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How to Encourage Family Business Clients to Have That Difficult Conversation

By Kyle Danner

In books on conflict resolution, experts encourage you to see conflict as an “opportunity.” Logically, it makes sense. Emotionally, it sounds awful. Kind of like eating a bowl of broken glass.

Seriously. Who wants to deal with conflict? No one.

Unfortunately, there’s never a shortage of disputes in any family business. As an advisor, you know families avoid them, believing that somehow, some way, things will magically work out. They never do, of course, which leads to more conflict further down the road.

You know the cost of not talking about it and how the crucial conflict resolution is to a family business’s success. So, how can you encourage your clients to have these difficult conversations?

These are 5 simple techniques you can follow to help your family business client work through conflict and make the best decisions for the family’s (and the business’s) future.

Respect their resistance.

Acknowledge that dealing with problems in the family business is difficult and it’s normal to avoid it. As human beings, we’re naturally inclined to avoid painful situations. Trying to convince someone otherwise seems naive and disingenuous.

Remember the emotions.

On paper, your solution appears perfectly rational. It’ll save your client time and money (which is what they say they want), and it’ll be better for everyone in the long run. But if it means the daughter becomes the majority owner and the son does not, Mom and Dad will look like they’re playing favorites. Faced with that prospect, they’ll be inclined to do nothing. This doesn’t mean you have to be their therapist and process their feelings. In these situations, you should remember there are emotions that underlie the financial and legal documents.

Help your client build flexibility.

The stress of conflict naturally leads to people getting locked into their positions. That makes it difficult to see other paths. Help your client build flexibility or consider more options. Start with the magic question, “What would it look like if everything was perfect?” Then, explore different scenarios by asking, “What would happen if?” Finally, as you learn more, ask them why the scenarios may or may not work.

Explore shared interests, not positions.

Family members may take opposite positions on an issue. For example, who should lead the business. Positions are the surface level statements (I should lead the business because I’m better qualified), while interests are the underlying reasons (I want the business to remain profitable so our family continues supporting our favorite charities). By exploring the interests that underlie the statements family members make, or the things they say they want, you begin to uncover the real reasons for their positions. Then, you might unearth shared interests like family harmony, financial security, or philanthropy.

Refer out or partner with a colleague.

Remember the old adage “there’s safety in numbers?” It might be a good idea to have a colleague join you. The presence of another person can help calm everyone’s nerves and keeps you from feeling like you’re on the firing line. If the difficult conversation revolves around some serious family drama, refer to an advisor or counselor comfortable working with family relationships.

Find Out How To Address The Elephant In Your Client’s Family Business

As an advisor, you’ve seen all too often what happens when families avoid difficult conversations. They’re forced to make major family and business decisions when a crisis hits. Offering them ways to approach these difficult conversations now might be the push they need to take the next step.

Identifying the elephant in the family business is one step of the process. Dealing with it is another story entirely. In my family business book, Is There An Elephant In Your Family Business?, I’ll guide you through the process step by step.

You’ll learn:

  • How to bring up the conversation

  • What to do when things get tense

  • Additional questions to ask

  • And more

Ready to gain an edge over other family business advisors and help your client take the next step? Download a free chapter of my book and discover how to address and overcome the elephant in the family business.

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