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Have You Had a good Fight lately?

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How to use anger as a source of energy for change.

Unresolved problems are like an elephant in your living room.

By Ellen Frankenberg

It’s a familiar syndrome: Generations ago, the company’s founding brothers got into a nasty squabble that wound up in court, dividing their generation into two camps. Years later their fight has vanished from conscious memory, but their children and grandchildren still instinctively tiptoe around major issues that they should have settled years earlier.

Fear of internal fighting is one of the greatest problems of business families. Yet conflict is a normal part of family life. Those you love the most can make you much angrier than a stranger. Especially in a family business, complicated expectations are deeply imbedded in a small circle of human beings. Sooner or later they’re bound to blow some opportunity on which your emotional and financial security depends.

This can actually be a blessing. The things that anger you, that you’re willing to fight for, provide clues to your deepest values. A “good” fight gets you beneath the varnish of mere pleasantries, providing the opportunity to learn what matters most to the other. Anger can be a source of energy for change, especially when it triggers deep feelings about what is fair.

The ability to approach problems from different viewpoints, to disagree face to face, can lead to solutions that no individual would have ever concocted alone. It isn’t pain and conflict that you want to avoid— it’s the unnecessary emotional pain of unresolved conflict (the kind that’s based on misunderstandings that were never even discussed).

Different families define conflict in different ways. My Italian friends blow up regularly in the kitchen (why is it always in the kitchen?) and three minutes later they’re hugging and laughing together. My Scandinavian relatives seem to handle anger with cautious silence: They’ll put on another pot of coffee, without ever saying directly what line was crossed. (“What did I say that was wrong?” whispers the new daughter-in-law privately to her husband.)

Some family conflicts fester because serious long-term problems, like alcoholism or abuse, were never acknowledged and treated, so they continue to dominate family life, like an elephant in the living room. These problems usually require professional intervention from outside the family before any day-to-day conflicts can be resolved.

But most entrepreneurs are stymied by ordinary conflict. They’ve been so busy building the business that they didn’t spend much time developing conflict resolution skills. As families expand geometrically, with siblings and cousins and in-laws joining the fray from different perspectives, business families need to develop “Rules for Fair Fights.” This kind of written agreement, developed within a family forum, can provide enough safety and predictability so that individuals feel free enough to disagree, without fearer of getting fired or disinvited to the next family reunion.

Here are ten “Rules for Fair Fights” that I’ve collected from several business families.

  1. No name-calling or put downs. (The purpose of a fight is to resolve an issue,not demean each other.)
  2. No violence, including throwing paper wads or cell phones. (Even if not aimed at anyone in particular.)
  3. Confront by describing the facts (that are not debatable) and then by naming personal feelings (that are also not debatable). “When you showed up an hour late for the meeting with our best customer, I was really angry.”
  4. No fights in front of employees. (Or children or customers or bankers.)
  5. No fighting when someone is under the influence. (Or it’s so late in the day thatfatigue and frustration will take over.)
  6. Make an “appointment” for a fight within 24 hours of a disagreement, so the conflict doesn’t fester for days, months, or years. (Sometimes a restaurant can be a good venue for tough conversations that won’t be interrupted or get out of control.
  7. Keep your fights up to date. (Don’t keep rehashing the same past failures as weapons, regardless of the current issue.)
  8. Avoid triangles. (Any two people in a healthy family can resolve differences between them directly; when a third party acts as a “go- between” or buffer, the odds of miscommunication increase 300%, and conflict is prolonged instead resolved.)
  9. Don’t pretend that you know other people’s motives. (“You didn’t show up on time because you don’t care what happens to this business.”) That will only trigger defensiveness and more anger in response. Just give the facts, please.
  10. After you’ve expressed your anger, let go, forgive, drop it. (If you still can’t let it go, head for the nearest driving range, and knock the daylights out of a bucket of golf balls to release your physical tension.)

Rules like these can prevent family conflict from disrupting a business. They can even bring family members closer together. If your family hasn’t yet developed its own rules, ask your relatives to fill out my “conflict IQ check list” (see box). It will help you see how much work remains to be done before you can have a good fight, and then make up again.

Ellen Frankenberg, Ph.D. is a family business psychologist in Cincinnati. Her book, Your Family, Inc., is also available in Spanish.



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