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Effective Strategies for Avoiding and Managing Family Conflict Questions and Answers

On September 21, 2011 the Family Business Consulting Group held a live webinar titled Effective Strategies for Avoiding and Managing Family Conflict.  David Lansky was the presenter for this program along with Carol Ryan acting as the moderator.  Below are a few of the questions presented by the audience during the live program.  If you missed the program and would like to listen to the on-line replay you can download the program using this link.  http://eventcallregistration.com/reg/index.jsp?cid=600t11pk#od  Future FBCG webinar programs are listed at this link.  http://www.efamilybusiness.com/index.cfm?md=Content&sd=AudioConference&MatterID=40

Q. How do you break negative habits?

A. Often conflict can result from repetition of negative communication habits. Provided all parties agree that they want to change their negative habits, creating opportunities to practice new behaviors can be helpful. Sometimes agreeing on a signal (“pulling your ear lobe”) that indicates that the bad habit is being exercised can help increase awareness and create an opportunity to practice a new behavior.

Q. Does “divorce” count as a cut-off and thus make it more likely that other cutoffs will happen in succeeding generations?

A. This is a good question. I think the answer depends on how the divorce is managed in the family. Some divorces do not impose a cut off, communication continues between the parties and may be encouraged. However, when one or more parties to a divorce expect other family members to stop communicating with an exiting spouse, this can result in all of the destructive consequences that come from other types of cut off.

Q. How do you communicate to the other person so the other person will listen?

A.As I mentioned in the webinar, the very best way I know to get someone to listen to you is by listening to that person.

Q. What happens when someone says they are a failure because you don’t agree with them?

A. I would ignore the comment. He/she is entitled to that opinion. The real question is how will we resolve our disagreement?

Q. With regard to destructive entitlement what if the injustice is merely perceived – not a true injustice?

A. It is ALWAYS a matter of perceived injustice, since what is “real” to one party may be trivial to another. As a beginning, I would take the perception very seriously and spend a lot of time listening and seeking to understand the other party’s perceptions.

Q. How do you recommend resolving this conflict across generations of siblings and next generation – One sibling creates conflict and fights to force fairness for her kids, speaks for them, creates special opportunities for them.  When the next gen kids haven’t earned what the parent is fighting for like their next gen cousins who did it on their own and who then become resentful.  The other siblings try to avoid the conflict by ignoring it. Is there a way to handle this without a third party facilitator?

A. Excellent question and a very difficult situation. There are elements here of over-protectiveness and triangulation. I would guess the overprotective party thinks that she is the victim herself of injustice, resulting in destructive entitlement. Can this be resolved without a third party? It would be very difficult.  I would expect a third party to bring an objective trusted perspective that is not perceived as interfering with parental rights.

Q. Is there a way to successfully transfer an asset (business) to two family members who will share power or is this a recipe for disaster?

A. It is certainly possible provided the parties agree before hand on how power will be shared: Who has authority over which issues? How will decisions be made? What if we are deadlocked? If these things are not addressed before hand the chances of disaster are vastly increased.

Q.  Were you suggesting that one listens better (or less effectively)-or more earnestly in the eyes of the talker – if you take pen and paper and write down what the person is saying while they are talking?

A.  Writing things down helps listening in two ways: it focuses you on what the other party is saying and occupies your mind so that you don’t immediately react to what you are hearing!

Q. Thoughts on dealing with the “always ‘toxic'” family member?

A. Be realistic, stop arguing, and consider whether a graceful exit is possible. “Toxic” family members will sometimes stop being toxic if they think they may be encouraged to exit. They will almost certainly stop  being toxic if they are no longer part of a shared enterprise.  The family council (or other family representatives) need to decide  whether they have a mandate to deal with the toxicity. Are they empowered by the family at large to manage the behavior of individual family members? If not,  the only strategy remaining may be to ignore them and give them as little attention as possible during family meetings. “

Q.How do you determine when a conflict is a public/family business conflict  or a personal interfamily member conflict?

A. Great question! Some conflicts do need to be ignored by the family at large, others require attention. When a conflict is spilling over into the larger family and interfering with family functions, it probably merits broad family attention. I have found that family councils, exec committees, etc., can usefully explore whether it is within their mandate to address the conflict or not.

Q.  What suggestions do you have when you have a sibling that unilaterally makes decisions and several of the other siblings are very angry and want him removed. He has been the one running the business  so he thinks that he has to make the decisions and refuses to listen.

A.  You all should sit down with a third party and explore the roots of the conflict. All options for a  solution should be on the table, including separation.

Q.  Would these issues be easier to handle if the enterprise is looked at as a business family and not a family business

A. Interesting question. Viewing yourselves as a business family might bring a greater emphasis on the shared goal of being together in harmony.   However, if the underlying dynamics do not change, conflict will probably continue.