Life Lesson #2: Emotional vs Rational Elements in Relationship Conflicts


Several decades ago I began to focus the attentions of my commercial dispute resolution practice on family business conflicts.  It soon became apparent that, to a far greater extent than with commercial disputes, I needed to really understand the characters, personalities, and back stories of the humans I was working with before I could ground and commence the facilitated conversations and mediation sessions that would form the basis of our conflict resolution process.

Why is this so?


Establishing genuinely empathic rapport with all key characters proved to be at least as important to the success of the process as having the technical skills required to help solve their problems.

Without an empathic understanding of the key characters involved in the family conflict, I couldn’t properly detect, much less help them frame for use, the really significant questions they needed to ask of themselves, and that we needed to ask of other family members, to form our “agenda of issues” for resolution.


Studying law, and subsequent training to become a chartered accountant and business adviser, provided no useful tools or insights to help me understand human character and personality, communication principles, group dynamics, negotiation and persuasion processes, body language, family systems theory, and related areas of knowledge.

For awhile I operated at a chicken soup level – relying on eclectic personal research, talking to colleagues, and relying on personal experience and common sense – which mainly involved observing and responding to the bleeding obvious.

This encouraged process evolution, with more focus on people, and less (initial) focus on their problems, which seemed to work pretty well.  BUT, the deeper I went, the more inadequate I felt, as I became increasingly aware of the profound effects my process was having on the lives of individuals and family groups.

I was piloting a jet, after training to drive a tractor!

I talked to several psychs, seeking reassurance and a safer path forward.  They all posited that psychology was part science, part art, and part intuition.  If what I was doing was working, and successfully resolving family business conflict, I should just go with the flow and keep on doing it.  Don’t worry about “what’s” working, so long as “it’s” working!

My sense was that none of them were game to address conflicts that combined issues involving individual family members, toxic family dynamics, and urgent family business needs – so I wasn’t cutting their lunch, and they probably expected me to receive my professional comeuppance sometime soon, anyway!

This wasn’t very satisfying, so I continued to search for a psychologist who’d be willing and able to appreciate that we were dealing with conflicted individuals, impacted by a business environment, whose unique issues were caused by their blood relationships with each other.

For over 10 years I trialled a shriek of well-regarded psychs (“shriek” being my collective term for shrinks).  No matter how they were briefed, they all gravitated towards personal therapy for whoever was regarded as the “identified patient”, rather than working as part of a team trying to fix the impacts of wider relationship problems on a business family.

Therapy has a personal focus that engenders an endless timeframe, whereas business families form interconnected systems that work to commercially-oriented deadlines counted in weeks, or months at the most.  While personal therapy, and coaching, are undoubtably valuable for individuals with serious mental health and behavioural issues, and may help to protect the rest of the family from the disruptions they cause, it doesn’t help to address the causes of toxic family group dynamics, which was the whole point of the exercise.

Eventually, I connected with Ross Anderson, psychologist and coach.  He listened to what I was trying to achieve with entire business families, and he seemed to get it.  We’ve since worked together for many years, with many families, achieving a high degree of success in resolving conflicts between individuals, families, and family businesses – across Australia and internationally.

Life Lesson Learnt

Problems that involve human interactions, as opposed to technical / mathematical / engineering problems, have emotional and rational dimensions, set within unique contextual frameworks.  When that framework is a family business things get very complicated, very quickly, mainly because family business makes no sense. 

After all who, in their right mind, would superimpose the enormous emotional, intellectual, physical, and practical challenges of having a happy family onto the competitive, rational, commercial demands of business – to be profitable and successful?

In dealing with any family business conflict, emotional elements are at least as important as rational elements.  To achieve successful and lasting resolution, address the emotional issues first – the rational issues will then either evaporate, or become vastly easier to resolve.

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