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Conflict in the Family Enterprise: Moving Forward by Moving Through it

Updated: Feb 14, 2022

People often view conflict as negative, but it doesn’t have to be, it can be a constructive tool in achieving alignment. To be sure, conflict is the central challenge for many families, and it can cause a great deal of pain and angst. But, a few shifts in perspective can transform conflict into a source of creativity, positive change, and improved communication.

Conflict doesn’t just go away. And, if it sits unaddressed, the underlying issues will wreck relationships in the long term. But changing our relationship with conflict involves a simple change in perspective: the glass half empty to the glass is half full. We help families make it constructive, by giving them the tools, frameworks, and the space to talk through the various challenges catching them up. The aim is to co-create alignment on what’s workable; perhaps not perfection, but good enough.

It often involves a major life event to move a family outside their comfort zone, forcing them to move beyond their culture of avoidance. Whether that is a marriage, a new baby, a death in the family, or a pandemic: these things have a way of forcing us to reevaluate where we’re at, and push us to contemplate where we want to go or how we can increase our happiness.

Conflict and Harmony: Finding Creativity in Between

Avoidance of the hard discussions comes from the idea that conflict and harmony are in opposition to one another. Plus, many of us tend to believe that maintaining the status quo is the same as achieving harmony, when in reality conflict is simmering in the background until it comes to the boiling point. This boiling point often comes at the most inopportune times, like when in the midst of an ownership transition. Families want harmony within their relationships, but often interrupt opportunities to achieve the harmony they want so badly by ignoring the issues. Harmony is not a goal, it is a byproduct of hard work. When used productively, conflict can help you work through the issues, and get to a space of true harmony - not agreement on the issue, but an alignment on the necessity to co-create and productively move forward.

In addition, most conflict styles are learned behaviours, patterns that are repeated throughout generations. Growing up, we look to our parents to learn. Hence our conflict styles are also learned, and they become so ingrained that we may not even be aware of them. As soon as you recognize the approach is not working, then you can start to change the situation. There is a similar effect when it comes to ownership transitions in the family business. A family enterprise is not only money and business, but you - your values, your styles, your way of operating. Unless the person transitioning to ownership is mature enough to evaluate the current approach, the issues will continue. You have to set your own strategies, and take responsibility for your own actions and words.

Productive Discussion: A Force of Positive Change

In order to have this productive discourse, each party has to be a willing and active participant. Willingness to listen and to be vulnerable enough to share feelings, wants, and fears makes the difference between superficial solutions and getting the heart of the challenges and conflict. To this end, it’s also important that families are committed to creating safe spaces for honest dialogue. It can be helpful to have a third party lead this discussion, to ensure everyone gets a turn to express their views, and a sense that everyone received the same opportunities to be heard. A common theme I come across when it comes to this conflict is that people do not feel listened to, and creating safe, open discussion offers precisely this kind of opportunity.

Conflict in families is inevitable, and no family is perfect. So finding equilibrium and moving forward doesn’t mean asking the question “how can we avoid conflict completely,” but rather figuring out the answer to “what's good enough?” Maturity is needed to take responsibility for words and actions, and to resolve the conflict. If you have two willing parties, then you have a foundation to build on.

Co-Create the Resolution: Communication for the Future

Once everyone’s had their say, the next step is to co-create the resolution. Choose what you can and cannot give, and come to a mutual agreement on a way forward together. The choices that may have seemed equal years ago when a former plan was made, may no longer be fair, equal, or desired. A shift is required from ‘me’ centric, to ‘we’ centric; if we are in disagreement, instead of saying “I want this for me”, say “I want this for us.” The connotations of this are vastly different, and it sets the perspective that can lead to more alignment as a family system.

A healthy approach to conflict is to have regular discussions, and a framework on how to approach issues as they arise. Most conflicts can be resolved if you have the courage and heart to work through them, and accept that the resolution has to be co-created: the way forward is alignment on a shared vision.

When used as a constructive tool, and a launching-point for dialogue and discussion, conflict does not have to be negative. Rather, it can be a powerful catalyst to achieve alignment and harmony as a family. By shifting the perspective and giving framework to the discussion, we can transform conflict into a creative outlet, a force for change, and new pathways of communication.

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