How do you mediate a family dispute?

Family businesses are emotional almost by definition: They are constantly balancing the need for rational business decision-making with the emotional aspects of the family unit.

It is a fine line to walk.

Managing emotions can be tricky – but the secret to success when dealing with a family dispute is constructive conversations. This involves us, as mediators in a family dispute, having conversations with families as well as enabling family members to have constructive conversations with each other.

As we said to a family recently, the conversation is not so much about the money that is to be given to family members – it is about how they feel about it. Is it seen as fair? And can the decisions that are made today be used as cudgel to beat someone around head in the future “because Mum and Dad gave you everything and I didn’t get any!”?

There are lots of different types of family mediation. At Family Business Central, our approach is to slow down the conversation, manage and acknowledge the emotions and change the negative interaction pattern that exists. With backgrounds in psychology business management, occupational health and strategy, our team has years of training and experience working with intense conflict situations in families, couples and businesses.

Families are challenging, there is so much history – both good and bad – in families the interaction patterns amongst family members often become incredibly ingrained. A family member only needs to raise an eyebrow in a certain way or use a specific tone of voice (regardless of the words) to set off a very negative chain reaction.

By slowing down a conversation, this mitigates the knee-jerk reaction. In these conversations, we’re usually surrounded by a fistful or itchy trigger fingers just waiting to hear what they’re expecting to hear, and then fire off in response.

During these conversations, we get people to speak slowly, and make sure they’re being specific in what they are saying. For example, instead of someone saying, “You do this all the time”, we ask for the specifics – time, date and specific behavioural example. On the other side we then get the listener to say back what they think they heard.

When people are engaged in an emotional conversation they are literally flooded with hormones like cortisol and adrenalin and their listening skills are terrible, they hear what they think is being said rather than what is actually being said.

Or they’ll focus on one negative word and ignore all the other positive words. In this case, we get the listener to paraphrase back what they think the other person is saying and then ask the speaker if that is correct. This benefits not just the listener who is hearing a far more accurate message, it benefits the sender who knows that their message has been heard rather than some inaccurate version based on a pattern developed when they were children. While this sounds cumbersome and in some ways it is, it slows the whole process down, the anger is reduced, the trigger fingers disengaged and a far more accurate conversation can start.

The reality is that family members love each other so much. In most cases, the angrier they are the more they love each other. When we slow the conversation down so each side can really hear what they are saying, the real emotion – love – comes through and then we get the breakthroughs. We often say, once we get the anger out of the way the love can then come through. Love is always there in some way in family business.

Mediation is at one level very simple and at one level very complex. Good family business meditators manage the words said, the interpretation of those words and then the emotion that is behind that.  At the same time, they are working to extinguish or change old unhelpful interaction patterns to something more useful or at least benign.

It is important to acknowledge emotion: Don’t amplify it, don’t dismiss it – acknowledge it. This means let it be there without judgement; heard, seen and felt and then, slowly move on. Emotions are individual things – what one person in a family gets emotional about may not raise a ripple in another family member, however it needs to be acknowledged. Emotions are not ‘right’ or necessarily ‘reality’, they are just emotions; how someone is feeling about the current situation at that point in time. Once this is seen and acknowledged, that is often all that needs to be done – the person has been fully heard and that’s often all they want.

Once this happens, the family can get on with their conversation on a different interaction pattern, with the fist full of itchy trigger fingers firmly in their pockets and not feeling the need to fire off. The real emotion of love can come through, and both the family and the business and grow and thrive.

This is the magic of family business.

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