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Articles - Conflict and Confrontation in Family - Business

How to listen and win in family business communication

Friday, June 14, 1996



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

Years ago, when my husband and I were just getting started, we lived in a small one bedroom house. He was finishing law school that Summer and we were planning a big celebration. Since graduation and our party were slated for August; and since family and friends would be flying in from out of town, I wanted our little home to be as pleasant as possible for this important occasion. Over the next few months, while we planned, I would suggest that I wanted a window air conditioner so that our stuffy little house would be more comfortable for the party. My husband always said he thought that was a waste of money, especially in the Northwest, where we see the sun so seldom. Nevertheless, I persisted, until one day he was particularly annoyed with me. I told him I had spotted a sale on air conditioners at a local appliance store and wanted to check them out. In frustration, he placed his hands on the table in front of him, pushed himself up from the chair, looked me squarely in the eye and announced, "We aren't getting an air conditioner and I don't want to hear any more about it!" I was speechless for a moment, not fully comprehending that I had been dismissed. Then I caught my breath. Would I back down? Would I fight? Or, would I negotiate? Giving the tension a moment to settle, I proceeded to explain to my husband that while he had every right to not want an air conditioner, he did not have the right to make a unilateral decision that affected us both equally. At the same time just because I had the right to want an air conditioner, did not mean I could override my husband's wishes. In other words we were at a standoff. The only solution was to keep talking until we could come to a mutually agreeable solution. I am sure that you would like to know whether or not we got the air conditioner and who really won. But the real issue is not who wins but that relationships require no compromises, no giving in, no resentments in order to work.As much as is humanly possible, participants in relationships should work toward win-win solutions. Just as listening is a difficult skill to master, especially when you have so much to say, learning the art of negotiating a win-win or no-compromise solution with another person requires a lot of effort. But the pay off is a relationship filled with respect and cooperation. Reviewing last month's column for a moment, we learned that if you really want someone to talk so that others will listen, you need to learn the art of listening first.

By listening you can begin to understand the other person's world or "map of reality." Comprehending another's map is vital to developing your communication strategy. The basics of good listening are to get your own ego out of the way so that you don't require the other person to think and talk as you do. Next, listen to what the other individual is trying to tell you instead of their words. Remember that all human behavior is meaningful, but the meaning may be disguised. For example, when I found my two year old carrying a loaf of bread around the house, I inferred that she was hungry. Further I inferred that my babysitter had neglected to feed her (which to my horror proved to be true). Another part of listening is to be truly interested in the other person. If you are genuine, the other individual feels appreciated and tries that much harder to send you clear signals that require less translating. Even if you don't agree on something, the fact that you are making an extra effort to understand the other's reality, will move you both toward a win-win solution. Letting go of the notion that good relationships are based on compromise is tough. Most of us have been taught that compromise is essential because both people can't be right. But try to look at this another way. There really are many right solutions to a problem. We tend to think our solution is the only right one because it fits our reality best. But often in the listening process, we discover other solutions that work as well or better than our original one.When you are "bent" on having your way, you may get it, but at the expense of a healthy relationship with your wife, or coworker, or child or employee. Just because someone gives in doesn't mean they agree with you. Acquiescence often leads the person to become sneaky to get their way, or to be passive aggressive and dig in their heels on other issues. Another important benefit of taking the extra time to go for a win-win solution is that you encourage free thinking in those around you. If you are a powerful person or extremely charismatic, you may be able to garner obedience from others. However, you will then deny yourself the opportunity to benefit from the creativity of other free thinking individuals. Even if you believe this philosophy of relationships, it is an extremely difficult process to accomplish. It does require that you are willing to devote time.You can't give up in a huff or sacrifice your position because you are beaten down. You may be tempted to resort to intimidation for the sake of expediency, but you will risk rapport.

Therefore, my suggestion is to enter the negotiation with the goal of a win-win solution. If at the end of the time you have there is no solution on the horizon, table the discussion until you sleep on it. Often given enough time, and perhaps the advice of others, a new heretofore unthought of option will appear. Members of family firms often fall victim to the compromise trap. Because we want to keep relations on a positive note with our family members/coworkers, we acquiesce or intimidate our way to expedient solutions. Unfortunately, creativity, independence and loyalty are sacrificed. The willingness to risk a little annoyance or confusion by resisting settling for a compromise may mean a much more creative solution in the long run. In one family firm a daughter was the catalyst for the win-win solution. Her husband had worked with her father in the father's business for about 15 years. The father's son was being groomed to take over the business even though the son-in-law was far more capable. The son-in-law became disgruntled by the plan but was afraid to disrupt family equilibrium. Naturally the daughter felt caught in the middle. Eventually the son-in-law decided to move out of the business into another job in a related industry. This allowed him to grow professionally and yet not offend his father-in-law. But the problem remained that the son was not really capable of stepping into his father's shoes. After the family wrestled with the problem for awhile, the daughter stepped in and offered to run the business for her father. The son was actually relieved by his sister's offer because he felt an obligation to take over Dad's business when he really had other interests. The daughter had not even been considered as a successor before, but she proved to be quite capable. With a little getting used to the family expanded their consciousness to include a new possibility which allowed the family business to grow and the family to carry on. Getting back to that air conditioner, my husband and I struggled with the problem for an hour or so. He had to admit that I was right about the decision requiring consensus. Keeping his mind open to the possibility of an air conditioner he could live with and keeping my mind open to the possibility that I could live without one, we arrived at a win-win solution. Since the air conditioners were on sale they cost about half what he had imagined. I agreed, in order to keep the costs down, that we needn't run the appliance anymore than was necessary. So we did buy an air conditioner afterall, with no resentments on either side.

Communicating so others will listen to you

Friday, May 17, 1996



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

The most common problem brought into my office is that of communicating with others, a spouse, a boss or coworker, a child. No matter what level of society or what kind of job the person comes from the art of communicating so that others will listen is an art that is difficult to cultivate. There are many reasons for this and they are amply exemplified in family firms. First, a family is a group of members from two genders and two, three or four generations. Spicing the soup further, is added the interaction of the family system with the work environment and non-family coworkers and employees. Third, family members are often baffled by communicating with the ones they love. Isn't love all that is necessary to form a strong relationship? As a result I am frequently asked to help members of family firms to iron out their communication difficulties, especially the ones that have lead to an impasse at work, or to the brink of divorce, or to a feud between parent and child. Until the misunderstandings are ferreted out, and new communication skills learned, members of a family firm may stay in a quagmire of distrust for years. The first place to start if you want to be heard, is to listen yourself. But this is easier said than done. Listening is a very creative component of communicating. However, once you become good at listening, half the current misunderstandings will disappear. One simple way to begin your education at becoming a better listener is to ask yourself "Why is he or she telling me this?" In other words, you are looking for the meaning behind the words. People have good intentions. They are trying to communicate with you. But often their words don't reflect the inner meaning. To be able to respond to this inner meaning, you must put yourself in his or her shoes and ask yourself what is the meaning behind these words or behavior? Another step in becoming a good listener is to realize that people cannot not communicate with you. That is, they are always sending you meaningful (meaningful to them) messages if you can only learn to interpret them.

So even if you think you are getting resistance from someone, realize that this individual is telling you something that is important to them. Perhaps your grown son is not attending to his responsibilities at work, despite repeated conferences with you, because he feels that he is constantly in "the old man's shadow." Or perhaps your husband works 60-70 hours a week at the family business because he believes that by being a good provider he is demonstrating his love and loyalty to you. After practicing nothing but listening for a few weeks, you should be getting pretty good at figuring out the other person's reality. Remember, we all live in our "maps" of reality. Your interpretation of reality is not necessarily superior to any other person's. Maps are just a convenient way to structure our lives. In figuring out another person's map of reality and responding to it, you begin to let the other person feel respected, appreciated, even loved. In order to respond to another person, it is necessary to put your own ego aside. Listen, observe and learn the "language" of the other person. Once you begin to speak their language, you will be surprised how much they want to learn yours. In other words, the real key to learning to talk so that others will listen is to learn the art of drawing people to you. By developing your creative listening skills, others will want to talk with and listen to you too. Perhaps you remember the short story "The Gift." The story tells of a young couple who were so poor at Christmas that they had no money to buy each other a gift. So the young man, sold his pocket watch to buy his sweetheart a comb for her long beautiful hair. And the young women, cut and sold her hair to purchase her husband a watch fob for his pocket watch. The willingness to sacrifice your own needs temporarily and step into the other's world, brings rewards that are deeper than a comb and a watch. Dan and Jane had a similar problem when they came for consultation.

Their communicating skills were so bad that they were on the brink of divorce even though they still loved each other. Dan complained that his wife was not supportive. Because he worked long hours seven days a week, he wanted her to be more supportive when he came home. She on the other hand, resented these long hours and the fact that she was left to manage the household and three young children by herself. By the time Dan finally got home in the evening, Jane wanted to turn the children over to Dan so that she could rest. Dan wanted the house clean and the children fed when he got home. This couple worked valiantly at trying to break through the communication barriers, but their maps of reality were radically different. Instead of being more supportive at the end of the day, Jane planned extra social activities for she and her husband, hoping that luring him away from work, would help him relax. This only made Dan mad and unappreciative. And in order to coerce her "support" Dan would give Jane "assignments" to accomplish before the day's end, so that he wouldn't have any work to do when he arrived home. Needless to say, she got even less accomplished than before. The solution for this couple lies in learning to understand the other's map of reality and responding to it, rather than imposing one's will onto the other person. Dan needs appreciation for the sacrifices he makes to support his family. Jane needs appreciation for the sacrifices she makes to support her family. Then they both need to stop sacrificing! A reevaluation of just what each needs and wants and is capable of creating is in order. By listening and responding to the maps of family members, coworkers, friends and others, one improves his or her capacity to be listened to. Next comes the tough part of negotiating an ongoing workable relationship. Just how to navigate those waters will be the subject of next month's column. In the meantime practice listening and determine how many different realities there are out there!

How to fight fair in a family firm

Thursday, March 07, 1996



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

Ask yourself who you would rather work with, a family member or a trusted friend or colleague. List five family members whom you trust and five friends or colleagues whom you trust. Of these ten people, with whom would you choose to start a brand new business? When I asked this question recently of attendees at a trade show, the majority said they would work with a friend before they would a family member. Their reasoning is that they wouldn't want to risk alienating a family member and upsetting the entire family if the business partnership should not work out. What is most interesting about their responses is that a good 90% of the attendees were already working in a family firm! While the rewards of working with the ones you love are many, such as the benefit of working with someone whom you trust and who will work as hard as you do, there are significant liabilities. The major one that plagues most family firms is the inability to resolve conflict constructively. This inability leads to resentment, hostility, alienation and family feuds. Family firms have the unique distinction of blending both the needs of a family and the needs of a thriving business. While the goal of the business is growth through competition, the goal of the family is to nurture and protect all family members. As a result, family firms grow more slowly than non-family owned firms because the business growth is compromised by the need to protect family members, even those who do not really belong in the business. Conflict in any family is disagreeable, but it is even more so in a family that also works together. Ordinary conflicts that other business owners have to deal with are submerged in a family business for fear of "hurting" a family member's feelings, or offending one's parent or spouse.The need to protect the family system, to keep this system in tact, is quite strong. All of us grew up with the knowledge that to betray a family rule was to risk the safety of the family. Anthropologists suggest that this protection of the family system is a part of our survival as a species.

We seem to have a genetic need to belong to a family where we can share food, shelter and emotional comfort with our kinfolk. Political experiments that disrupt the standard family unit usually do not last. Research is even showing that children learn better in school if educators structure assignments to better represent individual student's family values. Given that belonging to a family is a stronger need than striking out on one's own, families tend to discourage conflict and confrontation. This keeps family members home. However, in a business, avoiding conflict can lead to serious problems. Sometimes out of conflicts arise tremendous ideas for the growth and success of the business. Wrestling with ideas brings out resolutions never before thought of and it often clears the path for junior members of an organization to show what they are made of. But in family firms, all too often conflicts get submerged rather than aired in a healthy context. Those of you who currently work with your spouse or other family members may be thinking that conflict is rampant in your family. The problem is that the frequent fighting may not be solving anything. When ordinary conflicts get submerged as they too often do in family firms, things fester. Family members may brood or bicker but never really confront the issue head on. Sometimes there is a major blow up at the office, but this is not healthy confrontation. This is merely "letting off steam," only to have it build up again until the next fight. Some of the signs of submerged conflict in family firms are (1) the increase in alcoholism and drug dependence among family firm members; (2) infidelity and multiple marriages or liaisons; (3) child abuse; (4) acting-out children (i.e., poor grades, suicide threats, drug abuse, numerous traffic violations, disregard for the rights of others); (5) chronic depression; (6) frequent fighting to no end.

In order to get to the bottom of conflicts, family firm members need to be brave. You need to trust that you are doing what's best for the family as well as the business by confronting family problems. Even if you have the minority view, it may be an important view. In your family and family firm there may be room for more than one view. Confrontation need not be nasty and abusive. Confrontation is just "taking the bull by the horns." Be respectful but firm. Acknowledge that you may not be right, but that the family needs to talk. Keep talking until the family has come to a mutually agreeable solution. Most people report that they feel closer to those with whom they have resolved conflicts. The misunderstandings that lead to the conflicts are often just that, misunderstandings, not a major difference in values. And if you discover that there is a major difference in values and these differences are not good for the business, it's best to discover these differences so that sound business decisions can be made. If a father and son really want to take the business in different directions, perhaps they should part the business, not maintain a cool emotional distance from each other in the office. But rest assured whether a member leaves the business or not, the family goes on forever. Conflict and confrontation strengthen a family, despite the unpleasantness in the moment of unresolved dissension. While it's true that families take on different shapes and sizes over the years as children marry, grandchildren are born, founders die, even an occasional divorce, the family as an entity survives. The same cannot be said for a business. It can be sold or dissolved permanently. One of my daughters brought home this poem by an unknown author and I think it sums up the values that any family business should be proud to live by.

Our family's like a patchwork quilt With kindness gently sewn. Each piece is an original With a beauty of its own. With threads of warmth and happiness It's tightly stitched together To last in love throughout the years --- Our family is forever.

Alcoholism -- the secret of addictions in family firms

Thursday, February 08, 1996



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

Every night at about 10:30 or 11:00 the fighting would start and carry on for two to three hours or more until the couple got so tired they just fell asleep. This was the culmination of a long day at the office where Joan and Jack, wife and husband, worked side by side running their successful business. By the end of the work day Joan frequently wanted to stop off at a bar for a drink to "unwind" before heading for home to dinner. Jack, in a separate car would go home, relieve the babysitter, and start dinner. When his wife got home she was relaxed and cheerful, the alcohol having taken the edge off of the day's stress. Two more glasses of wine at dinner contributed to her changing personality. As the evening progressed, Jack would busy himself with settling the children down for the evening. He didn't mind doing most of the domestic chores because he understood that Joan didn't have as much physical stamina as he. When it was time to give the children a good night kiss, he would call to their mother, whom he often found napping on the couch. A couple more drinks later Joan was no longer napping, no longer cheerful. Her irritability was growing. Dumbfounded, Jack could not figure out why she was mad at him. The accusations started flying, defensive walls shot up and the arguing would escalate to unreasonable and irrational proportions. Alcoholism and other drug abuse is an epidemic in our country. We are all aware of the general problem nationwide. There are numerous programs in our schools to prevent drug abuse among our youth. The courts are less and less tolerant of alcohol related traffic infractions. Celebrities have established treatment programs to sober up movie stars and politicians. Many employers are taking a hard look at the problems caused by drug abuse and alcohol addiction. Employers recognize the loss attributable to drugs in terms of lowered production, increased accidents, lower quality work, and loss of skilled employees. They have established employee assistance programs and redesigned insurance benefits to create treatment options for employees. These programs not only treat the addict, but the family as well because it is the strength of the family that determines the addict's success in treatment.

The concern reaches to the highest levels in most companies. Whether the employee is the president or the line worker, today's employers are cracking down on drug abuse. No one is allowed to jeopardize the welfare of the company or fellow workers by engaging in dangerous addictive behavior. But the goal is not punishment. Instead, employers want to rehabilitate and return a healthy employee to the job. Yet among family firms, drug addiction and alcohol abuse are frequently overlooked. Many people who have worked in family firms, yet are not family members, talk about the "secret" at work. The secret that everyone knows is that their is a family member who is addicted or engaging in drug or alcohol abuse, yet no one is to talk about it. The family member is protected not only by the family, but by a general conspiracy among employees. In previous columns I have explained how this conspiracy comes to be. The function of the family is to nurture and protect its members. This function is alive and well in a family firm, and usually takes precedence over the welfare of the business or other non-family related employees. This is a rule that families have followed since the beginning of human civilization, and therefore is not likely to change. If there is an alcoholic in a family firm, be they founder, spouse, son, daughter, or in-law, the family is likely to overlook, condone, deny, rationalize or minimize the problem for the sake of keeping the family system in tact. If the founder is alcoholic, alcoholism may be a family "tradition" that will be hard to break. That is, drinking may be interwoven into the fabric of family life and corporate life. Leaders in family firms have a tough job. They must weigh the success of the business against the needs of the family. Allowing addictions to go untreated is no way to take care of either the business or the family. By ignoring the problem the addict accepts this as tacit approval of their behavior. And by ignoring the problem, the potential threat to the integrity of the family and business grows. Alcoholism and other addictions leads to the breakdown of the family, just what a family firm wants to avoid.

What can help members of the family firm address these problems is to consider that the addict is fortunate to have the backing of both his/her family as well as his/her business. With the support of the two most important systems in one's life, the addict has increased potential to succeed in treatment. They have a loving family and they have a job to come back to. Yet among family firms, drug addiction and alcohol abuse are frequently overlooked. Many people who have worked in family firms, yet are not family members, talk about the "secret" at work. The secret that everyone knows is that their is a family member who is addicted or engaging in drug or alcohol abuse, yet no one is to talk about it. The family member is protected not only by the family, but by a general conspiracy among employees. In previous columns I have explained how this conspiracy comes to be. The function of the family is to nurture and protect its members. This function is alive and well in a family firm, and usually takes precedence over the welfare of the business or other non-family related employees. This is a rule that families have followed since the beginning of human civilization, and therefore is not likely to change. If there is an alcoholic in a family firm, be they founder, spouse, son, daughter, or in-law, the family is likely to overlook, condone, deny, rationalize or minimize the problem for the sake of keeping the family system in tact. If the founder is alcoholic, alcoholism may be a family "tradition" that will be hard to break. That is, drinking may be interwoven into the fabric of family life and corporate life. Leaders in family firms have a tough job. They must weigh the success of the business against the needs of the family. Allowing addictions to go untreated is no way to take care of either the business or the family. By ignoring the problem the addict accepts this as tacit approval of their behavior. And by ignoring the problem, the potential threat to the integrity of the family and business grows. Alcoholism and other addictions leads to the breakdown of the family, just what a family firm wants to avoid. What can help members of the family firm address these problems is to consider that the addict is fortunate to have the backing of both his/her family as well as his/her business. With the support of the two most important systems in one's life, the addict has increased potential to succeed in treatment. They have a loving family and they have a job to come back to.