Successful people often have strong opinions. Their success has come from sticking to ideas, intuitions, principles, and processes, often in the face of opposition. However, there may come a time when this tendency turns into a disagreement among family members. Ideally the family is resilient enough to absorb disagreement and productively manage the conflict. This article highlights some keys to managing family disputes.
- Seek to understand the other person
- Find where your goals overlap and align with the other person’s goals
- Plan ahead
- Know when to walk away
Conflict or Disputes
Blair Trippe makes a distinction between family disputes and family conflict. A dispute is an isolated disagreement that involves specific circumstances and people. The grounds of the dispute are usually clear cut, so that it can be solved with adequate understanding or mediation.
In a dispute, both parties need to understand each other person’s thinking as well as the premises and logic behind the positions. What precisely is the cause of the disagreement? Is it substantive, or a matter of opinion? What is the range of acceptable outcomes?
The best (and sometimes the only) way to get this information is directly from the other party. It is easy to form imaginary ideas of what someone else thinks based on previous disagreements. Many times, disputes arise from valid causes. Sometimes, however, disputes arise due to a misunderstanding. In this case, the argument is not about substance, but about the way something is phrased, or the emphasis on one thing over another. Either way, it is important to first establish what precisely the disagreement is about.
Discover and Empathize
Discovery is how you can “agree on the disagreement.” A discovery process employs open-ended questions to elicit information from the other party. Tone is important when you ask questions, so these should be posed as genuine inquiries rather than accusations. Some questions that can be useful include:
• “Where did you get that information?”
• “How did you come to those conclusions?”
• “How confident are you in that information?”
Discovery is the process of learning and grasping someone else’s worldview and empathy is the means of communicating to that person that you actually grasp that worldview. When you give sympathetic responses, you are confirming whether or not you understand what the other person is saying. This helps reduce errors and misperceptions. Empathy is not just parroting back what someone said. You’ll get better results when you distill someone’s core messages into your own words and then see whether you are accurate. Many of the best responses include both what someone believes and the reasoning for that belief. Being empathetic does not mean you have to agree with the other person. Instead, empathy simply means showing the other person you really do understand where he or she is coming from.
Find the Overlap
In some situations, your beliefs are not going to change-nor are the other person’s beliefs. It is just not going to happen, in either direction. In these situations, all attempts to win over the other person are exercises with very high probabilities of failure. Instead, once you understand the other point of view, you can appeal to the other person’s self-interests that overlap with your own self-interests. It can help turn a dispute into a more productive discussion about a possibly mutually beneficial course of action.
The more overlap you can find between what you want and what the other person wants and the more it is that your respective actions can further your shared goals-the easier it can be to reach agreements. An appeal to overlapping self-interests does not attempt to change someone’s mind. It’s not persuasion or some form of sales strategy.
The next step is to specifically discuss the areas where you have some level of agreement and concentrate on what an acceptable compromise would be, based on the overlapping self-interest. This kind of compromise often works when an issue needs to be resolved in the short term, the dispute is between relative equals, and neither party wants nor needs to invest the energy needed for an intensely collaborative solution.
While disputes can be relatively straightforward, conflicts are less so. A conflict develops over a period of time and involves many people in the family, often in hard to define and complex ways. When people argue during a conflict, what they say often does not actually have to do with the real issue. In fact both parties may not even fully understand the real issues involved. For example, a conflict may be rooted in a fear of rejection, a grievance at perceived unfairness, a difference of fundamental values, or a feeling that love has been withheld. Rarely, however, will these grounds for conflict be explicitly stated. Instead, they will exhibit as a series of proxy arguments.
In this case simple compromise-based negotiation will not be successful because people will usually not negotiate over their core values. Instead, Trippe argues that the family must work on better governance structures and personal development of family members in order to work past the conflict.
Role of the Family Constitution
As early as possible, families should draft a family constitution, which will educate the family on its estate plan, distribution protocols, values, etc. The family constitution should be a living document, that is frequently reviewed and ratified during/at family assemblies. When everyone knows what the expectations for the family are and knows “how things work,” they can better avoid misunderstandings and disputes. The constitution can include specific mechanisms for resolving disputes. This might include mediation processes, arbitration, or agreed-upon third-party interventions.
These mechanisms provide a structured way to handle conflicts, reducing the emotional heat and potential for long-standing feuds. Also, as effective communication is key to resolving conflicts, the constitution can establish protocols for communication within the family, ensuring that all members have a means to express their opinions. While the family constitution can clear up misunderstandings ahead of time, it is more likely to solve disputes rather than interpersonal conflicts.
Role of the Family Narrative
If the family constitution is the “left brain” of family governance, family narratives are the “right brain.” Dominik v. Eynern, a co-founder of Family Hippocampus, convincingly presents the role of narrative in promoting synchronicity and preserving resiliency in the family. According to Dominik v. Eynern, family narratives are crucial in family governance as they play a significant role in synchronizing family systems and promoting resilience. He emphasizes that narratives build functional attractors that synchronize family systems, leading to resilience and anti-fragility. Eynern’s work underscores the importance of narratives as a key element in family synchronization within a family governance context. Eynern believes that combining family narratives with governance structures is the most effective way to make family systems work.
It often helps when family members learn about the different means of resolving conflict and place it in proper perspective. In other words, they may come to realize that their stake in the conflict is not as important as the greater family mission, or their relationships with other family members. Tools of how to do this include the Thomas Kilmann model, which provides a helpful perspective on conflict resolution. Often these techniques assist people in taking their emotions (and other people) out of context so that they can apply their rational minds to understanding how conflict works.
Allow an Exit
Sometimes the best way to resolve irreconcilable conflict is to part ways. To make this as amicable as possible and cause the least damage, there should be procedures in place for how a family member can exit the family enterprise. Doug Baumoel advises this scenario in the following cases:
- Someone in the family does not feel affinity for the others and wants little or nothing to do with them.
- Someone feels affinity for others in the family but does not like the way assets are managed (for instance has a very different risk tolerance or values regarding investment targets.)
- Someone wants autonomy for themselves and their family branch.
Family members should be aware ahead of time that splitting family assets can be a time-consuming process. If there are shares in a closely held business, or assets locked into a multi-year private equity fund, departing members cannot expect the family to buy out their interests immediately.
Once again, narratives are important in this scenario. When possible, create agreement on the story of the family split, rather than hardening into hostile stories. This is not just positive spin—it will lessen the chance that acrimonious disagreements are part of the family identity.
For all of us to become more successful, it is often necessary to find common ground-even with people with whom there is no common ground. It is all too easy to argue, to disagree, and to support and defend a position without question. It is much harder to find ways to work together.
Transforming a potential argument into a meaningful discussion is one way to move toward working together and setting the stage for all involved to get at least some aspect of what they want. Make no mistake: It takes a concerted effort not to get drawn into arguing. It takes time to learn about another person’s worldview and to make sure he or she knows you understand that view. And it takes work to find where self-interests overlap. But the good news is that all of that is possible-and the results tend to benefit everyone involved.
 (Trippe, Blair. How Can You Best Manage Conflict in Your Family? In Wealth of Wisdom, edited by Tom McCullough and Keith Whitaker, 219-223. Chichester, UK: Wiley, 2019.)
 (Baumoel, Doug. “Should You Stay Together as a Family or Go Your Separate Ways?” In Wealth of Wisdom, edited by Tom McCullough and Keith Whitaker, 225-231. Chichester, UK: Wiley, 2019.)