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Spring 2013

July Current Thinking Column: Consilience

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Consilience 

by Joe Paul

In families, each individual carries a narrative about their family. Sometimes these narratives match up with one another, yet often they do not. Sometimes individuals understand the motivations of their relatives, yet often they do not. Family members need to trust each other, yet it does not always happen. 
 
We find that families in business together (FBT) often have divergent memories that can be so different from each other that one might conclude they grew up in completely different homes. 

An example: I once was talking with three adult siblings about their family history. A brother said to his older sister, 

“I used to get so scared when dad would become angry and treat you roughly.”
“What do you mean?” his sister asked.
“It happened lots of times. I remember us sitting at dinner one time and Dad grabbed a handful of your hair saying, ‘Get that damned hair out of your face!'”
His sister looked concerned. 
“I don’t remember anything like that. What happened next?”
“Well, we did what we always did. We whispered a frightened ‘May I be excused?’ and slowly slid our chairs back, silently withdrawing to our rooms, shutting the door behind us. We would stay alone in our room for the rest of the evening hoping we wouldn’t hear the sound of his shoes coming down the hall.” 
“That’s so strange,” she said to her brother, “I don’t remember Dad being physically abusive to anyone except you.”
“What do you remember?” he asked.
“He was always slapping you on the side of your head, or kicking or shoving you around when you did something he didn’t like.”
“Wow! That is really spooky,” he said. “I don’t remember him ever being abusive to me.”

In the Aspen Family Business Group, we call this kind of difference between the memories of individual family members “narrative dissonance.” This kind of condition emerges in families that experience long periods of time in a high level of chronic anxiety. It is an example of the kinds of challenges facing families in business together (FBT).

In a small workshop this upcoming August, the Aspen Family Business Group is introducing the term consilience to the field of counseling families in business. The Latin root of the term means “jumping together.” We are using the term to describe the coming together of family members over things like their memories, ideas, beliefs, emotions, mission, and purpose. We work to develop creative ways to overcome their differences, encourage family harmony, and create a more productive organizational culture in the businesses they own. We use the word consilience to describe the way we work with our clients that are FBT. Consilience creates convergence and agreement in spite of differences. Consilience encourages the differentiation of individuals and sub-groups (e.g. a Board of Directors, next generation of owners). 

Reaching consilience requires courage, respect, dedication, altruism, goodwill and trust. As a family loses consilience, communication breaks down in the business and/or the family. Individuals become aggressive, selfish, pig-headed, and secretive. At the same time, altruism, trust, and collaboration disappear.

In the sciences, consilience describes a convergence and confirmation of knowledge from different disciplines. In legal circles, it describes an agreement among all parties. In Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, the entomologist E.O. Wilson postulates that since the Renaissance, the sciences have become split into more and more narrowly defined specialties. He believes that through consilience, there will be a reversal of that history, uniting science and the humanities.

Our conciliatory process helps families overcome the damaging effects of mistrust, internal competition, poor communication, etc. The conciliatory process involves assessment, alignment, commitment and implementation. We are sharing this concept with any interested advisor to FBT because we believe that the use of these processes does not require formal graduate psychological training and education. Rather, what is required is wisdom and emotional intelligence. 

In the August workshop, our goal is to pass on both our explicit and our tacit knowledge about working with FBT’s and collaborating with their other advisors. We will be giving you practical tools that are “tried and true,” as well as introduce concepts like memetics, epistemology, cultural evolution, and evolutionary psychology that will be new to you in the context of family businesses. These ideas are stretching our own understanding of the profound purpose and meaning of what our work is really all about. 

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