Aspen current thinking column


Spring 2013

January Current Thinking Column

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Emotional Ledger: Part 2

by Joe Paul

The November 2014 blog was illustrative of three contextual theory concepts: the Emotional LedgerDestructive Entitlement and the Revolving Slate.

You may recall that the Emotional Ledger describes a condition in the web of a family’s internal relationships. In most cases, it automatically and autonomously reflects the balance of give-and-take in these relationships and results in the ambiance of the family. It emerges as a consequence of the degree of balance between fulfilling an individual’s legitimate drive toward self-fulfillment with their obligations to each member of their family. While this ledger is typically governed by unconscious or semi-conscious factors in each individual, the emotional ledger can be rebalanced by giving conscious attention to the considerations of one’s family members. The dynamics of succession are a particularly challenging time for a family that is in business because the process tends to activate Destructive Entitlement.

Destructive Entitlement (“I have a right to expect more because I was not treated fairly”) is a consequential condition created when children are raised in the atmosphere of an unbalanced emotional ledger. Destructive entitlement can be created in a child either by neglect, by over-giving or by the exploitation of the child. In the family described in the last blog, Ruth’s destructive entitlement is vividly portrayed by her willingness to manipulate her parents via her children in order to punish her brother. 

“She thinks the world owes her a living” or “He always has a chip on his shoulder” are samples of the things people say about destructive entitlement in others.

The Revolving Slate refers to the transmission of family patterns from an older generation to a younger generation. This is illustrated by the link between the abuse of Jim by his father and the estrangement between Jim and his own kids in spite of him never being a physically abusive father. In Jim’s case, his children were afraid of him even though he refused to repeat his father’s abusiveness. Jim’s strategy for controlling his anger was to suppress it as much as he could, only to erupt later when enough had built up over time. It is an example of the great irony that often, when we anticipate a problem, we develop a strategy to prevent the problem from happening. Ironically, the very thing we did to prevent the problem creates the problem. This usually occurs when our ineffective solution was directed toward symptoms instead of the source of the issue.

In this follow up blog, we will look at the ethical dimension of relationships. Contextual theory postulates that there are four dimensions of human experience. They are:

  • Objective facts
  • Individual Psychological Issues
  • Systemic Patterns
  • Relational Ethics

Facts are the demographics of a person’s life, such as their ethnic origins, their intelligence, their physical condition, historical injustices to you, your family or your people, etc. The abuse of Jim by his father is a fact that created psychological issues for Jim. In the process of dealing with his issues, he repeated patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving characteristic of his family system. The repetition of these patterns created imbalance in the form of destructive entitlement based upon unjust feelings or unfair treatment and the consequential imbalance in the emotional ledger. The assessment of the interactions of these four dimensions is an accounting of the emotional ledger. 
Individual advisors, counselors and therapists are idiosyncratically predisposed to view a client/family predominantly through one of these four dimensions. For example, an accountant might focus on facts and attempt to manage the other three dimensions via rational conversations and contractual agreements. This adviser may tell Jim that the solution to his situation would be a formal succession plan. Another adviser may account for Jim’s dilemma from the perspective of individual psychology, and recommend that Jim’s daughter begin individual psychotherapy. 

However, I have found that the most highly leveraged dimension for an adviser to enter the client’s family business system is through the dimension of Relational Ethics. This perspective accounts for the first three dimensions in the context of the fourth. This approach would focus on the balance of give-and-take; the consideration of each individual’s concern for the well-being of other family members; and the level of trust, trustworthiness and fairness each person experiences. 

When a family attempts to resolve old issues of unfairness and/or injustice by moving toward greater trustworthiness, it becomes easier to resolve issues in the first three dimensions. Such a process overcomes relational stagnation and increases the range of possibilities for the family.

In the blog, Emotional Ledger: Part 3, we will look at Merit, Multilateral Partiality and the relationship to Posterity. 

If this discussion of the emotional ledger is useful, you will be interested in our soon-to-be-published book, Balancing the Emotional Ledger: Axioms and Guidelines for Counseling Families in Business


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