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Articles - Conflict and Confrontation in Family - Business

Master the art of listening to overcome your communication problems

Friday, June 02, 2000



By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

One of the first things that most people ask a psychologist is for help communicating. Jimmy and Brent were no different. Jimmy wanted help developing a succession plan so that one day he could turn his profitable business over to his son Brent when Jimmy was ready to retire. Retirement was about ten years away so there was plenty of time to develop the plan and begin training the successor. The only problem was that the communication between father and son was atrocious.

Jimmy as a sole proprietor had run his business very successfully for many years. He had built it from the ground up with little help from anyone, bankers or friends. He and his wife raised their three children while growing the business. Two children were off working elsewhere and with no desire to come into the family business. Although they had worked summers and after school for Dad, they determined in college that their interests were elsewhere. The middle child Brent, however, worked steadily for Jimmy over the years. He never worked elsewhere in fact and was now identified as the successor.

The communication problems surfaced as the succession planning evolved. Brent had an employee mentality and seemed unaware that he needed to begin demonstrating leadership skills. Afterall, he had never had management responsibility until now, so was unaccustomed to it. In the course of training him to run the business Jimmy began turning over projects to Brent. However, Brent waited for guidance from Jimmy and never completed the projects. This infuriated Jimmy who lashed out at Brent. Brent withdrew and did even less work. Jimmy started making lists for Brent. And it went on like this until the two were thoroughly alienated.

To unscramble a communication mess like this it was necessary for Jimmy and Brent to begin listening to each other in a new way. Communication is more about listening than it is about talking. And communication is mostly about listening to the real meaning intended behind the words being spoken or written. For example, when my daughter Bianca was just three, she looked up at me with a very serious expression on her little face and said, "My neck is tight."

Three-year-olds have limited life experience and an even more limited expressive vocabulary. Taking this into consideration I wondered if she was trying to tell me something but was using words in a way unfamiliar to me. Further, she was coming to me with her problem, so she must have thought telling me this would be of some help to her or me. Third, I asked myself how it might feel if my neck were tight. Then the light bulb went off. I asked her if her neck was tight on the inside and she nodded an affirmative. So I explained that we called that feeling a "sore throat," and I gave her something to soothe the irritation.

There are a few simple tips you can begin practicing immediately to clear up communication problems you are having with your loved ones, employees, friends and business associates. First, listen for what the other person means not just what they are saying. Bianca was trying to tell me she had a sore throat and that she wanted help. Brent through his actions was demonstrating that he didn't understand what leadership means. Jimmy can't assume that Brent will catch on quickly if he has never had the opportunity to learn or practice this skill.

A second tip is to ask yourself "Why is he or she telling me this?" When people communicate they unconsciously and many times consciously identify a certain person to talk with. The person is chosen because the speaker needs a certain kind of feedback that they hope they will get from the person. My daughter Bianca chose to tell me about her sore throat because I am her mother and a person likely to care and to help her. Jimmy chose Brent to be his successor because they are father and son. Jimmy's impatience with his son is because he expects Brent to understand him better than others and because he is the heir to the business. Jimmy cares about his son, not just the business. He wants his son to succeed, so he pushes.

Third, assume that the person has a very good reason for telling you their story. It is often easy to dismiss another person when they don't make sense to you or perhaps are talking about something uninteresting. Often the only reason for talking is to connect with another person. If the other person is telling you something you already know, or sharing a tidbit of local gossip, or asking you questions about yourself, it is quite possible they are "just making conversation." But this is no small thing. There is nothing small about "small talk." It is a quick way to build rapport and trust between people. Often in our busy lives we skip the small talk and get on with the agenda.

Jimmy and Brent were more successful with their communication when they realized that at work they had seldom engaged in small talk. In the past, Brent had quickly learned to do his assignments and not interrupt his busy father. Thus when Jimmy began turning over important projects requiring more communication of an executive nature, Brent didn't know what to do. He expected his father to give him an assignment, not ask for his opinion. When the two started to talk as peers, to engage in chitchat, Brent began to understand that his opinions mattered. He began to engage in more creative thinking which eventually lead to developing his innate leadership abilities.

Communicating is an art. It is a complex never ending process that requires your attention. If you assume because you are in the same family, or because you work in the same industry, or because you are both native English speakers, that understanding each other is simple, you will create confusion over and over again. On the other hand, if you try these three tips . . . listening for the meaning, noticing why the speaker chose you, and accepting the meaningfulness of all communication no matter how small . . . not only will your communication effectiveness grow, but your relationships will improve too. Doesn't it feel good to be understood? Try giving that to others.

Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S., Licensed Psychologist and Family/Business Consultant is the author of ENTREPRENEURIAL COUPLES: Making It Work at Work and at Home (Davies-Black, 1998). She can be reached at (360) 256-0448 or www.kmarshack.com. Look for her new website especially for entrepreneurs www.executivecouples.com.

Can competition at work cost you your marriage?

Thursday, March 02, 2000



By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

Toni and Vance were really startled by how quickly their marriage was disintegrating after they started their small business together. They loved and enjoyed each other tremendously before they opened their shop but after working together for less than a year their relationship was tense and loving communication had ground to a painful halt. They considered that the stress of a start-up was getting to the two of them. They took a short vacation to the coast to get away from it all and found that they could indeed enjoy each other again. Yet when they returned to work, the tension started to build again. Why couldn't they keep the positive feelings alive?

Working together long hours to make a new business successful certainly can be a reason that a marriage starts to fail, but there's more to this problem than most young or even seasoned entrepreneurs take into consideration. The major reason entrepreneurial couples begin to experience the loss of love in their relationship is that the worlds of work and home are radically different in many ways. Think about it. The world of work is where we kick into high gear; where we drive ourselves to succeed; where we thrive on competition; where we want to express our talents in concrete ways such as producing a sale or a piece of art. The world of home, on the other hand is where we seek comfort, love and safety; where we nurture our loved ones and want their nurturing; where we kick back instead of into high gear.

There are similarities between these two worlds such as the facts that both require attending to details; that both require teamwork; and that both require problem solving. But the essential difference that can lead to marital failure is that work is the world of competition and home is the world of nurturing. All of us look forward to relaxing at home at the end of a hard day of competition in the work world. We want to regale our families with our accomplishments, our "coups," but after that we really want to take off our suits of armor and put on something more vulnerable.

When a couple works together both at home and at work, they can become confused about the roles they should play in both of these worlds. Often the aggressive pull of success and the push of competition eradicate the more subtle pull of love. Only when pushed by a chronic lack of intimacy or the pain of impending divorce, does the couple begin to recognize that they have lost something precious.

How does this problem begin? It's pretty simple really. Most of you picked your spouse because you love her or him, because he or she makes you laugh, because he or she is a "knock out." It is very unlikely that you chose your spouse as you would an employee or a business partner. You probably weren't thinking about money or competition or how to advance your career when you married. And when you set up housekeeping together you probably didn't write up a business plan to make your little love nest profitable.

Neither were you concerned about marketing, designing your letterhead, or the tax ramifications of an LLC. Instead your attention was on how to make the other person happy and how happy they made you feel. You sought affection, emotional support, and intellectual compatibility. Even sharing the household chores was not a major item on your list. Those things got taken care of somehow. And when it came to decision making, sometimes he got his way and sometimes she did.

As marital partners the more easy going style of most American couples will work fine as long as you don't become business partners. When a couple crosses that line into the world of work by becoming business partners, they must be prepared to do some major alterations to the relationship. In marriages where husband and wife both have a career but they don't work together, it is much easier to switch hats from work persona to home persona. You give your spouse a kiss goodbye in the morning and go on your separate ways for the day. You may make a phone call midday to catch up on private matters or just to say hello, but essentially your activities and identity are solidly ensconced in your work world. When you return home, you give your spouse a kiss, change your clothes, do a little catching up on each other's day, and prepare the evening meal together. At home your activities and identity are defined by your home world and your relationships with your spouse and children.

In other words for couples who don't work together, they have an independent identity at work and a partnership identity at home. With career-minded people the work identity is also a leadership one, involving authority for decision making. At home, these same independent leaders switch hats to become equal partners who share in the decision making. This is the norm in most American homes of dual-career couples. The problem arises when these equal home partners go to work with each other, either expecting to be equal partners at work too, or expecting to each be the decision maker as if they worked separately.

When you worked apart you may have enjoyed your spouse's stories of work achievements. You may even have taken pride in how aggressive or decisive your spouse was in his or her career. However, when you work together, that strong aggressive leadership quality may now look like arrogance. The two of you may tangle because you expect to be included in decisions that your spouse has already run with. When you come home at the end of your workday, you may feel that you have had enough of your spouse for one day. You don't desire anymore togetherness if you have to be bullied or ignored.

At least this is how it can go if you don't pay attention to the different roles husbands and wives play in the different worlds of work and home.

The solution first is to acknowledge that these two worlds are very different. Second recognize that daily conscious effort is required on your part to maintain a harmonious relationship with your spouse. If the two of you enjoy being equal partners at home, and wish to try being equal partners at work, then consciously design a work partnership where decision making is equal on at least the major decisions. This makes some things move more slowly, but it can be very effective for keeping love alive. If you are comfortable being home partners, but really prefer one person leadership at work, then acknowledge that too and set it up that way. No sense in trying to be equal partners at work, when one or both of you would gladly defer decision making responsibility to the other spouse. If you are somewhere in between these two styles, play with the structure for awhile until you discover what works in your marriage/business partnership.

Bringing competition home is probably the worst thing you can do for a marriage. Keep competition and achievement needs at work. When you work with your spouse in your own enterprise, keep in mind that you will be crossing the competition barrier daily. It is hard to stay kind and loving with the one you are competing with. We tend to take competition personally. The following are some ways to diffuse the tension of competition between spouses:

  • Set up separate work areas within the business.
  • Reward each other often for your individual successes.
  • Take breaks from each other often. Make a clean break from work at the end of the day. This latter recommendation is vital. Do not discuss work at all at home if your business requires that both spouses be leaders and you are both highly independent and headstrong (sound like anyone you know?). 

The most important thing to remember when you work together is why you chose your spouse in the first place. This is someone you love and trust and want to spend the rest of your life with. These qualities are not bad either for the kind of person you want as someone to help you build your dream in business.

Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S., Licensed Psychologist and Business Consultant is the author of ENTERPRENEURIAL COUPLES: Making It Work at Work and at Home (Davies-Black, 1998). She can be reached at (360) 256-0448 or www.kmarshack.com

Do your and your spouse bicker at work and at home?

Thursday, January 06, 2000



By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

"Oh yeah! I used to work with my wife, but not anymore. All we did was fight."

"We're great business partners, but at home we bicker constantly. What's wrong?"

"Work with my husband? Never! He never listens."


Bicker, bicker, bicker. Is this the price you pay when you work with your spouse? All too often this seems to be the case, but it doesn't have to be. If you understand conflict and develop strategies to de-stress problem situations, you and your partner can have the best of both worlds: a fantastic marriage and a successful business team. Here are some of tips for resolving the bickering.

Remember that the differences between the two of you are probably some of the reasons that made you fall in love with each other.

There may be many reasons for conflict, but a common one for spouses who work together is that you know each other too well. Remember when you first met, first fell in love, decided to get married? You probably didn't focus at the time on everything that you didn't like about your new love. In fact, you may have never noticed anything that big, but instead viewed those differences as thrilling. But over time, the differences between the two of you surface more and more. What once was ignored or even viewed as endearing is now a pain in the neck. Or your spouse may have qualities that worked well in the home when you didn't work together, but in the office they seem to make the two of you tangle.

One way to get past the bickering is to remind yourself that you love and admire this person. Your spouse has many great qualities that contributed to your choosing him or her as a spouse and a business partner. Focus on those qualities, not the behavior that annoys you.

People change over time, so bickering may be a sign that it's time to renegotiate your agreements (martial and business).

You can't possibly know everything about another person before marriage or even before becoming business partners. Who knows what qualities will emerge on a person as they enter new territory (which we are constantly doing throughout life)? Our basic personalities probably don't change that much, but how we apply our personalities to the experiences in life does shape and define us. Your spouse may be showing you a side of him or herself that you never

knew existed. Be careful not to resist this new information because it is different. Give yourself time to adjust to the change. Talk about it with you spouse. Evaluate how to incorporate the change into your marriage agreement and business partnership agreement. Change may be painful, but it is the very nature of living things to change.

Entrepreneurial couples should spend as much time cultivating joy in their relationships as they do focusing on the bottom line in their businesses.

It's just a fact. All of us work more than we would like to. Even when you love the work you do, you should strive to find balance among the other important parts of your life, such as your relationships with your spouse, family, friends and yourself.

Entrepreneurial couples are notorious for being all work and no play, and therefore the relationship suffers. Think about it. If you are bickering with your spouse/business partner, could it be because you have had no quality time lately? Or could it be because you are sleep-deprived? Or could it be that it's been a long time since you laughed?

Take the time to set your priorities and follow them. There will always be another phone call to answer and another deadline to meet that will draw you away from balancing your priorities. But you don't get that many chances to restore a faltering relationship. When the love, trust and respect is gone, it usually leads to divorce.

Be true to yourself and offer the same to your spouse/partner.

Entrepreneurial couples seldom have formal education or training in the art of living their unique lifestyle. So, through trial and error they come up with a system to get the job done, and they do so admirably, but the job is all that gets done. Sometimes the work is not very creative. Often the excitement and challenge that brought them into business wears thin. The result is a successful business that produces a good income for its owners, but leaving no room for personal and professional development. Then the bickering starts again.

It seems to be true that when we are bored, we bicker. When this happens, it is time to take stock of how the business is organized. Is the business truly a reflection of your talents, or is it running you? Are the spouses/business partners really suited to the jobs they currently have, or have they outgrown them?

If you are really being true to yourself and your partnership, duties should be assigned according to the best suited to the task. In other words, fully use your talents. For example, if the founder of the business doesn't have good people skills, perhaps the spouse should be president. That way the founder can keep doing what he or she does best, invent things for example, while the more people-oriented spouse can run the business and manage employees and customers.

Be full-time partners at home and at work.

Husbands and wives who work together often slip into efficiently getting things done, but in a hierarchical, military model. Research shows that copreneurs opt for the husband-boss/wife-employee model more often than other entrepreneurial or dual-career couples. Instead of equal partners, these couples slip into the traditional chain of command by which only one person can be the boss.

One day my husband was particularly exasperated with me and confronted me with this question, "Just who is the boss around here anyway?" I was startled, because I thought he knew! Taking a moment to compose myself I replied, "We both are."

A husband and wife, whether partnering at home as parents or partnering at the business, are both full-fledged adults who contribute to the joint venture. They both should take full responsibility for the outcome of the venture. In other words you are both 100 percent boss and 100 percent responsible.

I believe bickering for these couples is a sign that one partner or the other is feeling powerless in the relationship or business. If the decision-making power is vested with one person, but the other spouse still has major responsibilities but no authority, you have ripe territory for passive-aggressive behavior-bickering.

If you and your spouse are bickering about nothing in particular, or the same argument comes up over and over again, or you are bickering now that you work together but you didn't bicker before, or most important, you bicker but you never remember what it's about, take stock of the relationship and ask what needs to change. The simple answer is not to work together, but then you might be missing the most creative team you'll ever be a part of. Plus, you may miss those early warning signs that the marriage and/or the business plan need to be revamped.

Instead, take the bickering as growing pains and be grateful that you have a spouse who is so important to you that you care enough to get mad about their idiosyncrasies.

Living With an Authoritarian Entrepreneur

Friday, April 16, 1999



By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

He's strong. He's driven. He works 70 hours a week. He loves his wife and children immensely. He feels alone. He needs a lot of emotional support. He is intolerant of laziness. He is a perfectionist. He doesn't sleep well. He never lets failure stop him from success. He doesn't trust many people, if any. He has a short fuse. He has to work for himself. When he plays, he plays hard too. He is an expert. He is reliable, when he's there. He always has the answer. He has an ironclad will.

He is easily hurt, especially by his family, who doesn't alwaysappreciate him. At least this is what he thinks. As an Authoritarian Entrepreneur, he believes that he is doing a good job for family and employees, regardless of their protests. He can only see his point of view and assumes that others agree with it or otherwise are too immature to understand. Because he believes he is doing what is best for everyone, he pushes ahead with his plans, often ignoring the challenges, complaints and cries of those he is pushing aside. He feels befuddled, hurt, and betrayed then, when his wife or a child leaves him or worse.

It is hard for this type of entrepreneur to understand that he is not the center of the universe. And it is equally hard for those who love him to know what to do to solve the serious emotional and relationship problems that are created in his high-energy wake. In fact the authoritarian entrepreneur has no awareness that he has any problems, which makes it exceedingly difficult to get help. He believes that complaints are coming from weak people who do not know how to run their lives, nor how to appreciate him for running theirs.

Often this type of entrepreneur is very successful at his business (although not all successful entrepreneurs are authoritarian).

Because of his drive and power, he can succeed where others fail, by sheer will power. He can be quite charismatic, so many will follow. But those who enter his inner circle, such as wife and children, know another side to this man. He can be selfish and cruel in his lack of trust for the very people who are closest to him. He can ignore their needs, giving love only when it is convenient for him. He is intimidating and will swiftly settle a dispute by severing the relationship.

The authoritarian entrepreneur is an example of a good quality gone awry. That is, he travels on the notion that "the end justifies the means." There is nothing wrong with having goals. In fact, goals are the rewards that all human beings strive for. But in addition to goals it is equally important to attend to the method of accomplishing those goals. If the means to the end are unethical or hurtful of others, it may be worthwhile to re-evaluate the methods to discover means that work just as well to accomplish the goal, yet are compatible and supportive of the ones you love. Not all goals are worth it, if they destroy the important human relationships you are working so hard to provide for. This end-justifies-the-means drive comes from an insecurity deep inside the authoritarian entrepreneur. Anything or anyone who gets in his way is likely to get run over, because he has such a strong need to prove that he is OK. The source of this insecurity depends upon the individual. It may come from a childhood experience of being abused or threatened by a critical, distant, or aloof parent, whom the entrepreneur could never please. It may come from the lessons of a traumatic experience, such as war combat, wherein the entrepreneur learned to stay alive by doing whatever it took. It may come from an actual organic disability, such as dyslexia, making schooling difficult, and the entrepreneur all the more determined to prove he is smart or smarter-than. Whatever, the reason, the authoritarian entrepreneur has a fear of failure, tucked away deep inside that drives him to succeed at whatever the cost.

As if this negative driving force were not enough to alienate wife, children, friends and employees, the authoritarian entrepreneur is in a never ending cycle. No matter how great his material success, these individuals never seem to believe that they have arrived. In fact, some wives report that the greater their husband's successes, the greater their drive, intolerance, cruelty, and . . . depression. It is the depression that is proof to the authoritarian entrepreneur that he has not yet achieved his goals, so he keeps pushing to drive the depression away. Unfortunately the depression is actually the signal that he is failing at life, that he is pushing away the loving relationships that can mend thewounds caused by childhood abuse, wartime combat or classroom humiliation. The very quality that helps the authoritarian entrepreneur survive childhood abuse, or life-threatening combat, or the ignominy of illiteracy . . . stubbornness, is both their strength and their demise. Being too stubborn to acknowledge their successes, and the love of their families is foolish and will destroy what they have worked so hard for. Yet stubbornness can be used to learn the skills to build a new life out of sharing the joy and love of personal achievement with your loved ones. If you are an authoritarian entrepreneur or the family member of one, use this stubbornness or personal strength to attack the problem and solve it. You have intelligence and drive. You have already proven that you can succeed. Now admit your flaws and rebalance your life. Grieve your losses. Learn to love. Break the pattern of insecurity in your family that began with an abusive parent, or a thoughtless teacher, or a war that shaped a vulnerable teenager. By keeping those fears buried, you are perpetuating the insecurity into the next generation. As much as that negative energy (i.e., fear, anger and depression) has served you to create wealth, it has also alienated your family. Is this really the legacy you wish to pass onto your children?

Dual - ing Entrepreneurs

Friday, September 11, 1998



By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

When I returned to the office a few months ago I found a phone message from Dick Wilsdon indicating he wanted to talk with me about a recent column I had written. He was especially interested in the topic of competition among spouses who work together. Being somewhat of an expert on this topic, having researched the area for years, consulted with many entrepreneurial couples, and written not only countless Vancouver Business Journal articles, but recently published a book on the subject, I felt confident that I could answer Dick’s questions and give him a few pointers to boot! But with his first question I was stumped. "I was just wondering," he said, "if you knew anything about couples who operate competing businesses?"

Dick and Linda Wilsdon are such a couple, believe it or not. Dick owns Western Nugget Transportation and Linda owns All Americas. Both are transportation brokers and quite successful at it. Each has had the honor of being among the INC. 500, an annual award given by INC. Magazine to American companies who have distinguished themselves. The following is a run down on just how Linda and Dick do it.

There is an interesting story behind how this couple found themselves in competition. Certainly they didn’t plan this outcome. It was a natural progression of events. Entrepreneurs are like that. The successful ones allow nature to take it’s course and capitalize on it. Dick has always been an entrepreneur. He has owned several businesses, so it was a natural to move from being a trucker to being a transportation broker.

Linda on the other hand never thought of herself as an entrepreneur. Like so many women, entrepreneurship came as a result of helping out the family. In order to bring their son into the business, Linda started All Americas as a way to prepare their son for taking over Dick’s business someday. Mom and son were to work the business together. As it turned out, the son wasn’t interested after all, so Linda was left with the decision of letting the business go, joining forces with Dick and Western Nugget, or continuing on her own. With her husband’s encouragement and blessing, she took on the task of running All Americas on her own.

Although Linda had no business experience before starting All Americas, she took on the challenge and soon gave Dick a run for his money. While Dick was nominated to the prestigious INC. 500 in 1987, Linda was nominated just six years later because her business was booming. Linda talks about how scared she was to take over All Americas when her son left, but Dick had every confidence. He mentored her during those early years, but acknowledges that she has abilities that he lacks. He says, "This woman is the most fantastic people motivator I know. Watching her motivate people is like a symphony!"

Herein lies the key to the Wilsdon’s success as a competing dual-entrepreneurial couple. They have tremendous love and respect for each other. They consider each other best friends. Although they may disagree heartily about things, they make a point to work the arguments out. And they don't take things personally. When I asked Dick and Linda what advice they would give to other competing dual-entrepreneurial couples, they offered these three nuggets:

  • "Talk a lot."
  • "Be willing to give."
  • "Think of your spouse as a 60% partner ... 10% better than an equal partner." 

Over the years the Wilsdons have demonstrated in their behavior that they really believe in this advice. They are early risers and in the morning over coffee the two of them discuss the business, their lives, the kids, etc. Because they enjoy each other’s company they do spend a lot of time together, so talking comes easily. They grocery shop and run errands together too, rather than allow efficiency to divide them up. And they love to travel, so they incorporate lots of play time together. Talking a lot doesn’t just mean discussing business. It’s a time to reconnect with your spouse/partner ... to let each other know that you love and respect the other person.

Being willing to give takes on another meaning for the Wilsdon’s too. Because Dick had already proven himself in business before Linda started her enterprise, he was in a position to mentor her.

He wasn’t really giving up anything by encouraging her to develop a competing business. His business is strong and profitable. Rather he views it as helping his wife be the best she can be. Dick loves having a strong, assertive, capable wife who keeps him on his toes. He admires her strengths and feels that he benefits from them too. After all if Western Nugget loses a bid to All Americas, he still reaps the financial rewards. And the friendly competition spurs his staff on to improve their performance.

The Wilsdon’s do have some rules about competing however. They never go after each other’s existing business. They only compete for new work. Everything is out in the open ... no secrets between them. Although they may enjoy rubbing it in once in awhile when one company has the edge over the other, they really enjoy helping each other win. In other words, I don’t really think they are in competition at all. Rather each has the goal of being the best they can be and encouraging that in their spouse.

The proof of all of this is right there at their company offices. Western Nugget and All Americas are side by side in a Hazel Dell office complex. Each business has it’s own legal identity and separate staff, but employees do cross over sometimes. Once the Wilsdon’s daughter worked for Dad and now she works for Mom. Interestingly Dick has a woman office manager and woman bookkeeper, while Linda has a man office manager and a man bookkeeper. They laugh and tell me that this is just a coincidence, but I wonder if it is just another way the Wilsdon’s keep things balanced.

The Wilsdon’s may be a unique couple in that they operate competing businesses, however, all entrepreneurial couples can benefit by the principles that they live by. It takes a lot of maturity to put your egos aside and encourage your partner’s talents, especially when they might show you up. It takes courage to accept criticisms from your spouse/partner and really hear these criticisms as helpful feedback from one who knows you well. It takes patience to listen and work through problems. Communicating regularly with your spouse/partner is often the last thing busy entrepreneurial couples do, but it is essential to a healthy business and a loving marriage.

Why can't we Communicate now that we live and work together?

Friday, August 14, 1998



By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

"She’s so busy I hardly see her at the office anyway."

"I just let him handle things his way."

"We’re not very good at resolving problems, so I let it go."

"I just hate confrontation!"

Listening, talking, communicating, resolving problems, making joint decisions... these are requirements for all business owners, not just entrepreneurial couples. Yet entrepreneurial couples often complain that communicating effectively with each other is the last thing they do. Without good communication skills and quality time dedicated to communicating, relationships (business and personal) soon flounder and fail, especially among couples with the stress of two careers, or a joint enterprise, and a full family life. Moreover, the potential for a breakdown in communication grows as the complexity of the family/business system increases.

Probably the number one reason entrepreneurial couples don’t talk is that they let the business run their lives. In my research and consultation work I have found that these couples are more willing to take time from home for work activities than they are willing to take time from work for home activities. In general these couples are rarely willing to leave for work late; very occasionally they may be late not more than fifteen minutes. However, they are willing to be late getting home one to four times a week by more than an hour each time. As well, these couples are willing to leave home for work more than thirty minutes early one to two times per week. On the other hand, they are willing to leave work early for home only once a month. As long as these tendencies prevail, entrepreneurial couples are giving themselves very little quality time to devote to confront and solve the inevitable conflicts that will arise in their personal relationship.

Work is a major source of satisfaction for adults. There are immediate payoffs with work, unlike with relationships. Likewise, there are problems and crises at work that draw our attention away from relationship responsibilities. Most career-minded Americans admit that their families are more important to them than their work, but that they derive more personal satisfaction from work (i.e., their creative side). This obviously poses a serious dilemma, and one that most entrepreneurial couples ignore, because everyone else does.

The second major reason entrepreneurial couples don’t talk is that they are avoiding conflict and confrontation. There is a common misconception that conflict and confrontation are bad. One of the major reasons entrepreneurial couples have problems is their failure to confront issues head-on. They may fight openly or quietly seethe, but they have a terrible time confronting the real conflict respectfully and honestly. It’s as if confrontation and conflict are impolite. However, conflict and confrontation are natural and healthy components of any relationship. You are neither bad nor wrong for causing a conflict or identifying one. Conflict is an opportunity to open up communication on a difficult subject.

You are neither bad nor wrong for causing a conflict or identifying one. Conflict is an opportunity to open up communication on a difficult subject.

As a member of an entrepreneurial couple you are under more stress and potential conflict than others. The worlds of your personal life and work life overlap considerably, creating more intersecting points. This creates a highly complex system of constantly changing roles and rules. Because you cannot really separate home and work, you must learn how to integrate these two worlds better. The tools you used for communicating and resolving conflicts before you worked together may just not be good enough anymore. As an entrepreneurial couple you and your spouse face dilemmas that may have never surfaced before to give you worry. This means you need to enhance your communication and problem solving skills beyond simple linear cause and effect (i.e. blame).

The first place to start is to actually make time to communicate with your partner/spouse. Make time for personal, marital, family and work communication. Give each equal time or at least what they need. Don’t leave this to when you have the time. Make it part of your daily and weekly routine. Informing and clarifying with each other on a daily basis is vital in our crazy, fast-paced lives. Memos and e-mails are OK, but a good face-to-face conversation does more than convey the facts; it keeps the good feelings alive.

Second, practice good communication skills. It wouldn’t hurt to take a class, or read a book on communication. I offer some communication advice in Chapter 3 of my book, ENTREPRENEURIAL COUPLES: Making It Work at Work and at Home. You really may not have to look far for those communication skills, though. You probably already use them in your work, with employees, colleagues, business associates. It’s just that you never thought to use those same successful methods with your spouse. Certainly you realize that communications go more smoothly and solutions are arrived at more readily, when you listen respectfully, establish rapport, and move toward win-win solutions. Why not try this same approach with your business partner/spouse?

Third, do not fear conflict and confrontation. Because of the highly complex and interactive, multi-level system you have created as an entrepreneurial couple and family, conflicts are inevitable and actually a sign of growth. Therefore, avoiding conflict is not the goal. Rather you want to develop the tools to "lean into" conflicts and resolve them early on, so that you can reorganize your lives to include the new learning. Because entrepreneurial couples have a lot at stake when it comes to their business and their relationship, they are prone to avoid conflict or to use ineffective tools to solve the conflict too quickly. Compromising and acquiescing are two of these ineffective tools.

Most couples are shocked when I advise them to avoid compromises at all costs. After all, isn’t compromise a requirement of partnership, both personal and business? The reality is that decisions that are arrived at through compromise usually lack creativity and seldom last. Sure, a compromise now and then may be necessary for the sake of expediency, but if a decision is important, a compromise may cause anger and resistance. Because compromises are usually a result of both people giving up something in order to get an agreement, the decision is a watered-down version of two stronger opinions. While it may be satisfactory to accept compromise decisions for things like choosing a restaurant for dinner, where neither of you gets your first choice but both must accept a third alternative, accepting a third, less-threatening alternative for your business may sabotage your competitive edge.

Compromise is the easy way out when you are trying to avoid conflict and confrontation. It appears that the compromise will smooth ruffled feathers and that both partners can go away happy. What really happens, however, is that each partner leaves feeling as though they have been had. One person may resent having to compromise and will be looking for ammunition to prove that the decision was a bad one. Another person may feel he or she has done the honorable thing by not pushing his or her opinion on the other, only to feel unappreciated later when the compromise plan is dropped. If you stop and think about it, how long have your compromise decisions really lasted?

Acquiescing or forcing your opinion upon your partner are other ways of avoiding conflict. In seeking to avoid conflict, for example, a persuasive person may push his or her partner to acquiesce to a certain point of view, but this does not mean that the partner agrees. It may mean only that the partner actually does not want to fight and so appears to agree, when he or she has only given in. Don’t make the mistake of pushing to win at all costs or to acquiescing to the persuader, when you don’t agree. In either case, if you are the persuader or the acquiescent partner, the conflict has not been resolved and, what’s worse, may have been driven underground.

"Why can’t we communicate now that we live and work together?" The answer to that question is pretty clear for entrepreneurial couples. If you don’t make time to talk, if you don’t consider nurturing your personal relationship as important as nurturing your business, and if you avoid healthy conflict and confrontation, your partnership/relationship will disintegrate into two uninvolved business associates at the best, and into bitterness and divorce at the worst. So take the time now to evaluate your communication skills and your life/business plan. Invest in the time to develop a meaningful, loving relationship with your spouse that enhances your business relationship.

Sex and Infidelity in the Family Firm

Thursday, March 12, 1998



By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

Bill and Monica and Hillary and Andy and Cathy and Paula and ... I’m not sure where the connections stop. Obviously infidelity, sexual improprieties and the abuse of power are hot topics right now. With the whole country entranced by the White House sex scandal, you may wonder how I can come up with a column that will take your attention away from the President’s sex life. But SEX just happens to be the subject of this month’s column ... Sex and Infidelity in the Family Firm.

You may wonder, as some of us do, why sex causes such problems for people. After all, the sex drive is a normal and necessary part of human life. The problem isn’t that we have a sex drive. The problem is what we do with that drive. As with most human skills sex can be used in a positive healthy way or it can be used to abuse and manipulate. Sex can lead to pleasure, or a love bond within a relationship. Or sex can lead to pain, suffering and corruption.

There is very little in human life that is instinctual. Although the sex drive may be with us from birth, expression of our sexuality is learned. And unfortunately much of what we learn as we grow up, about appropriate sexual behavior is gathered from unreliable sources such as childhood friends, pornographic materials hidden from our parents, television and movies, or worse, through exploitation by unethical adults. Other than a perfunctory sex-education class in public school, where the emphasis is on health and procreation, where does a child learn about sexual techniques, or the relationship between sex and love, or the subtleties of sex in the workplace? Where do they learn about ethics?

Many parents oppose even the scant sex education offered in the public schools. They maintain that sexuality should be taught by the parents, that it is a private matter, that exposing children to these subjects in school will encourage promiscuity. Regardless of the merit of these arguments, I have met few parents who openly discuss sexuality with their kids. Most parents tell me they are more than willing to answer any questions their kids ask about sex, as if any kid in their right mind will let their parents know they are thinking about sex!

So with that minor digression taken care of, back to sex in the family firm. If most of us get a poor education about how to develop our sexual instincts into a healthy expression of our sexuality, then it’s quite likely that most families experience problems at one time or another such as sexual inappropriateness, infidelity, and even abuse. And if that is true for many families, it is true for many family firms.

Jan and Dale were really scared when I first met them. They had been frustrated for years by the poor work performance of their son, Drake whom they were grooming to take over the business when they retired. Drake just didn’t seem to have leadership abilities and his latest escapade was about to sink everything. A female employee had filed a sexual harassment complaint against Drake. It appeared to be true and well documented.

This was not a simple situation of parents neglecting their sons’ sex education, although they had done that too. Jan and Dale had not dealt with their own unresolved problems regarding sex. In earlier years, Dale had been involved in more than one affair. Each affair ended quietly and the couple never again spoke of the problem. Unfortunately, this lack of communication lead to repeated affairs, rather than resolution of the couple’s marital and sexual problems. While Jan thought she was suffering silently and Dale was always repentant, the couple’s children were being profoundly affected. Drake was angry that his father would betray his mother and he was angry that his mother would let Dale get away with it. What Drake was learning about sexuality as a child is that it is something that should be a secret, that sexual behavior hurts other people but that there is nothing you can do about it, that women are helpless in the face of a man’s advances. It is not surprising that with these mixed up messages, Drake went too far when he propositioned an employee. No one had educated him about how to properly handle his sexual impulses. For Dale and Jan, the sexual harassment lawsuit was a wake up call. Sex was only one area in their marriage that was a problem because of poor communication and inappropriate use of power. But it is not only the marriage that is affected. Employees, vendors, business associates, and customers are all affected when sexual improprieties are hidden in a family firm. Drake’s inability to develop leadership in the workplace was a direct result of having no respect for his father. Dale’s leadership was questioned by employees because his son was so irresponsible. Jan was viewed as a long suffering inept wife rather than the competent chief financial officer that she was capable of being. These are not desirable images and certainly affect the bottom line.

Even if infidelity, sexual improprieties and abuse of power do not affect your bottom line, they certainly affect your sense of self esteem and the health of your relationships with the ones you love. So why do people risk it? Lack of education is one reason, as I have already discussed. But other reasons abound too. Essentially sexual misbehavior is a signal of some deeper problem. With the President it could be that power has gone to his head, that when you’re at the top there is no way to assess what normal is anymore. With Monica it could be that she feels powerless in many ways, except when she is seducing men. With Dale, the affairs represented his lack of confidence in dealing with his well educated wife. For Drake, sexual power over an employee was the only way to feel powerful at all, since he was failing miserably in the family business.

Whatever the reason for the sexual impropriety, don’t keep it a secret. Use the signal for what it is, a message about a much needed change in your life and relationships. Among families in business, because of the need to be supportive, nurturing and protective of family members, sexual improprieties are covered up more often than in other settings. As embarrassing as it is to bring these things out, it is more embarrassing to pass the problem along to the next generation and risk everything you have worked so hard for. Seek professional, confidential help from a psychologist.

The President is about to balance the budget, but what has captured America’s attention is his sexual liaisons. If sex is a problem in your family firm, even if you think it is a tightly held secret, just what do you think your customers, employees and other business associates are talking about?

The Confidence Game

Friday, June 13, 1997



By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

Chuck Whitlock is our local leading expert on scams. He's written books on the subject, hosted talk shows and even appeared on television. He's exposed a wide variety of con artists from faith healers to corporate hustlers. We are all fascinated with what he shows us...the inner workings of the con him or herself, the intricate pattern of the scam, the gullibility of the mark. And we are delighted when the suspense is punctured by the arrest. How many of you will admit that you are not just fascinated by all of this but secretly admire the con artist? Even if you have been conned yourself, don't you think that the victims are just a little too naive? Don't you harbor just a little desire to get something for nothing just as the con does? Don't you wish you could be so clever? The truth is that the con knows that you are not so different from him or herself. The only real difference is that you have created an illusion that you are different, that you would never stoop to manipulation, that you would never willfully take advantage of another person. Because you are not so different, but are in denial about it, the con swoops in and relieves you of your money, your pride or your sense of safety. While Mr. Whitlock is teaching us about those con artists out there, I thought it might be interesting to look at the confidence game as it is played everyday in families and family firms throughout America. This confidence game isn't as glamorous as the ones Mr. Whitlock exposes, but it may be more harmful. Snowing the ones you love creates incredible suffering not just in the short run but potentially for generations. If you are to learn about the confidence game in your own family and family firm, the first thing you need to recognize is that you are just as capable as anyone of being manipulative. As difficult as it is to admit that we can be conned, it is even more difficult to admit that we can do the conning. However, the mark and the con are two sides of the same coin. To investigate your manipulative qualities, ask yourself a few questions: 1. Are you in sales? 2. Does your business require that you use persuasion, diplomacy, charm? 3. Have you ever lied? 4. Have you ever taken advantage of another's ignorance or naiveté? 5. Have you kept something you didn't pay for? 6. Have you ever cried in order to get your way? 7. Have you ever intimidated your opponent into capitulating? 8. Have you ever hurt someone else? 9. When you have hurt someone else, did you say "I didn't mean to do it." 10. Have you kept a secret to avoid conflict? 11. Have you ever "dropped names"? 12. Have you ever changed the subject when the topic was too close for comfort? 13. Just once, was money your only concern?

The tools of persuasion, diplomacy and charm can be used ethically or unethically. They are like a hammer and screwdriver. The hammer and screwdriver can be used to build a house or to break into someone’s home. The choice is up to the individual using the tools. Likewise, persuasion, diplomacy and charm can be used to swindle or to negotiate a mutually rewarding settlement. If you truly want to end the con game within your family firm, you need to take a look at your own manipulative nature. Being conscious of your own manipulations, even the ones that you “didn’t mean to do,” allows you to be ethical. With consciousness comes choice. Choosing to be ethical in your communications and dealings with others requires that you take the time to understand others and to be understood fully. There is no room for conning. The risk of destroying trust is too great. The word con is actually an abbreviation for confidence. Therefore the con game is really the confidence game. The success of the game is to create confidence within the victim for the manipulator. By having confidence in the con artist, we are handing over our trust, or temporarily suspending our disbelief. No matter how outrageous the con’s behavior, once that person has your trust and confidence, the con artist can have their way with you. Some of you may already know some of the signals of a scam and pride yourself on escaping. Some of the less well known signals are more intuitive, however. Feeling ashamed is a signal of manipulation. Feeling impressed or awed is another one. Feeling special or flattered by attention from someone you hardly know is a giveaway. An obvious clue to a con game is when there is no pay off to you. A little more tricky is recognizing that you are being used when you are doing more work than the other person in the relationship. When the other person never seems to come through for you, but always has a good excuse, you can be sure you are being manipulated. Less recognizable are the signals that you are doing the manipulation. But an easy test is to ask yourself how you would feel if the tables were turned.

For example, when you hear those words “ I didn’t mean to,” how does it make you feel? Do you feel mad, confused, trapped? As much as forgiveness is a virtue, so is taking responsibility for one’s mistakes and correcting them. The person who uses the “I didn’t mean to” con game is not taking full responsibility for their error. It’s as if no wrongdoing was done if the person “didn’t mean to.” So the next time those words start forming on your lips, stop and make a straightforward apology for your actions and offer to clean up the problem, whether you committed the deed “accidentally” or intentionally. Another way to investigate your own manipulative nature is to ask others how they feel. In a family this is a perfectly legitimate question. Because you may be hot on an idea and have charmingly persuaded everyone else to cooperative with you, does not mean they all agree with you. Check it out. If you have bullied the others into submission, or charmed them into acquiescing, but deep down inside they do not agree, what kind of agreement do you really have? How much support are you really going to get in the long run? Do you really have your family’s trust or are they just afraid of you? Recently I met a very well known and successful business man who is unaware of his covert con game. He is charming, persuasive and has many followers who agree with his every word, including family members. He makes frequent and generous promises which he does not fulfill. He keeps lunch dates waiting for hours. He jokes about his lack of follow through because he is such a busy man. He makes expensive propositions to others as if he is interested in partnering, yet he never puts his checkbook on the line. His behavior is so outrageous that it is amazing that others do not catch onto him. But the truth is the worst con artist is the one who believes in his or her own scam. If your goal is to make a lot of money or to have a lot of power, and you don’t care how you do it, then there is no point in your reading this article. But if you truly want to prosper as a family as well as a family in business, then it’s time to clean up the covert confidence games that are played at home and at work with the ones you love.

Love,hate, and guilt in the family business partnership

Sunday, February 23, 1997



By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

Love+Hate=Guilt. How many of you have this type of relationship with one or more of your parents? Or how many of you have felt like this at least once with your parents? Or are you suspicious that this is how your teenage or grown children feel about you? Unfortunately these feelings are all too common among parents and children. They are the natural byproducts of normal human development that has not been allowed to progress to completion. Anger and Love are healthy human emotions that emerge often in our daily lives. Learning methods to process these feelings constructively so that we can mature is the work of childhood. Guilt, on the other hand, is not a normal nor healthy human emotion (unless of course you have legitimately committed a serious offense). To feel guilty for being angry at your parent or child is a misunderstanding of the relationship. Nobody is perfect and so it is very likely that someone you love will do something that makes you mad, even if they don't mean to. You are under no obligation to stifle your anger or to feel guilty just because it is a parent who has misbehaved. Many people balk at the idea of Blaming their parents. They feel guilty for being angry at their parents whom they love and admire. They haven't learned how to reconcile those feelings of love and hate. They either feel guilty about their anger, but more often they deny it altogether. Blame isn't really necessary, but holding your parents (and others too for that matter) accountable for their mistakes is important. Just as you give others credit for their successes, it is important to note the failures, the misunderstandings, the faulty choices. By holding others accountable you accomplish two important goals. First, you are actually treating the other person with respect. You are offering them the opportunity to correct their error. In other words, you are treating them as if they are capable.

By stuffing your anger, you feel helpless and like a victim with no where to go with these feelings except to build up resentment (i.e. Love/Hate). Second, by holding others accountable, you are able to view your own flaws more objectively. Not only can you learn from your mistakes but from other's as well. Take your parents for example. Many adults tell me that they don't want to blame their parents for the mistakes they made, because the grown child should take responsibility for their life now. Yet that grown child is making the same mistakes their parents made; often that is the reason they are in my office! Because your parents raised you and because they are flawed, they made mistakes. You as a child made mistakes too. One of them is to develop the belief that you should feel guilty for being mad at your parents, even if what they did was wrong. By acknowledging what they did wrong (and right) you are better equipped to correct their and your mistakes. For example, a few years ago, my daughter Bianca was taking interminably long to get ready to go out. I was in my usual hurry to get somewhere, never planning quite enough time to prepare myself and two young children for an outing. I told Bianca several times to get her shoes on so that we could leave, but she was preoccupied with some toy and was not getting to the task. Finally in desperation, I grabbed her by the arm, pulled her down the hall and said "Let's go now!" She pulled her arm away from me, put her hands on her little hips and looking at me very disapprovingly said, "That is rude!" Several options whizzed through my mind at that moment, but fortunately I was amazed at her perceptiveness. She was absolutely right and she had the guts to tell me. She was four. I apologized for pulling her arm, told her that I loved her and informed her that because I was the mommy she had to put on her shoes now.

She obliged and we had a fun outing. If you want to clear up the Love+Hate=Guilt relationship you have with your parents or children, take a moment to do the following exercise.

  1. As honestly as possible, list your loved one's flaws, mistakes and even downright nasty traits. Make sure you include everything that makes you really angry about this person.
  2. Now list all of those traits you admire and are grateful for.
  3. As you review these lists, ask yourself, which traits are you carrying on, in the family tradition. Be honest. You might ask your spouse for feedback because you may feel so guilty that you cannot acknowledge your parents flaws, or your own.
  4. Finally, make a plan of action to change the negative counterproductive traits.

This little exercise is very revealing. By feeling guilty and by avoiding blame you may inadvertently be carrying on the same mistakes generation after generation. The goal of each generation should be to improve upon the goals of the last, not repeat mistakes. By holding your parents accountable you are more free to do this. I hope by now that you realize that blame is not really the answer, but that accountability is. Be respectful in your confrontations. Tell your parents what they did that hurt or angered you, but treat them as if they are human beings quite cabable of accepting responsibility for their mistakes and cabable of correcting them. This is especially crucial in a family business. How is the business to prosper if children coming up into the business never correct the errors of their predecessors? How is the business to remain competitive if you hang onto old ways just because you are afraid to confront a parent or grandparent? On the other hand, if you trust that your love for this person and their love for you is strong enough to handle the confrontation, you both benefit by getting things out in the open.

Work related stress - Is it a symptom or the problem?

Sunday, October 27, 1996



By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

It may be time-consuming to learn that new computer program, or to revamp your marketing strategy, or to take time from work just to go for a walk, but in the long run you may save yourself a lot of grief. All too often we apply a band-aid when surgery was needed.

Here's just one real-life example. I had heard stories about cats, that they cold be territorial and even jealous. So I was not surprised when my cat, Misha, started having "accidents" in the house just after the birth of my eldest child. After all, her role as my "baby" was being usurped by the new little bundle.

I was prepared though, being trained in psychology. I introduced Misha to the new baby and played with the cat and baby together. I bought Misha new toys and kitty treats so that she wouldn't be jealous of the baby's new things. I made appoint of holding and petting the cat more often than usual, so she wouldn't feel forgotten.

But in spite of all of my efforts she continued to have "accidents." I was getting pretty frazzled with a new baby to care for and adjust to and a cat that was going off the deep end. I was about at the end of my rope one day when in walked Misha. I was sitting in the recliner feeding the baby, when Misha walked up to me, crouched at my feet and defecated right in front of me.

That did it. The next day, I packed up the cat and took her to the vet, threatening to leave her there if a solution could not be found. Within a few minutes after examining the cat, the vet advised me that she had cystitis and needed antibiotics. Needless to say within a few days, Misha was back to normal and using the garden instead of my living room.

How often have you been unable to solve a problem because you were looking in the wrong direction as I was with Misha? Or perhaps you thought the solution should be more complicated than it needed to be?

In my situation, I was just to darned smart for my own good. The solution wasn't nearly as complicated as I had made it. But this experience was a great reminder to me of how often we get lost in our own realities. As a psychologist I can easily thing everything is psychological, because psychology is a big part of my world

Problem solving with people is even more difficult than with cats. But the strategy is really still the same. The first question to ask yourself is, "Is this thing I am observing the signal or the problem?" In Misha's case, I was observing a signal coming from Misha that was creating a problem for me. In order to solve my problem, I needed to interpret Misha's signal and develop a solution that would take care of her problem before I could take care of mine.

Recognizing and interpreting the signals that others give us is quite a complex process I realize, but you can improve your skills. And if you are willing to take the time to learn, you can stop a number of crises before they materialize.

For example, I often hear from family business owners that they do not have enough time to attend to themselves or their personal relationships. It's all work and no play. This is a signal that if ignored will grow into a more serious problem.

You need to ask yourself why are you working so hare? Is that your goal? Most people own a family firm because they have a close-knit family who enjoys being together and who can share their talents in a join venture. But if you are too busy managing the nuts and bolts of the business and have no time to really enjoy and communicate with your family, aren't you overriding one of the reasons why you started a family business in the first place?

Mistaking signals for the problem is another common error. When a person is angry or aggressive, we tend to listen, but when a person is quiet or passive, we tend to ignore them. Actually, those behaviors are signals of something. Just what they are signals of remains to be discovered.

When one of my daughters was learning her math facts in elementary school, she would complain that she didn't understand. She hid her papers of just threw them away. She avoided math homework as much as she could. As a result, my husband and I were spending hours each week tutoring her, sometimes staying up for hours coaxing her to try. We even began to wonder if she had a learning disability.

When her teacher suggested that she might be manipulated us, I was shocked. She was always such a nice, sweet, lovable child. She never sucked her thumb or threw a tantrum (pretty rare, right?}. Could she be "snowing" us?

To test out the theory I set up a new system of rewards. If she completed her homework within 30 minutes, without any complaining and without any help from her parents, she could earn a fifty-cent "commission" on her allowance. It only took one day. She knew the math facts all along.

One husband was beside himself because his wife could not keep the house clean. The couple ran the business from their home. Although the husband was out all day with customers, the wife was at home taking care of the four small children answering business calls, and running the company office. The couple had already problem solved somewhat and come up with occasional day care and even a once a month housecleaner, but still the house was a mess.

The problem was they were focusing on the messy house instead of what it represented. In this case, it represented that the wife was torn about her goals. She wanted to be part of the business, but she also wanted to parent her children. Making more time for her to clean the house, a chore she really didn't like anyway, wasn't the solution. What worked, however, was to set up a system where she could participate in both worlds without them overlapping so much.

The company office was moved from the dining table to a separate room off the garage. Then the wife devised a schedule that kept her work time separate from her family time. Using these two boundaries, the workspace and the time frame, she was able to be fully with her work and fully with her children when she wanted to.

The bottom line here is that all human behavior is meaningful. But the meaning may come disguised as signals that look like problems themselves. Alcoholism is a signal of a pervasive illness. Alcohol abuse, on the other hand, may be a sign of overwork, too much stress, a lack of parental guidance, or even confusion in the work place. If you try to solve the problem of alcoholism by reducing the person's stress at work, the alcoholic may just have more time to drink. Likewise, if you recommend alcohol treatment for the person who is abusing alcohol, they may stop drinking but find other self-destructive methods to cope with problems at work.

Whenever I am confronted with this dilemma (Is it a signal or a problem?), I ask myself, "How does this behavior make sense to the person engaging in the behavior?" Don't ask, "How does it make sense to me?"

If the behavior belongs to someone else, chances are it makes sense in their model of reality, which may look very different than yours. In the case of the couple with the messy house, what made sense according to the wife's model of reality is that the wife wanted to have a neat house but she wanted something else more. In order to get a clean house, it was necessary to help her accomplish what was more important first.

One final word of caution. While my experience with Misha is a reminder that some solutions are easy and superficial, many problems require deeper probing. While a band-aid may suffice for a while, it will save a lot of wasted energy and questioning if surgery is done immediately.

On that note, now is the time to learn that new computer program, revamp your marketing strategy, and take the time from work to just go for a walk.