Five Tips to Manage Conflict When You’re In the Thick of It

Summary: Conflict in family business is an essential ingredient to success, but only when it is managed well. Family fights can stifle forward progress and seriously harm relationships. Using these 5 strategies to deescalate conflictual situations in the moment: (1) Don’t Let It Fester (2) Remember: It’s a Balancing Act (3) Genuine Curiosity Matters (4) The 1% Rule (5) It’s Not About Being Smart will help your family and family businesses move forward in a much more positive direction.

Conflict in family businesses happens naturally. And at the right amount, conflict can even be positive: it drives innovation by challenging the status quo, it improves the decision-making process through scrutiny, it helps people air and clarify differences and can lead to higher quality decisions.

But what happens if you are already in the middle of a conflict situation in your family business that does not feel productive? What if the conflict is only escalating with no end in sight? Too much conflict can cause paralysis in decision making, frayed relationships, significant stress and even estrangements in more extreme cases. So how can you course-correct – mid conflict – to turn destructive conflict into productive conflict?

Here are 5 tips that can help you deescalate your conflict:

1. Don’t Let It Fester

A boat captain who traveled around world with his family once told us that if a conflict happened, he never let people go to bed without talking things through, at least to clear the air.
“In a tempest,” he said, “someone might have to scream at you to be able to save your life. And people rarely listen to others screaming at them if they are holding a grudge. At a boat, grudges cost lives!” That’s useful advice for any conflict situation. Grudges can jeopardize the survival of the family business if you let things fester and never deal with them. Clear the air sooner, rather than later.

2. Remember: It’s a Balancing Act

We once helped a family coping with an entrenched conflict between two brothers. “It’s impossible to reason with Jeff!,” brother Paul complained to us. “I talked for hours, and he wouldn’t listen to me.” Our immediate question to Paul was to ask if he had listened to Jeff “Of course, not!” he replied. Simply asking him that question helped Paul see what was going wrong: it became pretty clear to Paul that without actively listening to Jeff they would get nowhere. The conflict would continue in an endless, unproductive, cycle.

Resolving a conflict requires understanding. Understanding requires listening and learning from the other person. Try to balance the amount of time you spend talking vs. listening in a conversation to solve a conflict. Ask open ended questions. Make sure you get clarification on points you don’t fully understand – and make sure you clarify points you are making, too. Be open-minded.

3. Genuine Curiosity Matters

Listening to others when we are in conflict might be hard. One trick we’ve learned that is helpful is to harness your curiosity. If we are genuinely curious about someone’s point of view, opinions, hopes, fears, etc. we have a much higher chance of actively listen to what they have to say, and therefore to be able to get to an understanding. An education professor once explained that “humans are prone to learn better and faster whatever is more important to them, or at least whatever makes them emotionally or intellectually curious.” Tap into this natural pattern. You might be angry or upset with someone and not genuinely care about them at the moment you are in conflict. Try to reframe the way you are approaching the conflict in those moments. Think about the situation as a puzzle you might solve. That can be enough to trigger your curiosity and help you listen more effectively. If you can do that, you begin to open up your capacity to solve the problem together.

4. The 1% Rule

If you think you are 100% right and the other person is 100% wrong, of course there will be no reason to listen to them. But consider the “1 percent rule”. You might still think you are right, but… what if there is a 1% chance that you are not? Allow yourself to believe that there could be a 1 percent chance – however small that feels – that you are not completely right. If that could be true, what might you be missing? Look for that 1 percent. Once you listen to the other person more actively you can find the 1 percent – or even better, make a better decision, together.

5. It’s Not About Being Smart

You won’t spend the entire time listening, of course. Remember: it’s about balance. Knowing what to say to ensure a constructive conversation is very important, too. Navigating a conflict is not a contest about who is smarter. It’s not about having the best and more robust argument to win. You don’t have to prove that you are the smartest person in the room. In fact, if the other person is not understanding what you are trying to say, that can be a failure in your communication skills. Your goal is to be understood. Helping others truly understand not only your point of view, but how you got there, can be key to that. Start by sharing your understanding of the facts. Walk people through your rationale: how you got to a conclusion based on the facts you had at hand. Compare your path from facts to conclusion to theirs: you both will be more likely to find the source of your divergencies in the different turns you took, and might be able to build together a new, common road to understanding

How to assess whether you can deescalate conflict? Consider these 5 practices:

Think of a conversation that did not end well. Either the conflict escalated, or you left it with the sense that issues were not solved.

These 5 tips have helped many members of family business resolve, or at least make progress in conflict situations. It does take some time to get it right, but the more you practice, the better prepared you will be for the next challenging conversations in your family business.