Fierce Conversations in Your Family Business

Fierce Conversations in Your Family Business

At a recent meeting, a business family I’ve been working with expressed how frustrated they were with the lack of apparent progress toward their succession goals. As the conversation began, the group appeared to be divided, with half insisting, “it’s not all that bad,” while the other engaged in finger pointing and wanting someone to “fess up.” It seemed they were getting nowhere until the question was asked:  “What’s the real conversation this family needs to have that you’ve been avoiding?”

After a few moments of silence, one family member broke the ice by saying he felt his sister wasn’t grabbing the reins fast enough. The sister reluctantly acknowledged that might be true and admitted that she felt intimidated at times by her father’s business success. Mom chimed in with her concerns about Dad’s interference in day-to-day operations and how that made it more difficult for others to take responsibility. Dad expressed a few doubts about whether he really wanted “out.”  And by that point, this family was having a real conversation.

That family meeting illustrated a bedrock principle:  One of the most important things a business family can do is prepare themselves for the conversations they don’t want to have.

For a family business, success or failure often depends on the ability to engage in productive dialogue with each other. Susan Scott describes this concept superbly in her book, Fierce Conversations. She asserts that “doing business” is really just an extended series of conversations with other people. And for those conversations to be meaningful and move us toward our goals, they must be “fierce.”

A fierce conversation is not about adversaries pushing for their position, but about members looking at issues together, striving for a more complete understanding. In a fierce conversation, Scott says, we must “interrogate reality,” separating out hearsay, speculation, assumptions and the party line, to get to the truth of what’s really going on.

We must be clear about our purpose and what needs to be accomplished. We must keep our egos in check, acknowledging that everyone has a unique perspective and that each is valid. When we tell ourselves, “he doesn’t know what he’s talking about because…” we miss important information. That someone who “doesn’t know what he’s talking about” might be the person who offers insights we couldn’t see on our own.

Finally, when we “come out from behind ourselves” into the real conversation, we provoke learning in ourselves, deepen the relationships that are important to us and strengthen our ability to tackle challenges head on.

Think about a conversation your family business needs to have, that you’ve been avoiding.

  1. What’s preventing you from having this conversation?
  2. What needs to change for you to approach this conversation in partnership rather than as adversaries?
  3. If you were in another family member’s shoes, how would you see this situation?
  4. What would you like the outcome to be?
  5. If the situation were resolved, what would be different for your family business?

If you want to see real change in your family business, change the conversation and make it fierce.

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