As family business consultants, we are often asked, “How do you know if a family in conflict can be helped, or if they are headed toward either litigation or stagnation?” While there is no test of absolute certainty, we have identified a predictor of how likely a family might be to manage conflict in new and constructive ways.
We call our predictor the “Family Factor.” It is a group of observed family characteristics that serve to answer the question, “Is the family bond strong enough to weather the storm of conflict?” Families with a strong Family Factor can generally tolerate conflict better, respond more resiliently, negotiate compromises, and maintain a commitment to change.
In addition to using our Family Factor for assessment, we also strive to shore it up in our work with families in conflict. The characteristics that make up the Family Factor are qualities that can often be strengthened and/or moderated in order to raise the overall chances of success in family conflict management.
The Family Factor is composed of three key components:
Shared vision for a future as family
What, if anything, do the stakeholders agree upon as their shared history? How might they be inspired to co-create a narrative that everyone feels invested in?
From Rashomon to SpongeBob, our cultural narrative is rife with stories of how different people recount the same event differently. In a family, each person’s experience is unique. While siblings who grew up in the same home, or cousins who regularly attended family events, likely have a shared history, they will often perceive that history differently. Often an individual’s memory of a conversation or an event varies tremendously from that of another participant in the same conversation.
Even siblings with difficult histories together may see those histories as part of who they are. The shared history can be important and worthy of preserving, even if it is a negative history. The familiarity of the relationship itself may have worth to a stakeholder, despite the fact that the relationship has been a difficult one.
Being close relatives does not guarantee a shared history. Consider the situation where siblings are 15 years apart in age and may not have any common childhood experiences, since the older sibling may have left home before the younger one can remember. Similarly, family circumstances may have changed during that time so that the home environment was very different for the two siblings. For example, if the family became affluent after the elder sibling left home, the younger child may have participated in a more luxurious lifestyle that was not available to the elder sibling. This would make for a distinct lack of shared history between the two siblings. However, time spent talking together about their childhoods and their parents would most likely lead them to find areas of agreement and shared experience.
If the family disagrees or does not have an awareness of their narrative, it will become apparent as members try to tell stories. A cohesive narrative will often have punch lines that family members wait for with bated breath, as well as a sense of togetherness (seen through body language and harmonious interruptions to pick up the narrative) when the tale is being recounted. This is also apparent in tales of trial and hardship—the family sees itself as having weathered the storm together.
When family members’ story lines are conflicted or even cancel each other out, we see impasses that overshadow or even obliterate a shared history. The stakeholders can see each other as alien and not someone they agree with.
We encourage stakeholders to:
Embrace and accept the totality of their diverse experience as one family.
Explore more nuanced versions of their history.
Talk through past misunderstandings and misdeeds with a view toward achieving a genuine forgiveness.
Such coaching can help strengthen the shared history and, thus, the Family Factor.
SHARED VISION FOR THE FUTURE
Do the individuals involved share a common vision as a family in the future?
Inquiring into how individuals see the future for their family can open up conversations about shared identity and vision and help to assess the strength of the family’s commitment to an ongoing relationship.
One might ask: If they encountered their family in three generations, how might they know and recognize them? What traditions would they see being observed that would tell them who it was? Would they be in a certain geographic location? Would they convene at certain times or in certain places?
Indicators of a strong, shared vision of the future include the family agreeing on things their descendants would be doing generations ahead. If, on the other hand, family members’ vision of togetherness tends to evaporate upon the death of a patriarch or a generation, there is a limited vision for a continued relationship in the future. This will often present as “The house on the Cape will have to go when Mom dies.” Or, “Thanksgiving is really Mary’s gig—nobody else could take that on.”
Sometimes the hard work and conflict that go with a family business can make the prospect of maintaining a connected family in the long-term feel like a burden. In our experience, when families no longer see a purpose or value to continued involvement with each other, they feel they have nothing to gain by compromising or exerting effort to change for the sake of the family. Fortunately, with good conflict management, it is possible to alleviate some of the tension and stress associated with conflict, and enable the family to brainstorm on their future in a more positive and liberated way.
Identifying and nurturing the sense that a family has something to gain by staying connected as a family can directly improve the Family Factor, making compromise and a commitment to change more likely. This can be as simple as reviving or starting a family tradition, or creating a newsletter to enrich and strengthen the family narrative about its identity and shared future.
Do family members have a mutual sense of trust?
Trust is a critical component of family relationships and it is especially so when it concerns shared economic or business interests. The concept of trust is often misunderstood. In our work, we like to encourage families to look at trust through the lens of predictability, or being true to one’s word.
When there is predictability in a relationship, one can feel confident making decisions because one would be fairly certain of an outcome, even if it depended on the other person. This kind of trust is acquired through gaining an understanding of the other person and how they operate. When people do not know and understand each other’s roles and motives in the family business well, their actions are perceived as unpredictable, unreliable, and untrustworthy.
This kind of trust is not necessarily a belief that another will act in your best interests; it is a basic sense that you know who the other person is and how they might react to a given situation. Characteristics need not necessarily be positive, just consistent. For example, if Mike always gets depressed and gambles the petty cash at Christmas time, it would be a predictable quality that could be dealt with in a number of ways. Strangely, there is a sense of trust in this relationship, even though the trust is in negative behavior.
Trust, for our purposes, can be broken down into four basic components to determine if someone can be counted on to follow through with a particular behavior or course of action.
Communication—Are an individual’s behavior or intentions clearly communicated?
Commitment—Is there a commitment to follow through—despite unexpected obstacles—to achieve the promised outcome?
Concern—Is there concern regarding the impact of the promise? Sometimes adjustment of the outcome is needed to achieve the desired impact. Slavishly attending to the outcome rather than the intended impact may actually be passive aggression.
Competence—Is the individual in question capable of carrying out the expected behavior?
In the context of managing conflict when continuing relationships matter, it is important that we determine who trusts whom and who does not. Without trust or predictability, it’s far more difficult for people in conflict to feel safe enough to agree to compromise or commit to change, much less support it long-term.
USING THE FAMILY FACTOR
Understanding the Family Factor as a combination of the above-described, observable components is a useful framework for determining the ability of a family to successfully manage conflict. In assessing the Family Factor we inventory:
An important shared history—they have something to lose.
A vision for the relationship in the future—they have something to gain.
An ability to trust one another—they can rely on a compromise agreement and on a commitment to change.
Families who exhibit these characteristics are more likely to manage conflict and remain resilient in the face of adversity and hardship. More importantly, the Family Factor can be increased when stakeholders are coached to identify opportunities to repair or rekindle the spark of their shared history, identify the benefits of a shared vision for remaining connected as family, and build trust.
To learn more about conflict and the Family Factor, check out Blair and Doug’s insightful book, Deconstructing Conflict: Understanding Family Business, Shared Wealth and Power.