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Have you had a good fight lately?

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Have you had a good fight lately?

Ten rules for using anger as a source of energy for change.

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 embedded 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 another person. 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 and 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 fear 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 (which are not debatable) and then by naming personal feelings (which 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 when it’s so late in the day that fatigue 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 of 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 and 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 below). 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.

Your conflict IQ

1. We deal with conflict directly, rather than venting about the problem to a third person.
2. We block conflict when it involves personal attacks, name-calling or put-downs.
3. We don’t let major conflicts fester for more than 48 hours.
4. We tolerate conflict when it generates different approaches to a problem.
5. Even if the leader must make the final decision, we first give everyone a chance to be heard.
6. Periodically, we evaluate the quality of communication that each person demonstrates in our meetings.
7. We can confront each other directly by first describing observable facts and then naming personal feelings.
8. We regard conflict as a normal part of working together.
9. We sometimes develop compromises that are “good enough” to be supported by all team members.
10. When serious conflict persists, we set aside enough time and energy to work through it successfully.
Your score: 10-9 yeses: Awesome. 8-7 yeses: OK. 6-5 yeses: Scary. 4-3 yeses: Deep trouble. 2-1 yeses: Start over.
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