When it comes to family business disputes, what are your client’s most urgent needs?

I recently attended a great workshop by Bernie Mayer entitled “Getting to the Heart of Conflict”. Bernie is a significant thought leader in the area of managing conflict.

Two specific issues he raised during that workshop really struck a chord with me with respect to my family business dispute clients. Firstly, our clients often have issues of security and safety that they need addressed first before they can focus their attention on the issue at hand. Secondly, some conflict is so entrenched that the best that can be expected is that the parties work out ways to manage it; not resolve it.

Let me explain.

Meet your client’s need to feel “safe” first

We, as mediators and financial service providers, are often looking at solving our clients’ long term issues; for example what will this business look like in five to ten years’ time, is this business viable in the long term in light of the relationship issues etc.. But when a person is very stressed due to financial and relationship issues they are usually focused on dealing with their short term pain. They often do not have the capacity to deal with anything else in that moment.

Moreover a client under a lot of stress may behave in a way that does not reflect their best self. They may lash out, blame others for their pain or the situation and become quite aggressive if they think that they are being challenged.

We need to take the time to ensure that our client’s short term needs are met as best as possible. That might mean providing additional information to help them feel like they have some control over their situation. It might mean ensuring that your client has the opportunity to feel heard and respected particularly when they are doubting themselves; this usually often means providing your client with more time and in person appointments where you do a lot of listening and not much else. Your client does not usually need you to tell them that they made a mistake or that they could have made a different decision; they need someone they can trust, who will take their call, who will listen to them. You will be able to provide advice, challenge their thinking and/or decisions made once you have given them that extra time and support; once the trust is well and truly established.

Then you can focus more on the long term issues.

We can’t fix everything

Entrenched conflict in a family business is often extremely difficult to “resolve”. That conflict usually has significant history; and the issues that caused the conflict may have no relevance to the day to day running of a business. The conflict might be about the fact that their parents bought the oldest brother a new bike when he was 10 and the younger brother only ever got his brother’s hand me downs. There might be a history of drug and alcohol abuse that has been a problem for many generations and continues to raise its ugly head. Or certain members of the family may have been “at war” for many generations and it has become part of who they are.

There is no magic bullet for some of these disputes.

As mediators and conflict specialists we need to work out whether we should open every Pandora’s box or whether, in some circumstances, it is better to leave some issues alone, because it may exacerbate the conflict.

Sometimes it is just best to call the issue out; make sure that everyone is aware that this is a significant issue and that it is not something that can easily be resolved; but then say that with limited time and resources, we need to focus on this business related problem and only this issue right here and now. To acknowledge that the problem will still be there; but that’s ok, it is something they can come back to later. But for now, we need to work out how to move forward; to make some decisions about how we deal with the issue at hand and what are the next 3-5 steps to get them out of this current situation.

It is often difficult for a family member to walk away from a family business without potentially damaging relationships within the family. There is so much at stake.

Additional support services

Finally it should also be noted, that members of a family business dealing with significant conflict may need access to a range of services to ensure that they have the capacity to deal with the issues at hand. In addition to financial advice and the help of a mediator, it may also be useful for the family to have access to a counsellor or psychologist to help them deal with the emotional fall out that will inevitably come up.

Family businesses dealing with entrenched conflict often just continue on, suffering in silence, because dealing with the conflict seems too overwhelming. This is not good for their mental and/or physical health. With mediation family members can explore different ways to communicate and manage the day to day running of the business while they consider their long term options.

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