Aspen current thinking column


Spring 2013

June Current Thinking Column

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Revisiting the Painful Truth: It Must Be Heard

By Leslie Dashew

In the recent past, I had the honor of working with a new client and a client from some time back, who were both suffering from pain within the family. In both cases, each family implemented many solid business and family business practices that demonstrated their deep caring for one another. However, issues arose in both circumstances when members of the family felt unheard.

In one scenario, a family member examined the decline in business volume during this past recession and feared the family leadership had not done all that could be done. Left with good ideas that failed to be implemented during the recession, the family member felt frustrated and hurt. 

In the other situation, a rift from the past that was allegedly repaired seemed to trickle into the next generation, as younger members of the family sensed continued angst. Once again, the original issues stemmed from incomplete communication about what was going on in the business and why certain business decisions were being made. Subsequently, family members felt marginalized and threatened.

There is something about full communication that conveys respect.

If I respect your role and/or your competence, I will hear you out—I will include you in the circle of communication. If I do not feel heard or included, I feel ignored and powerless. When this threatens my well being, I may take legal action, which is often the beginning of the end for families in business.

Obstacles to Open Dialogue

There are many obstacles to having the open dialogue that eventually leads to the healing process. Fortunately, in the case of the two families, both found the courage to revisit the painful truths and acknowledge shared responsibility for the situation. The types of obstacles that can inhibit open communication include:
  1. Fear of things getting out of control—We are opening up “Pandora’s Box” by raising old issues and it may be something we will not be able to get over.
  2. Judgment—Members of the family will dismiss the concerns or issues and discount my point of view, making me feel unimportant or not valued.
  3. Feeling misunderstood and frustrated by lack of acceptance in the family.
  4. Lack of time and having so many stakeholder groups with whom to communicate.
  5. Inability to clearly articulate a point of view and stumbling over how to say what I want to communicate.
  6. Thinking we are communicating more than we are—I could have sworn I told you that!

Creating Safe Environments

Many of these issues and obstacles speak to the need to create a setting that is safe enough for participants to take the risk to be open and vulnerable. The others speak to the need to have a structure that assures good coverage of parties with whom you need to communicate. In both of the family situations alluded to above, having the opportunity to privately talk through concerns and issues with an independent advisor allowed each individual the chance to be heard without judgment and illuminated the challenges and the feelings associated with them. This preliminary dialogue reduced the anxiety surrounding the issue making it easier to clearly articulate the problems at hand. 

Safety is also a necessary component, which can be achieved by a set of ground rules. For example, it is helpful to have an agreement about what content is confidential and what information can be shared outside of the room. This helps to assure that participants can share openly without fear that private matters may become public.

Rebuilding Trust, Openness and Safety

In some situations where safety and trust have declined, utilizing a facilitator to create a safer environment is essential. A facilitator can help encourage active listening and paraphrasing, which assist in feeling heard while fostering true mutual understanding. When family members fall into old habits of impatience or dominating the conversation, the facilitator can shift the conversation back to a more balanced and constructive one. There are people who find it disconcerting to think their family needs an “outsider” in order to communicate. Under “normal” circumstances the climate may be sufficiently safe for conversation without the need for a facilitator. However, if the direct, open and compassionate dialogue that needs to happen is not occurring, then help may be required. 

Rebuilding trust requires acknowledgement of what was done to lose the trust and its subsequent impact. Approaching the situation with an open, vulnerable attitude is an important tool in building a safe, trusting environment. As my colleague Joe Paul says, “It takes courage to trust again.” Often, the most telling sign of real leadership is one who takes the risk to be vulnerable or unpopular by raising necessary issues. When others respond with compassion and a willingness to address these issues, trust can be rebuilt. 

In both of the aforementioned situations, the families felt relieved that the air had been cleared and that everyone felt heard. Concrete steps to move forward with both ideas and communication improvements will add substance to the ephemeral feelings of the day. Fears that opening “Pandora’s Box” would permanently increase distance and discomfort were proven to be unfounded. In fact, by and large, both sets of family members felt more comfortable and connected.

Boundaries that Support Openness

One of the most difficult aspects of a family-owned business is having partners or colleagues whom you might not have chosen in a non-family business. You have multiple relationships with each. You may not respect their competence or insight as much as a more “independent” colleague or partner. However, in successful family businesses, there is a respect for one’s right to be heard. The right to be heard, however, must be governed by boundaries and context. As a family member, my vision for the future of the family and its assets should be heard as part of a collective dialogue that provides a foundation for direction. As a shareholder, my interests in the business must be understood by the board and again communicated to business leadership as part of a collective perspective. The board must be governed by the “NIFO” perspective: nose in, fingers out. Boundaries must be honored. There is a time and place for every type of dialogue: it is important that in our complex family business systems, we find the right time and place.

Lessons from Consensus Decision Making

The most effective form of decision-making is consensus. Once a team assures that all parties have been heard, a decision is made through total accord, rather than by voting (when decisions are made by vote, it sometimes prematurely ends dialogue, while excluding all points of view from consideration). With a consensus model, when my point of view does not prevail, I feel confident that the rest of the group fully understood my point of view and in their collective wisdom, decided another direction was more appropriate. I trust the thoroughness of the process and respect for my point of view. Consensus decision-making provides a lesson for families in business: when I feel heard and my perspective is considered, it is much easier for me to support an outcome that might not be my choice. And, once we leave the room where we explore many different perspectives very openly, we speak with one voice, supporting the team’s decision.

The main breakdown of the process includes the following:

  1. In the appropriate venue, raise issues to be addressed.
  2. The group paraphrases the issue (sometimes using a flip chart to capture the thought) to assure it is heard accurately.
  3. All points of view are considered and the group collectively evaluates the options.
  4. A decision is reached in which all members are comfortable supporting.
  5. The team communicates their collective point of view to other stakeholders with one voice.
Many years ago, Scott Peck wrote in his book The Road Less Traveled that if you want to show someone that you love him, listen to him. If you want to effectively navigate the challenging twists and turns of the family business path, listening respectfully is essential.

See Also: 
by Leslie Dashew, Fall, 2004 AFBG Newsletter
by Terri Bennink (archived newsletter)


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