Peak Performing Business Strategy 2: Understanding Your Family's Conflict Style
By Kyle Danner
Without meeting you or your family, I can make a pretty good guess on how you deal with conflict.
Don’t worry, I say that without an ounce of judgment. We didn’t do a very good job of dealing with disputes in my family’s business. It’s the same for the families I work with—and really anyone I talk to about family business.
Conflict is often filled with judgment, blame, and criticism. Either you’re judging, blaming and criticizing others, or you’re judging, blaming, and criticizing yourself. I can’t tell you the number of cocktails parties and networking events I’ve been to where people tell me about “the crazy family businesses” they work for or know about. And while they go on, I stand there thinking, “I wonder how well your family deals with its issues.”
So let’s set all the judgment, blame, and criticism aside and talk about why this is so gosh-darn hard and what you can do to change your family’s tendency to avoid discussing problems in the family business.
Why Human Beings Naturally Avoid Conflict
It’s natural for human beings to avoid conflict. It’s what we’re programmed to do. It’s simply our body protecting us from pain, either physical or psychological.
And there’s a lot pain in the family business. Maybe Mom and Dad play favorites when choosing one child over another to run the business. Maybe you feel obligated to make excuses for a family member’s poor job performance because you don’t want to hurt their feelings, even if they don’t have the skills or desire to be successful at work. Maybe you put off big decisions about the future because you don’t want to appear eager to push Dad out the door to retirement.
But you can learn to address issues like these instead of avoiding them...with a little work.
Managing conflict, or let’s say getting along with others, is a skill to learn and practice. And it begins with you.
Now, I’m sure that’s not what you wanted to hear. What you want to hear is that the other person needs to be the one to change. They need to be the one to simmer down and get their act together.
But that’s not how it works because, when you’re fighting with someone, the only thing you can manage is yourself. If you change how you respond, you can change how your family members get along.
How To Address Conflict The Right Way
When you’re at odds with a family member, you will feel the urge to strike back. That’s a sign that a piece of who you are, your identity, the core of your being, was hurt. It doesn’t matter how minor. All that matters is that you feel pain.
What you do with that pain is up to you. You can lash back, trying to hurt the other person more, or you can take a different approach that looks something like this.
Remind yourself that your loved one is hurting, too. It’s easy to point fingers and say, "He started it," but that’ll send you both in circles, like a dog chasing its tail. Instead, approach them with curiosity and ask, “What makes you say that?” or, “Why do you feel that way?”
Then comes the really hard part. Listening. Sometimes, all someone needs is to be heard. Once they feel heard, they’ll be more likely to listen.
When you listen to the other party, you’ll get a lot of emotion at first, and some of it will be directed at you. That’s to be expected. Validate that you understand what they’re feeling. Confirm what they’re saying by replying with, “I hear that when dad listens to me first, you feel ignored.” Confirm again with, “Am I hearing you correctly?” or, “Am I understanding you?”
If the other parties can’t give you specifics on why they’re upset, then it’s best to call a timeout and agree to discuss it later when everyone is in a better place. What’s not helpful is for you to sit there and be their emotional dumping ground.
Once you have an understanding of how the other person feels, share what you’re feeling and include specifics. Use “I” statements to represent yourself. For example, “I feel ignored when decisions are made without my input.”
Avoid the word “you” as much as possible. That sounds like you’re making an accusation and pointing fingers at them. If the situation involves something your loved one did that caused the pain or problem, then bring attention to it. But again, point to specific actions or behavior.
As you learn more, try to find shared interests to work around individual positions. Think of shared interests as the common ground that can help you and your loved one break from me-against-you mentality. Shared interests in the family business are things like clarifying roles and responsibilities for all family members; preserving the family’s legacy by supporting favorite charities; and using the business’s resources to care for aging parents.
And I’ll stress one more time: Try to really listen, and remember that listening doesn’t mean agreeing. You can listen and validate what your loved one is saying, but that doesn’t mean you have to agree with them.
Helping The Business & The Family Move Forward
If you make the effort to listen rather than respond or attack, you begin to change the patterns of how your loved ones get along with each other.
It will take time. We’re talking about changing well-established patterns and lifelong habits. However, if you stick with it, you create an environment where family members will be open to managing conflict, making for a peak performing family team.
And the good news is, once the problem is resolved, the business can move on. You can get back to doing what you love, and the family can focus on helping the business’s vision become a reality.
If you feel like your family is in too deep, schedule a free meeting with me. Together, we can come up with a plan to help you effectively manage disputes within your business so you can continue to do what you love.