During a family business board meeting one family member stands up and shouts, “You have pushed us around long enough. I’m tired of you trying to control everything. I’m sick of you always being in charge!” Confused and sporting bewildered looks, the other board and family members stare at each other, smiling in silence as they each mentally “take a side.”
Conflict, no matter how hard we try to prevent it, seems to just keep coming back faster and harder. In their treatise, Family Evaluation (Norton, 1988) Drs. Murray Bowen and Michael Kerr observe that “People (often) act surprised, as if the eruption came out of nowhere, but unspoken resentments may be building for days, weeks, or months.” (We know of families where resentments have been building over decades) Resentments over what “should be done” and how people “should act” may be the root cause of the family conflict in the above example.
Family business consultants frequently discover conflict within client families and organizations. When conflict is misunderstood or poorly managed within a family business it often leads to demoralized employees and diminishing profits. More than one family business has been destroyed as a direct result of conflict. Occasionally, conflict serves a legitimate business purpose or goal. Families that educate themselves on understanding how to manage conflict have a far greater chance of passing their family business on to subsequent generations.
While some family business consultants are trained and competent to handle interpersonal conflict (conflict between two or more individuals), trained psychologists are best equipped to handle conflicts of the intrapersonal nature. Resolving interpersonal conflict is a step-by-step skill that almost anyone can learn. Consider the conflict continuum below.
Ask yourself, “which of these three methods is most likely to lead to effective conflict resolution?” The answer, depending on the circumstances, is all three.
AVOIDANCE Some people believe that they must deal with every little issue and that everything needs debate. The Chinese proverb “Choose your battles carefully” is a helpful strategy when dealing with conflict. If it’s not a major issue with significant ramifications, ask yourself if this is one of those times when it is better to keep quiet and move on.
DIFFUSION At one time or another each of us has felt compelled to say something we thought was important, only to realize that our audience wasn’t listening. Frequently the time is just not right to resolve a conflict. Diffusing a conflict through distraction, humor, or acknowledgment is often a way to temporarily “let the air out” of a situation. Saying something like “we both feel pretty tense right now, why don’t we hold off and deal with this issue later,” can often have the needed diffusing effect.
CONFRONTATION The most important and most common method for dealing with conflicts is confrontation. In our experience there are two types of confrontations: power and negotiated. Power confrontation is common to many autocratic organizations and unfortunately becomes a standard practice. Although power confrontations usually lead to long-term negative consequences, in some crisis or emergency situations, power confrontations are not only appropriate but may even be desirable. Most individuals in these types of organizations view power confrontations as win – lose transactions.
Negotiated confrontations are, on the other hand, typically a win – win situation. Sadly most people, especially subordinates, choose not to deal with confrontation because they either do not want to hurt someone’s feelings or are afraid of retaliation. A useful 4-step approach that we have found successful in reducing retaliation is known as the DESC method. DESC is the acronym for D – describe the actions and behavior objectively (no judgment); E – express your concerns using “I” messages (instead of “you” messages); S – specify what you want or think needs to be changed; and C – cite the consequences, both positive and negative.
Because individuals have different opinions, objectives, values, and personalities, it is easy to understand how arguments, clashes, confrontations, and struggles occur. The DESC method is one way to organize your thinking about how to deal with a conflict. One client reported that it made him sit down and really think about the conflict. This more thoughtful approach helped him realize that the current conflict had nothing to do with the business, but was something he had been carrying with him since childhood.