Why Are Family Meetings So Emotionally Draining?

by John L. Ward 

Most family members find family meetings to be emotionally draining and the anticipation of family meetings to be full of anxiety.  This is true even of strong and loving families, with either benign or exciting agendas on their horizon.  Why?  Listening to several families address this question provides the following explanations. 

  • Hot Spots” Are Always Expected
    Every family has tender or vulnerable relationships or topics that can come up with little warning.  While it isn’t at every meeting, it is inevitable that they occasionally arise.  Infrequent, inevitable, unpredictable, uncomfortable occurrences provide the highest levels of anxiety.
  • Family Meetings are an Unending Process
    Every family meeting, every family decision; seems to beget another.  Not knowing the next steps or decisions creates constant alertness and the tension of constant preparedness without knowing exactly what’s being prepared for.  Inevitably, members seem to believe, a tough emotional decision will arise.  But uncertainty about when it will arise adds to the nervousness.
  • Expectations are Damaged
    Families often include so many idealistic hopes for each other and for the family.  Time together dealing with difficult decisions can lead to disappointments to those idealistic expectations.
  • Process is Hard Work
    For some people in every family, process is a difficult experience, one in which they don’t feel comfortable.  They are better at tasks, projects, decisions that have a clear beginning and end.  Quite often those most uncomfortable with process are the family leader of the business whose power, when uncomfortable or dissatisfied, can lead to thunderous outbursts.
  • Power Moves Eventually Surface
    Family meetings often attempt to put all adult family members on a peer basis.  But, from time to time, the senior generation does exert its power, usually when they are personally uncomfortable or their past actions or their beliefs are questioned.  Those reversions of power by parents deflate and spark despondency in the next generation.  Nothing creates more pain and sets back the family meeting process more.

All these possibilities and uncertainties generate anxieties and stressful vigilance.  Anxieties and vigilance are very fatiguing.  And, with families, there is no break.  The family and family memories are always with us.  Withdrawing to recharge and refresh personal energy is very difficult.

Families and family meetings can, of course, also be the sources of the greatest joys and the greatest accomplishments.  Families usually provide support for each other and the warmth of love is so comforting.  But when families work together, taking on more decisions together, the above issues also are part of the equation.  While fully worth the energy and anxieties for most families, it is important to remember that family meetings are emotionally draining for most, leading to great ambivalence over the whole idea of family meetings.

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