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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Turning Conflict Into Cooperation

by Shel Horowitz

"Conflict can be a family business's greatest asset," but usually it's painful and destructive." -Dr. Susan Glaser

"When there's conflict, there's an issue, something to fix; work through and things will actually improve." -Dr. Peter Glaser

In one of the most exciting Family Business Center presentations yet, Susan and Peter presented a step-by-step roadmap to not only stop conflicts in a family business form escalating, but to actually find, far more often than would be expected, that magical "win-win" outcome.

The Glasers came all the way from the opposite coast, where they teach at the University of Oregon: Peter at the Oregon Executive MBA Program, and Susan at the College of Business. Their presentation, March 10, 1998 at the Yankee Pedlar, was entitled "From Controversy to Communication: Thriving on Conflict in the Family Business.

Using theater games such as role plays very effectively, the Glasers started by showing how communication can go wrong: specifically, how a person giving a message may mean one thing, but something completely different--and often weighted down by negative baggage--is conveyed. In their phrase, "the intent does not equal the impact."

For example: As CEO, you ask your manager if the report you've asked for is ready. You just want the information, but the subordinate may respond as if the question was, "why haven't you done that report yet?" Naturally, if that's what's coming across, the manger will become defensive--and the ability to meet both sets of needs is sabotaged. In Peter Glaser's words, "When we get hit with a lot of unexpected negative, we tune out the listening cues and stop processing the information. The clarity of the message gets lost."

What turns the interaction sour? Often, it's not the actual content of the message--printed out on a plain piece of paper, it would never ruffle a feather--but the relationship level: all the little nuances conveyed by gestures, tone of voice, volume and rate of delivery, etc.

When relationships are as long-term as they often are in a family, expectations play a big part. Susan Glaser noted that we tend to "pick and choose samples of [others'] behavior that confirm our theory of what they're like, and systematically ignore anything that would disconfirm our theory." So if you have seen your son as a clown who can't get serious, based on behavior as a child, it may be difficult to let go of that expectation and give the now-grown child enough responsibility. These expectations lead to negative spirals, where we don't see our own role in the escalation-only the other's inability to move forward. as Peter Glaser puts it, "we draw out from each other our very worst behaviors, the ones we least want to see, and then we get disgusted and withdraw. this thing begins to grow and fester until there's an explosion." Even people who value communication often find it difficult to raise issues; they fear the relationship will be damaged. But if the issues are raised in a true spirit of cooperation, including both the content and the cues, it's more likely to both strengthen the relationship and solve the problem.

Now the good news: it really does take two to tango. If you want to get out of these negative patterns, all you have to do is take the initiative to defuse conflict, and redirect the energy from negative personal attacks toward positive, constructive change. How? If you're receiving the feedback, five simple steps:

  1. Assume an interested, eager posture. Lean forward intently as if the information really matters to you. Avoid negative postures such as an upraised hand at arm's length.
  2. Ask for details and clarification. A general, unhelpful accusation like "you always leave me to pick up the pieces" can be transformed by probing into "When you played golf while I had to finish the report myself, I felt taken advantage of." And that kind of criticism can lead to understanding-and reform.
  3. If a speaker isn't able to clarify, take a guess. think of a situation where you exhibited a behavior that bothered the other, and ask if that's an example.
  4. State your agreement with the facts-and avoid both the confrontive "you" and the negating "but".
  5. Validate the critic's perception, i.e., "I can understand how you'd reach that conclusion."

But of course, criticism is a two-way process. How do you give criticism so the recipient remains receptive rather than defensive? The Glasers' model is similar, but not exactly the same as the model for receiving criticism:

  1. Get a psychological agreement to have the conversation. don't just burst in, but say something like, "could we talk for a few minutes about something that's bothering me?" Be careful to phrase things in terms of how it made you feel, rather than what the person did-and edit out any accusative language.
  2. Get specific, just as in receiving criticism. For example: "Let me tell you a situation that was really rough for me. Yesterday…"
  3. Acknowledge your part in the situation. This is perhaps the most crucial, as it points you as vulnerable, ready to improve your own behavior. It creates a climate of cooperation. As Peter puts it, "There are at least two players in any problem. When you communicate the part you 'own,' it's SUCH a peace move!" Sometimes you may have to work at finding your own contribution, i.e., "I'm part of the problem because I haven't told you how much it bothers me."
  4. Agree together on a solution that both of you come up with, and both of you will carry out. One way of moving toward this goal is to say, "Here's what I can do to help this work. Is there anything else you'd like me to do?"

These approaches are so powerful and unusual that they change the entire climate of conflict resolution. An article cannot adequately convey how relevant the process might be for you and your family members in conflict. Feel free to call the Family Business Center for more information of how mediation can help you.

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