Conflict Management

Dorothy Thompson famously said that:

 "Peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of creative alternatives for responding to conflict - alternatives to passive or aggressive responses, alternatives to violence."

My experience is certainly that if people can agree when things are going well how they will deal with their differences when they arise, they will tend to do just that.   Will that always stop families going to war?  Of course not, but it significantly reduces the chances that they will do so.

I work with families to help them design and implement ways of managing their future conflicts which minimise the chances of those conflicts becoming toxic.  Where their relations are governed by legally binding arrangements, I work with the family's lawyers to produce formal conflict management protocols for inclusion in the relevant documents.

These protocols may also provide for training and support, the funding of whatever processes are put in place (sometimes key to a perception of fairness) and these days the extent (if any) to which conflict may be aired in print, broadcast or social media.

Case Study

The Snowdens run a high end car dealership.  The business was started by brothers Frank and Jim.  When they were young, Frank used to race cars, and just loved to have his picture in the local paper.  Jim was much happier taking engines apart, and making them work better - and he was pretty good at it!

When I first met the family, Frank and Jim were both in their 70s.  Frank was still Chairman of the Board, but Alzheimers had taken its toll and he no longer played an active part in the business.  Jim was Managing Director.  His sons, William and John, were now in charge of Sales and Maintenance, and their cousin, Lizzie, was Finance Director, as well as running the leasing and finance side of the business.  Frank's recent decline had got the family thinking more about the future, and they were working with consultants on succession and governance issues.  I was brought in to talk to them about conflict management.

Like many, the Snowdens' experience of conflict was mostly with customers who were either "reasonable" (in which case things got settled pretty quickly) or "unreasonable" (in which case it went to the lawyers just as quickly).  Of course, they didn't sue each other; they just tended to stew in their own juices.  I introduced them to the idea of an escalating response to conflict.
Realising that some of their past arguments had been bad for business, they decided that anyone in the family (whether directly involved or not) should be entitled to call "time out".  A third party would be brought in to work informally with the parties to help them resolve things.  Other families involve a senior family or community member in that role, but the Snowdens' preferred to have someone with professional experience and (further down the line) invited me to take on that role.

One of the challenges they identified was the distinction between boardroom, shareholder and family/relational conflicts.  They felt that each should be dealt with in its proper place and were working on a family charter that would, amongst many other things, set out what decisions should be made where.  My role would be to coach those directly involved and then to facilitate the broader discussion, whether in the boardroom, and EGM or family meeting.

If things were not resolved by agreement within a month, they would be referred to mediation, the choice of mediator being mine.    Only if matters remained unsettled a month after the mediator was appointed would the decision be given to a third party, but that would be an arbitrator, not a judge.  It was clear from our discussions that no-one wanted to go down that road, and they decided their charter should provide an exit route so that people could walk away rather than taking the family to war; price would be fixed by expert determination.

Since then, the Snowdens have had their differences, and the occasional time out has been called, but they have never yet had to go to mediation.