Difficult Family Conversations – 10 Key Issues

Security: physical, emotional and financial, sit at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs.  Situations that challenge your sense of personal security are therefore likely to create feelings of insecurity and discomfort, which is why many of us are reluctant to initiate conversations likely to start, or to become, difficult.

The expectation that a conversation will be difficult is influenced by participants’ current emotional states and sensitivities, applied to the perceived nature of the subject matter.  In this context, perceptions are more powerful than reality, calling to mind the old saying:  “I have known and considered many problems in my life, most of which never happened”. 

On reflection, when we do find the courage, or are compelled to have such conversations, survival often comes with a strong sense of relief about problems being solved, by improved understandings of yourself and others, and by strengthened relationships – resulting from demonstrated empathy and a sense of shared challenge, pain and even … adventure.

It is an observed fact that small issues grow into problems that become disputes and eventually descend into conflict, if they are not dealt with, either by resolution or disposal, early enough.  In that way conflicts are like serious diseases – easily treated when caught early, and potentially fatal when left too late.

There’s an endless list of topics for difficult family conversations.  Our Top 10 for business families is:

  1. Personal expectations for life, love, careers, relationships and finances.
  2. Individual roles, responsibilities and accountabilities in the family and the business.
  3. Emotional baggage acquired during the growing up, living in, and working together years.
  4. Relationship tensions between family members (inter and intra-generational).
  5. Avoiding and managing family breakdowns.
  6. Behavioural issues, including personality quirks, differences and disorders; drug and alcohol dependencies;  low emotional resilience;  aggression and general dysfunction.
  7. Fossilisation (inability to accept the need for change) in older family members.
  8. Remuneration, benefits and other rewards, in and out of the business.
  9. Inability, or refusal, to address obvious issues, problems and challenges in the family, especially when Matriarchs or Patriarchs appear to be missing in action.
  10. What happens next? Succession Plans; Financial Plans; Wills and Estate Plans; engagement, employment and retirement; home and health care for ageing family members.

Anticipation makes most of these conversations feel far worse than they need to be.  In most cases, if the issues are properly identified, the timing and environment are right, and everybody is prepared, at least, to be respectful of what others have to say, solutions will emerge that reasonably satisfy everybody’s needs and interests.

If the family lacks confidence that it can manage its own constructive conversations, they can turn to a trusted facilitator for help.  Ideally, they’ll have their own “Uncle Bob”, who’s ready and willing to help.  If not, they can use a trusted professional adviser, preferably one with experience of working with families in business.

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