What do you do when you are caught in the “middle”?

Business Leader Post, September 25, 2014

Thomas D. Davidow, Ed.D.

I have written many times about the importance of communication.  I still maintain that it is the single most significant criteria for both business success and family harmony. The quality of family relationships depends on the quality of the communication between and among family members.

Most families not only talk to each other; they also talk about each other.  In fact, one of the most enjoyable things that many families do is talk to each other about other family members.  Sometimes those family members are present, but most of the time they are not. It can be like a sport or entertainment for family members to share stories/incidents that characterize the idiosyncrasies of a family member everyone knows well.  For example, a family member who is always trying to be funny and isn’t, or a family member who has not been on time for a family event since…..

Talking about or sharing stories about a family member with whom one is upset can put a negative spin on the person. Families who aren't in business together and don't see each other's siblings or parents every day have the freedom to address the discomfort or not and/or to let the issue pass until they are ready to deal with it.

Family business members do not have that luxury.  Not only do family business members share feelings about one another, they also share responsibilities for getting their tasks done. We all know that effective teams work best when everybody is on the same page. Leaving uncomfortable feelings unaddressed can affect the quality of the team performance. 

I cannot tell you how many times I have entered a situation where family members who are in  conflict with each other look back at the time when everybody got along, claiming that the relationships started to deteriorate when they had to work together. They describe their loved ones of having "changed” or say that they can no longer tolerate the parts of a loved one's personality that they were once able to ignore.  Their historical method of communication--talking to other family members instead of talking directly to the family member with whom they're upset-- only intensifies the problem. The person who is the listener either agrees/sides with the angry family member, which only exaggerates the negative feelings and distances them more from the family member they're having problems with; or the listener feels totally caught in the middle and helpless.

Changing the dynamic is a very tall order, but it can be done. The simple answer is to listen to the aggrieved person, appreciate his or her feelings and then direct/instruct that individual to talk directly to the family member. If the person continues to complain, the "listener" can set a boundary of not listening until the individual addresses the problem directly. When this dynamic is going on, we know that the communication between and among others in the system is less than optimal. Problems between individuals/family members can only be resolved with direct communication between the parties. Any communication with others about their issues only confuses the situation.

My last suggestion is not to wait or postpone dealing with the issue. Waiting enhances the emotional content of the issue far beyond its original strength.  That strength of the emotion only inhibits one’s ability to address it.