environment for multiple parties to make concessions as they work toward agreement.
Examples of conciliatory gestures include apologizing for what was said or for how you behaved; acknowledging your contribution to the challenging situation which demonstrates a willingness to be accountable, and positive expressions about the other’s contribution. These gestures demonstrate vulnerability and a desire to find common ground. This in turn can elicit a conciliatory gesture on the part of others as the expressions send a message that fairness will be represented in the ultimate decision.
In order for this to be effective, all parties must share a fundamental belief that they all have the greater good of the family and the business in mind balanced with respect and consideration for individual interests. Absent this mindset, conciliatory gestures may be viewed as less than authentic and therefore manipulative.
Give it a try. The next time you are engaged in a discussion that is emotionally charged and where opinions vary, try out the use of a few conciliatory gestures. Set the example for the group engaged in the discussion as it may be contagious and could lead to a break through to agreement.
A couple were driving home and the wife mentioned that she talked to her brother that day. She said she was sad because her brother had confided that he was having a tough time at work and home. She was worried about him. The husband quickly started to solve the problem by suggesting how her brother should change and take charge of his life. After a while (with no response from the wife) he stopped talking. The husband knew the wife was now upset with him so he sheepishly asked what was wrong.
The same man was also unsure why he was having difficulty with his relationship with his son at work. His son was bright and the father was proud to have him consider taking a leadership position one day. But the son could be cranky and shut down around the father. The father knew the son needed more training and experience. When he first started working there, he would ask his father questions but now rarely talked with him unless the father requested a meeting. In those meetings the discussions always seemed to be tense and one-sided.
Both of those situations could be helped by one thing: the ability to listen better. Listening is such an important skill to hone, but too few actually actively practice. It seems unnatural in this day and age of emails, texts, and quick phone calls. Our minds are busy solving problems, thinking about the demands that life puts on us, and especially in a family business, receiving information from others through the lens that we have built up over the years. We get stuck in positions of defending, explaining, knowing what they’re going to say (but do we?), and solving their problems that we forget to listen.
Listening with patience and an open mind can create the type of thinking that is enormously creative, build trust among those who do not have it and enhance that of those who do, build self-confidence among those with none, and instill wonderment for those who do it. It is so hard to actively listen with patience and an open mind. There are so many demands on time that we get in the habit of responding quickly. If we take too much time to think we believe people will get impatient. We jump in and finish thoughts and take the conversation the way we view it. We solve their problems. After all, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do for the people we love?
For just today, try this:
Pick one person and give yourself time to listen them.
Actively try to hear every word that person says to you.
Do not interrupt or answer until they are finished.
Look at them during the entire time they are talking.
Force your mind to not jump to what you think they’re going to say.
Do not begin to formulate your response until they have stopped talking.
Do not fix their problem, but ask a question instead.
The steps are basic, but hard to do with every conversation. Just for one day, with one person, practice the most crucial component to communication. We have two ears and one mouth for a reason.
In keeping with the theme of change and complexity, it is well known that families who own and operate successful enterprises manage both of those at the same time and, it may seem, all the time. It isn’t enough to create both long and short-term strategic plans for the business: Family leaders must also balance family dynamics, family interests, family future engagement, and sometimes, family conflict. Of course, that doesn’t mean that managing the change that comes from those complexities are always quickly accomplished or immediately appreciated.
That’s where Dr. David Cooperrider’s development of an OD (Organizational Development) or change management tool called Appreciate Inquiry comes into the picture. This tool, or process, has gained a great deal of attention in recent years because it is based on the homespun notion that what we learn and know about, what truly works and “gives life”, is actually more effective and sustainable than what we learn from breakdowns, problems or pathologies. Most businesses are trained to focus on fixing the latter while taking for granted the wisdom that comes from the former.
Cooperrider’s basic philosophy in developing Appreciative Inquiry was that “organizations are heliotropic” – that is they are like a plant that leans toward the sun. He identified key assumptions about A.I. that can have significant influence on how change is experienced and managed: That every organization has at least some things that work well and that what we focus on becomes our reality.
This positive focus does not mean that problems do not exist or are to be denied or ignored but that they are purposefully just not the primary frame of reference in managing the results of large scale change. John McKnight in, Building Communities from the Inside Out, relays the story of a carpenter who lost a leg in an accident. According to McKnight, the carpenter can choose to focus on his capacity for woodworking, or on his deficiency due to his missing limb. The positive principle underlying Appreciative Inquiry says that by focusing on his capacity, the carpenter is more likely to sow the seeds for creating his desired and most productive future reality, even though it is through significant change.
Finally, according to Sue Annis Hammond, one of the key aspects of Appreciative Inquiry revolves around the idea that “if we carry parts of the past into the future, they should be what is best about the past”. That seems to make good sense to me and is consistent with what I know about the best of the family enterprise.
For family businesses, this perspective is baked-in to the process of effective continuity planning, for example, for the next generation’s involvement in the enterprise. That process is underpinned with strong desires followed by clear plans to pass along the strengths of the organization’s most life-giving narrative and behaviors rather than it’s difficulties and potential dysfunctions. Given these realities, family businesses are naturals to engage in Appreciative Inquiry as one of their primary change management tools.
David L. Cooperrider (2000), “Positive Image, Positive Action,” in Appreciative Management and Leadership.
Sue Annis Hammond (1998), The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry, 2nd ed.
John McKnight (1993), Building Communities from the Inside Out.
Have you ever been in an argument with your father (or any other family member) regarding something related to the family business where you both behaved badly, said nasty things, and essentially blew your tops? Neuroscientists call this a “limbic hijacking”.
During a conflict situation it takes our brain only a millisecond to recognize a threat and move into high gear for a fight, flight or freeze reaction. Our brain calls for the release of adrenaline and reduces the production of dopamine (our feel good chemical). Our heart rate and blood pressure increases. Our breathing becomes shallow. We start to sweat. Blood flows out of our organs into our major muscle groups. Our pupils dilate and we develop tunnel vision. We sometimes get shaky or turn bright red. Essentially our brain is saying “Pay Attention Right Now!” and sets us up to react without having to think. Literally we do not have to “think” about what we are going to do because the automatic processing parts of our brain take over.
Research into the neurosciences is helping us understand this rapid and intense reaction at a deeper and more profound level. Neuroscientists suggest that the part of our brain responsible for our higher level thinking (pre-frontal cortex) has an inverse relationship to the part of our brain responsible for emotions (limbic system) and our automatic response to a threat as described above. In other words, when we react in a conflict situation we are not thinking, listening or responding with our rationale brain resources. In fact, our brain gets hijacked by our emotions. We can virtually stop “thinking”.
Conflict is inevitable and completely normal; and therefore, conflict in family business is somewhat standard fare. So how can we learn to better handle our “limbic moments” in a family business? The good news is that our brain has plasticity which means it can learn. A simple three-step process can help mitigate a limbic hijacking:
Take three deep breaths to introduce endorphins in your system which will calm you down.
Stop and “think” – shift your attention away from your emotions to thinking. Think about what happened. How did you react? Why did you react to way you did? Why did the other person react the way they did? Or think about something entirely different. Ask yourself a question to start your thinking processes.
Consider your triggers. “Think” about what triggered such a strong reaction in yourself and/or your family member. Determine how you want to react the next time the trigger appears. Identifying triggers can help us recognize them more easily in future interactions.
It will be difficult to resolve a conflict in your family business if someone is experiencing a limbic hijacking. Training your brain by using mindfulness techniques (see previous blog this week) and the process above will help to strengthen your ability to manage the automatic brain responses that kick-in during stressful situations in your family business.
If you are interested in reading more about how your brain functions, please see “Your Brain at Work” by David Rock. It offers a useful overview.
Asset sharing families often struggle with questions of fairness. It’s a familiar dilemma: Must we treat all family members the same (equally) in order to be fair? An affirmative response requires ignoring differences between people and this may be perceived as unfair and paternalistic. A more realistic approach is to recognize the differences and to be transparent in discussions, explaining WHY family members are being treated differently.
Family members occasionally resist really listening to each other out of fear that listening signifies agreement. Not true. In fact, good communication may occasionally be reinforced by the conscious intention to not express agreement or disagreement, but simply to listen. That’s harder for some people than for others.
All of these aphorisms have a similar goal: To suppress open communication about potentially disturbing topics. But suppressed communication does not mean an issue is not present. On the contrary, it is often the things we don’t talk about that have the most impact in our relationships. The solution is to create a process for safely putting issues on the table, accompanied by mutually respectful listening and problem solving. A third party facilitator can really help in this regard by helping to identify the right issues, promoting good listening and driving toward effective problem solving.
While of course good communication is important for all families , the stakes are higher for asset sharing families. Communication breakdown, conflict, and family dissension may affect not only family relationships, but business integrity and the livelihood of family members, employees, community members and many other stakeholders. So asset sharing families would be well advised to make good communication an integral part of family culture, something to strive for, to nurture and to preserve.
I’ve been talking about how people make sense of the world and sometimes, as a result, align themselves with other people holding similar views. While this is simply a natural aspect of human relationships, in family businesses, this dynamic can either serve the family and its enterprise in some lasting and meaningful ways or can create rifts between family groups when views are driven by groupthink. This is important in family businesses because groupthink can occur within families as each family member defers to what they think another family member wants.
Bob was the founder of his family’s successful nursery and gardening business. His two sons had grown up in the business and now managed all operations involved in the enterprise. Bob didn’t talk much about retiring and loved coming to work everyday, but he had been increasingly thinking about retiring and the plan he had made with Sally, his wife, included that he would have stepped away from the day to day business to travel, spend more time with the grandchildren and friends. But that plan was five years past due.
Based on a couple of off-handed remarks the boys had made about around the lines of “we couldn’t do this without you, Dad”, Bob had developed the idea that his sons would not be happy if he wasn’t in the office. The boys, on the other hand, were concerned about helping their dad feel valued and needed. Even though they had the entire organization well under their control and they actually wanted him to enjoy a well deserved retirement.
Hence, no one actually examined the assumptions each were making about the other or bothered to be honest about their thinking because they were deferring to what they each thought to be the other’s wishes. Bob and his sons have been participants in groupthink.
Groupthink occurs when individuals make decisions by going along with what they think others want to do without sharing differences of opinion, vetting other options, or exploring alternative outcomes. It creates a group mindset that is based on a limited view of important issues combined with a low commitment to bring in as much available information as possible. This leads to poor decision-making and can breed an environment ripe for misunderstanding and conflict.
In a family business, the fact that differences are not talked about opens the door to misunderstanding of individual goals and wishes and can escalate conflict between people by leaving individual assumptions about those differences in those individual goals and wishes unchallenged and left to become “well-known-facts”.
All families have rules for fighting, but very few families make them explicit. Even worse many families have highly unproductive rules for fighting that leave heavy blast zones and bullet ridden bodies littered on the ground. For business owning families serious about working together effectively, the unwritten and unspoken need to be made explicit and the family needs to craft and agree on methods of conflict resolution that will allow continuous learning and successful resolution of the issues causing tension.
Some common approaches include:
We speak for ourselves and do not blame others for our behavior or emotional reactions.
We own our individual emotional reactions and practice managing our hot buttons and triggers.
We seek to understand rather than rush to judgment.
We put one issue on the table at a time and make a list of new or unrelated issues that emerge during the discussion, coming back to them when there is time.
We state our goals in working with each other before we jump into conflict mode.
We behave as though there are cameras in the room and the videotape will be shown to future generations to judge how effective we were in caring for each other and resolving issues.
Ownership groups that agree on how they will address conflict and then put it into practice will benefit from strong alignment on how they handle sensitive issues.
How effective is your family’s plan for dealing with conflict?