Tips for Escaping a Brewing Family Feud

Summary: Conflict in family businesses tends to escalate in predictable ways, in what we call the conflict spiral. One stage of conflict can easily lead to the next and before you know it your family business can be headed for real trouble. But the conflict spiral can be stopped. Families can find their way out of the conflict spiral if they work together to (1) create alignment for change, (2) put all options on the table, and (3) work to rebuild trust.

Just because your family has started down the conflict spiral doesn’t mean you can’t find a way back to a better place. We’ve seen many families stop an escalating family feud with a few key steps. Here’s how they do it:

TIP 1: Create alignment for change.

As a rule, conflict doesn’t end until interests change, and interests don’t change until there’s some form of pain or suffering, whether it’s financial, emotional, or otherwise. But the families who find their way out of conflict spiral do so by creating alignment for change. They realize that communication is broken down. That proxy wars have broken out. That alliances have formed, that positions have hardened. That the status quo is no longer feasible. That the current conflict is bad for business. Whatever the pain and suffering that causes interests to change and whatever basic interests you get back to, the importance is that two individuals or more create some alignment to change and move out of the conflict spiral.

TIP 2: Get all ideas on the table.

You won’t be able to find a path forward if you don’t have a constructive conversation about a range of possible solutions to move forward. Recognizing that there might be different interests at play, try to put together some ideas for how to move forward. It’s important here to be creative, to not be restricted by the ideas of the past, but to put all options on the table. It’s also important to not judge immediately, but to brainstorm and create ideas that could potentially be mutually beneficial. Perhaps most importantly, test these options against your own interests. Test them against what you perceive to be the interests of those who you’re speaking with. Test them together because working together is the first step towards rebuilding trust, which is the third step for escaping a family feud.

TIP 3: Recognize that trust may be broken.

But it can also be repaired. If your family is already in the conflict spiral, it’s likely that trust will already have been damaged. With each stage of escalation, you likely did more damage. We like to think about trust using the metaphor of a bank account. A series of small actions are like deposits into a trust bank account, they build up over time and you amass a wealth of trust, just like you can amass a wealth of money in a real account. But you can also reduce your deposits very quickly. And that’s what happens when you move yourself down the conflict spiral.

To begin to put some deposits back in, you can make a good faith effort to put all options on the table and work together to evaluate those options and to test them against your interests. Trust won’t reappear overnight, but finding ways to work together, to continue to invest in your trust account, to build back up that trust over time is critical to escaping a family feud.

If all else fails, seek outside help. If your family is far down the conflict spiral, it can be difficult to find your way out on your own. You can, however, get outside help to have constructive conversations again. Individuals in your family may have different capabilities, perspectives, and aspirations. They may also have different stories about the history of the family and their place in it. Underlying those stories are assumptions about how the family works and how it should work. And those assumptions are both hard to see when you’re part of the system and hard to change as well. When you engage outside parties to help escape a family feud, they can help shine a light on those assumptions on those beliefs on those questions, they can help to start a conversation about why you might be in a feud and why you can get back to your interests and help illuminate others’ interests as well.