• Allison Carey, LMFT

Conflict in Family Business: How to Identify and How to Resolve

Updated: Jul 14



Family businesses can build tremendous wealth and success. They can also devolve into conflict-ridden family systems that struggle to sustain relationally, emotionally, and, ultimately, financially. The biggest takeaway I can give you is this: BE PROACTIVE. As an Executive Coach and Family Therapist, I work with families in the therapy room and in the office. Not surprisingly, there is incredible overlap between these two environments. I will teach you how to recognize signs of conflict before it spirals into a situation that is difficult to recover from.




Defensiveness is a prominent trait in most struggling relationships, whether it is between a leader and their direct reports and/or between members of a family system. If you find yourself regularly becoming defensive towards somebody, or find them being defensive towards you, this most likely means that there is ongoing, unresolved conflict.


Taking Space


When you find yourself becoming defensive, this is not a good time to be communicating with the person that you are feeling defensive about. You are likely to do more harm than good because you are less likely to have productive conversations and elicit a positive response. Instead, respectfully step away from the conversation, assuring the other person that you will re-engage in the conversation later once you’ve had a chance to think about the issue at hand. This will allow you to calm your body and mind, and give you the greater ability to choose your response versus being driven by emotion in the moment.

Empathy


While you are taking this space, work to increase your level of empathy towards the other person. One way to accomplish this is to work on perspective taking. Even if they themselves have poor behavior, you will improve your own communication by working to understand what may be driving their thoughts and behavior. This does not mean that you are excusing any irrational or harmful behavior on their part, but instead you are gathering more data and coming back to the conversation in a more informed, calm place and with a better understanding of what the other’s needs may be.



Do you ever find yourself replaying a lived scene repeatedly in your mind or repeatedly imagining how you might manage an upcoming interaction with someone else? We are all familiar with ruminating in this way and it is wholly unproductive. Generally speaking, rumination does not bring about better results at home or in the workplace. Our minds often go to this place to try to better prepare ourselves for future interactions but, paradoxically, the actual result is that we are winding up our nervous systems and are much less likely to communicate in a calm and centered manner.


Mindfulness


Practicing mindfulness is one way to center yourself and wind down your nervous system when you are ruminating. When you are in a state of rumination, you have less control over your thoughts and emotions; instead, stress is driving the train. By practicing mindfulness, you are bringing conscious awareness to your thoughts and feelings, thereby increasing control over your internal processes. I invite you to read "How to be a Mindful Leader: Emotional Intelligence for Workplace Success" to learn more about the value of mindfulness and leadership.


Support System


Often when we worry, it is related to memories of past situations or our imagined future. It can be helpful to ask yourself: Right now, in this moment, is there a significant problem at hand that I need to solve? Most often, the answer to this questions is a resounding ‘No’. You may be driving and worrying about something that happened last year. You may be trying to fall asleep at night while worrying about the week ahead. Many times when the mind is ruminating, it is helpful to get a reality check from friends and family. Having a support system allows you to become more grounded as you get input from others that reminds you that you are indeed a sane, reasonable human and that you don’t have to go through your difficult experiences in isolation. When you seek guidance from those you trust, present the situation at hand and ask them for assistance with perspective-taking. Work to be open to their feedback and flexible in your responses. It certainly feels good to have your perspectives validated from others, and surely a good friend or relative will offer this type of support. While this feedback is valuable in and of itself, it is also quite valuable to work towards understanding how you can improve your own behavior and interactions. Therefore, you can specifically ask people in your support system ways in which you can grow and act differently when trying to resolve conflict.



Stress lives in the body. When you are engaged in conflict, especially ongoing conflict, there are undoubtedly physical symptoms that accompany this. Take a moment to think about how your body feels in the midst of conflict. Do you feel disengaged from your body? Does your abdomen tighten? Does your heart start beating faster? Does your throat feel more constricted? You are less likely to be productive in conversations when your physical body is flooded with the stress hormone cortisol. Furthermore, high cortisol levels put your health at risk.


Physical Exercise


Getting regular physical exercise has tremendous benefits to the body and mind, whether or not you are experiencing stress related to conflict. If you are experiencing heightened cortisol levels due to stress, you may be able to receive immediate benefits from exercise.


“Regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do for your health. Being physically active can improve your brain health,…reduce the risk of disease, strengthen bones and muscles, and improve your ability to do everyday activities….Only a few lifestyle choices have as large an impact on your health as physical activity.

…Some benefits of physical activity on brain health happen right after a session of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. Benefits include…reduced short-term feelings of anxiety for adults. Regular physical activity can help keep your thinking, learning, and judgment skills sharp as you age. It can also reduce your risk of depression and anxiety and help you sleep better." (Source: Centers of Disease Control)


Keeping your thinking, learning and judgment skills sharp is critical to success in communication, especially within complex systems such as family businesses.


Relaxation


In psychotherapy sessions and coaching sessions alike, I most commonly see successful professionals putting much effort towards outward success. They work hard, take their business success very seriously, and put in extra hours when needed. What they don’t necessarily do is prioritize relaxation. Sound familiar? If you prioritize relaxation, you can bring down baseline stress and have to worry less about putting out symbolic fires. For example, let’s say that you currently have a stress level of 6 on a 1-10 scale. If you are confronted with a disagreement in the workplace with the potential to escalate to conflict, it will take very little for your stress level to jump to an 8. At that level, your communication is largely unproductive and you have a significantly smaller chance of resolving that conflict successfully. Now imagine that you had gotten a massage that morning before work, and you are at a stress level of 3. This means that conflict may increase your stress level to perhaps a 5, and the conversation may be manageable or maybe even beneficial. It may seem like a feat to add a massage to your weekly schedule, but proactive relaxation will make you more productive overall and likely save you time. You can take even less time out of your schedule, if need be. Try this 10 minute relaxation exercise when you are in a quiet space. Before the video, check in with your body and notice what your stress level is on a 1-10 scale. After the video, rate your stress level again and notice if the number has reduced. Integrating a video like this regularly into your workday can have a profound effect over time.



Most of us have struggled with self-doubt at some point in our lives, to varying degrees. Self-doubt can be especially crippling while engaging in conflict. Your own inner dialogue can lead you astray, highlighting your true or imagined weaknesses and minimizing your many strengths. When you experience self-doubt while in conflict with a team or family member at work, you will likely struggle with communication as a result. Examples of how this can manifest are: not being confidently assertive; holding back some of our true thoughts and feelings; experiencing higher levels of stress and anxiety; and potentially prolonging the conflict.


Monitor and Improve Self-Talk


First and foremost, start to pay attention to your thought process. Self-doubt can be sneaky in the sense that related thoughts can be deeply woven into subconscious thought, and we therefore sometimes barely notice (or don’t notice at all) that our inner dialogue is critical, belittling, etc. So the first step is to simply pay attention to your inner thoughts and start to notice if and when those thoughts are related to perceived strengths or weaknesses. Are you judging yourself harshly? Are you saying statements that put yourself down? Are you name calling? Are you acknowledging successes? Every single person can make improvements to their inner dialogue, so you are not alone in this journey.


After taking some time to notice your own self-talk, now you can begin to challenge those thoughts that do not serve you well. Advice that I often give clients is “When paying attention to your own self-talk, pretend that you are saying those statements to a loved one. Do the statements then sound reasonable and loving? Or would you consider the statements mean, rude, judgmental, etc? If the statements would not be reasonable to say to a loved one, then it is just as unreasonable to say to yourself. What statement could you say instead that would be more respectful and loving?”. If you consistently monitor and improve your self-talk in this way, it has the potential to make a profound impact on your psyche, allowing for increased confidence, improved communication, and better interpersonal relationships.



Avoidance is one of the most common tactics used when dealing with conflict, especially if you struggle with being assertive and/or experience self-doubt. Avoidance can be as obvious as purposefully not being in the same room as the person with whom you are experiencing conflict, or as subtle as monitoring your own communication in order to avoid stating some of your deeper thoughts and feelings. Paradoxically, when people use avoidance as a tactic to deal with conflict, the most common outcome is that it prolongs or even escalates the conflict.


Practice Being Respectfully Assertive


If you find yourself avoiding a team/family member at work, then it can be helpful to practice being respectfully assertive in your daily relationships, with the overall goal of being able to better express your thoughts and feelings in a direct and confident manner. Like with any sort of personal growth, it is important to start small and build the skill over time, rather than practicing in a high-stakes, very anxiety provoking situation. You’ll have a greater chance of success if you start with an easier scenario, and work your way up to more difficult interactions. Think of one area in your life where it would serve you well to be more assertive, then create a correlating concrete goal with a timeline. For example, let’s say you have a good relationship with your cousin Joe at work and Joe usually has a good work performance, but Joe recently missed a reporting deadline. Your associated concrete goal could be “I will talk to my cousin Joe at work about the report that he was supposed to get to me last week. I will let him know by Tuesday that it is important to get the report to me on time, otherwise my work gets backed up and creates more stress in my daily work schedule.”



Allison Carey is an Executive Coach and licensed Psychotherapist. She specializes in coaching leaders to enhance emotional intelligence.

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