How to Manage Conflict in Your Family Business: Building Empathy

Conflict is a natural and inevitable part of family businesses. It is a top reason that families come to me looking for help. Conflict can arise due to disagreements about business decisions, unresolved tensions and dysfunctions between family members. Sometimes it is simply because the close quarters of a family business can be breeding grounds for conflict. People in conflict tend to lock themselves into their own position.  They repeat pattens and are unwilling to compromise.

However, if not managed effectively, conflict can cause serious damage to the business and relationships within it. In this blog post, we will discuss how to build empathy in order to manage conflict more effectively in your family business.

What is true empathy?

We all know what empathy is by definition. It’s even quite the buzzword lately. Thought leaders are writing books, giving Ted Talks and selling courses on empathy. In short, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It is a key ingredient in managing conflict. It allows us to see the situation from the other person’s perspective. When we empathize with our loved ones and other decision makers in the company, we are more likely to be able to find a resolution. One that is acceptable to both parties. We become better equipped to make decisions for the overall good of the family and the company.

We may know all of this in theory. Having strategies to put true empathy into practice in a way that actually improves relationships and supports decision making is often overlooked.

How to strengthen empathy.

A common practice thought leaders advocate for when talking about empathy is active listening. I’m sure you’ve heard this one. Active listening involves really paying attention to what the other person is saying, without interrupting them or formulating our response while they are still talking. It is often recommended to restate what the other person has said, in our own words. In this way, we make sure we have understood them correctly. Only then do we start to form a response.

However, while this is a great start there is a practice I often used with my clients from NLP called the Triple Description. This practice really allows us to step outside of our own preconceived beliefs and judgements of the other person. It is a process of looking at three different points of view in any situation. We do this by stepping into various models of the world. Our own, the other’s, and a neutral third party. This last one can be a bit tricky, as we often mistakenly think of ourselves as the neutral party. The most impactful part of this exercise is imagining how someone else who is not involved in the situation would see it.

The key to this process is that we do not form our response until we have fully explored all three points of view. In turn, this allows us to really understand where the other person is coming from and what might be driving their behavior. It also gives us a chance to see things from a more objective standpoint, which can help prevent us from getting caught up in our emotions and past patterns.

Once you have done this, you will likely find that your response comes much more easily and naturally, without needing to force it. It clears our dependence on past patterns and allows us to base decisions on reality, rather than just our own perception.

Conflict is important and necessary.

This triple description exercise is just one of the many tools I use when working with families in conflict.

It is important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to managing conflict, and what works for one family may not work for another. The key is to find council you can trust, with a process that feels suited to what you value as individuals and as a family.

Remember, our goal is never to avoid conflict and create a sense of artificial harmony, but to build the empathy and respect necessary for healthy, productive conflict that raises our consciousness and sparks positive growth.


If your family is looking for help managing conflict in the business, or needs some perspective on making challenging business decisions together, reach out via the form below.

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