By Carolyn Rodenberg
Every family business has conflict. Conflict happens when things change. Conflict, in and of itself, is not good or bad, but the way we respond to conflict has deep repercussions for the family and the business.
Families too often work together for decades but never develop appropriate processes to communicate openly and honestly. Instead, they rely on communication patterns developed when the family was young and most of the communication was triangular.
For example, if the children wanted something from Dad, they often went to Mom, and she talked to Dad for them. In my experience, that communication pattern still occurs in many family businesses—even when the kids are middle-aged adults.
Avoiding conflict by not talking about it is common in family businesses. This is only a Band-Aid, and if the lesion is left unattended, bleeding usually occurs. Major surgery might result, such as splitting the business or destroying family relationships.
When family members disagree, they often go “silent,” burying themselves in work and hoping the tension will just disappear. Anger, pain and frustration, however, always find their time for expression. Avoiding the issues for the moment frequently results in eruptions later at inappropriate times. This puts both the family and the business at risk.
One of the best ways to start learning and practicing new ways to communicate is to hold a family meeting. I suggest asking a third party to facilitate the discussion so all family members can participate. This person should be a close business adviser or trained facilitator.
The meeting should be held around a table in a neutral location so everyone can talk more comfortably about his/her concerns, wants and needs. It is important to include adult family members who might not be actively working in the business (spouses and adult siblings) because most major issues and discussion will involve the family in addition to the business. Everyone needs to hear the same things at the same time.
At the start of the meeting, the facilitator should help the group create guidelines for discussing issues. This list includes honest, open-minded, respectful and kind and should be posted so all participants can see it throughout the meeting.
Sitting down together and trying to effectively communicate involves far less risk than avoiding the issues, which might have disastrous consequences. Confronting and dealing with differences with open and honest communication can result in strengthened family bonds and a more productive business. Developing and practicing new ways to communicate is hard, but essential, work for families if they are going to successfully work together and maintain close family relationships. Why not ask your family business members, “Can we talk?”
These questions encourage participants to maintain objectivity and avoid personal attacks or criticisms in a family meeting.