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This article was previously published in Western Producer and has been republished with permission.
My friend and fellow family advisor Elaine Froese often asks me when we meet “what are you currently reading?” and I know that she is expecting me to answer with some technical title such as “the top ten ways to success” or “how to talk to your dad”. But I tend to avoid books that seek to provide answers in such a direct way. Instead I favour stories about life and about its complex nature, how relationships are managed and how to deal with conflict. I look for books that make you sit back and consider outcomes. Books like John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” or Harper Lee’s “To kill a Mockingbird” or Cormack McCarthy’s “Border” trilogy (and there are many more).
In these books the authors have observed humanity with all of its faults and complexities and they haven’t come up with sugar coated outcomes but with honest appraisals of how we interact with each other and the consequences of our behaviour.
More recently I have finished reading a book called “The Shepherd’s Life” by James Rebanks, a true life account of growing up and working on a sheep farm in the lake district of England and how the transition of the farm went from one generation to the next and how the author’s relationship with his father ebbed and flowed. It is a gritty, honest account of the difficulties they faced.
My last book was Elizabeth Hay’s “His Whole Life” which observed how one family interacted with one another and those around them, how they handled conflict and how poorly thought out estate planning could have long-term consequences for the family and their relationships. In one part of this book the principle character is faced with an old friend who had abandoned her in the past. In the meeting she couldn’t quite forgive her friend and later, on reflection, realized that this was because she didn’t really want to forgive her—and where lies the one stark truth: That we may not always want to forgive, resolve conflict or repair relationships.
Many families struggle with poor communication and conflict often fuelled by sibling rivalry or historical events that can’t be forgotten but where the original arguments are no longer remembered. They often come to me with this primary issue and with the hope that I have the answer. Of course, if you read the “how to” books then the answers may appear simple. These books will outline basic steps the family needs to follow and if they do then everyone will re-unite in harmony. Except that we know that it is rarely that simple and that people don’t necessarily follow logical thought processes when in a state of conflict. And so it’s the books about life that we need to reach for, the ones that point out that maybe it’s not that we can’t forgive, it’s that we simply don’t want to. What these story books then allow us to do is to observe and reflect on those choices and their consequences.
Trudy Pelletier is a communication specialist based in Calgary. In a recent seminar at the CAFE (Canadian Association of Family Enterprises) symposium she pointed out the rather obvious fact that it requires two parties to participate in order for there to be conflict and that to resolve conflict you have to look to yourself first. In other words the decision to be in conflict is a conscious one and the decision to resolve the conflict can also be a conscious one but you need to start with yourself.
So when a family in conflict comes to me seeking help, the first question I ask is “how much do you really want this to work and what are you prepared to give up in order to get there?” Often I think people come to me seeking confirmation that they are right and the other party is wrong and when I don’t do that they get disappointed or disillusioned with the process. But the nature of conflict resolution is not to apportion blame or to identify who is right and who is wrong but to seek out mutual interests and focus on these. In order to do that you have to be prepared to move away from your position and in order to do that you have to want to.
In most conflict situations we have a number of behaviour options. Often in families we will see avoiding or accommodating behaviour, usually where the relationship is more important to us than the outcome but where this can cause a buildup of tension. We may see competing behaviour where the outcome is more important than the relationship or compromising behaviour where we are trying for a win-win. When the conflict is competitive it’s a win-lose situation and in families this usually means a lose–lose because a relationship is broken.
The best behaviour choice we have is collaboration. If successful, it results in a better outcome but it requires energy, forgiveness, understanding and empathy and it also takes time. And when we read books about life we know that these may be in short supply and when we observe the world around us we know that the process of conflict resolution is not easy.
At MNP, we understand these issues and our TransitionSMARTTM process doesn’t seek to be a like a ‘how to’ book, but instead a process of collaboration, guidance and experience which offers the best chance of success. The choice is then up to you.
Bob Tosh, PAg., FEA, is a farm and family business advisor with MNP’s Consulting group. Through his work with farm families, Bob has become a specialist in family business succession planning, helping more than 200 families transition to the next generation. He holds the Family Enterprise Advisor (FEA) designation and is passionate assisting clients with the intergenerational transition of all types of family-owned businesses. Bob can be reached at 306.664.8303 or [email protected]
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