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Family Business Matters       01/03 13:33

   Key Ingredients in Resolving Family Conflict

   Practicing professional mediation techniques can help achieve family peace.

By Lance Woodbury
DTN Farm Business Adviser

   In a recent article, I offered four distinct steps that can be helpful in 
managing family business conflict: Admit the conflict exists, consider your 
individual role in the dispute, commit to communication with the other party, 
and focus on your future together, instead of the past. 

   Here I want to offer several more ingredients in the process of successfully 
managing conflict. These elements are part of the mediation process and are 
usually undertaken by a mediator, but they may be helpful even if you don't use 
a neutral third party to work on the conflict in your family or business.


   When people are in dispute, there is often an underlying power struggle. 
Each side is attempting to establish a stronger justification for their 
behavior. This power struggle is seen in the language people use, in their 
attempts to control the dialogue, or even in the way people frame the issues. 

   But the power struggle can also be "felt," and one way to level the playing 
field is to find someplace neutral to meet. For example, if you are struggling 
with your parents, meeting in your dad's office, or at your parent's house, can 
create a small but subtle imbalance. But meeting at a neutral site, such as a 
hotel or community center meeting room, puts both parties on equal footing in 
one element of the process. Furthermore, if you use a conference room in a 
professional office (such as a bank meeting room, or your accountant's 
conference room), it helps reinforce a professional tone in the discussion.


   Another mediation technique is to let each side tell their version of 
events. Each person taking "equal" time (e.g. 10 minutes each) to provide their 
view of how things got to this point also helps to balance the power in the 
room, and it suggests both narratives have value and that hearing each one is 
important to the process. In short, it offers each side a chance to explain, 
and it legitimizes how they see things. (This chance to explain is sometimes 
what people want when they reference their "day in court.") If just one side 
does all the talking, the chances of the other side feeling like they want to 
compromise later will be slim at best.


   We talk in mediation about getting people to see a situation from the other 
party's viewpoint. This can be difficult, as parties get "locked in" to their 
view and sometimes can't believe or imagine how the other side sees it. 

   Feelings, however, are another matter. Without agreeing with the other 
side's version of events, you can plainly see that the other side is hurt or 
angry. People usually don't intend to hurt the other person; it's how events 
and actions are interpreted that creates resentment. 

   Regardless of whether you agree, sincerely acknowledging the other party's 
feelings, at a very basic level, shows you understand the pain that has 
occurred. Such acknowledgement is a signal that your relationship matters, and 
it paves the way for some healing to occur.


   After each party has a chance to say how they see the situation, do some 
brainstorming about ways the conflict could be solved. Some, perhaps even many, 
of the solutions that surface may not be feasible, but by turning toward 
solutions you begin to move from the past to the future. Moving into the future 
is important because the past, and people's feelings about the past, are 
usually not changeable. The future -- with intentionality, different behavior 
and hard work -- can be shaped to achieve a better outcome if both parties have 
the desire. For example, they can commit to behaving differently, to 
communicating more, and to bringing up tough issues sooner.

   Someone recently told me that "there are no silver bullets, just silver 
BB's." His point was that it took trying a lot of smaller strategies to change 
the big picture, and I thought the idea applied well to mediation. There is 
seldom a meeting in which everyone ends up fully getting or hearing what they 
want. In fact, I often suggest that a good mediation session is one in which 
everyone leaves equally unhappy with the outcome. 

   But if you can take small steps to help each party feel that they have some 
power, that their story is important, that their feelings are real, and that 
the future can be different, we are well on our way to better management of 
family business conflict.


   Editor's Note: Lance Woodbury is a Garden City, Kansas, author, consultant 
and professional mediator with more than 20 years' experience specializing in 
agriculture and closely-held businesses. Email questions for this column to For more on this topic, see DTN's Minding Ag's Business 
blog. Find Woodbury's past columns online at 


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