Do you believe in confrontation?

October 22, 2014

Thomas D. Davidow, Ed.D.

Family businesses almost always have a series of unaddressed issues. They are the proverbial “elephants in the room” that everybody is aware of but nobody talks about.  Not discussing those can be the only thing that everybody agrees on, silently, of course, as in, "Whoa! Let us not go there."

There are a lot of reasons why families collude to avoid the issues. Frequently, the issues are attached to the presence of substance abuse or a tragic loss. The pain associated with those topics is felt universally by family members. Consequently, they protect each other from the pain by avoiding the topic. Unfortunately , the pain,  because it is left unaddressed,  stays with the individuals; and one or more of the family members can act out that pain in ways that are not constructive or socially unacceptable, such as anger, etc.

I have to acknowledge that in the early years of my practice, I went right after those unaddressed, underlying issues. I believed that airing them was better than hiding them. I thought that underlying issues were like burrs under a saddle--the longer they festered, the more damage they did; that the longer those issues remained unaddressed, the longer it would take for the relationships between the family members who were affected by them to heal.

My style has evolved over the years. Instead of taking responsibility for making sure that the issues got out, I concentrated on creating an environment where people felt safe enough to surface the issues on their own. Most recently, I came across a situation in which the family members were not only unable to address the issues, but were extremely uncomfortable just being in one another’s presence. The only thing that I asked of them was to meet for five minutes, acknowledge their discomfort, shake hands and agree to move forward. They have been in business meetings together with family and non-family personnel for the last six months and never once addressed any of the family issues. I just recently asked the family members to get together with me by themselves, and each of them expressed a willingness to meet without hesitation.

Sometimes just working together successfully can be enough. As I look back, I might summarize my observation by saying that in addition to learning how to be more patient, one can learn how to adjust to the styles of others.