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Estranged family member? Tips for reclamation . . . or preventing family erosion.

Oiler Rahman: Unsplash

Oiler Rahman: Unsplash

He got right to the point. "Everyone has already 'lawyered-up' and no one, but me, has talked to my older brother in over four years." The brother had called me at the recommendation of his counselor. "I feel like this has torn the family apart. Once this is over, I don't know if any of us will ever see him again."  It was a story I'd heard before and a story that is far too common. The comment was made by a man who was facing a legal fight with his siblings over the family business assets and fearing that the separation with his older brother would become a permanent chasm within the family.

So, it got me to thinking, what tips would I give to families with an estranged family member after more than 25 years of working with families? What works? What doesn't work? What are some of the common mistakes? No that's too much. How about just some basic tips. Yes, that might be helpful . . . more  on those tips in a moment . . . .

There are few things more painful than being estranged from family members. Families in business are certainly not immune--and may even be at higher risk--due to the proximity and engagement often demanded in a family business.

Once a separation begins, it can be very hard to mend the family "fabric" or even to stop the expansion of the separation that can threaten the integrity of the family and perhaps the business.

Who do family members call when they recognize a weakness or rip has started? Generally, no one. In my experience, efforts will be undertaken by the family itself without any outside help . . . if they do seek help it often is not until the pain of the problems get worse--much worse. Generally the divisions go back 5-7 years (or more) before help is sought. It is at that point, often when the family, business, or both, are facing a crisis that family members begin to talk to their advisors.

Who do they talk too?  Whom ever they trust. Often friends, lawyers, accountants, bankers, business consultants . . . But . . . if the problem is really a family issue, who should they talk to? Probably someone with extensive experience with family systems. Unfortunately, that generally means going to "see a shrink" but many won't go because "they''re not crazy" and sadly, if they do go, many mental health professionals will treat this like any other referral for depression, anxiety, etc. It's not their faulty, it's what the medical model has encouraged and the insurance companies will allow.

What I mean by the "medical model" and "insurance" comments is that what families need (extensive interviewing, development of a plan of action, perhaps a family retreat or other "non-medical" interventions) are not part of the typical outpatient practice nor are they items that can be billed to insurance. Therefore, few professionals are aware of, or have any experience with, helping extended family systems--particularly with the complexities of a family in business together.

So, given the fact that most will not seek help until the problem has reached a crisis, and even then, many do not get adequate help . . . let's offer a few tips for family members based on 25-plus years of working with families . . . 

1. You can't force someone-even a relative-to have a relationship with you. You can make it easier or harder for them to connect with you, get through difficult periods, or take the risk of reconnecting after a loss of trust..

2. Okay, in some cases you can force people. But it's not a sign of a healthy or sustainable relationship. This forced relationship is called by many names . . . control, domestic violence, or abuse. Once the person finds the courage to escape from this forced relationship they are not likely to willingly return. (However, this leaving may take years and repeated approximations of leaving before a final "break.")

3. The core problem that leads to a separation is typically between two people. It can of course spread to become an "all out war"--think of the Hatfields and McCoys. Keep it, to the best of your ability, between the two people. We call this being a "good bystander" to conflict. Hold each person accountable for their actions. Don't take sides. Refuse to be drawn into the "blame game." See the problem as a problem not as a defect in one or the other.

4. What I mean in #3 is that if you see the conflict in terms of "right and wrong" or "what is fair or just" then you will probably turn the problem into a family war not a problem between two people. After all, most of us want to protect the injured party and hold the perpetrator accountable. But unless there is a clear incident(s) where one party is responsible for the harm it often is a situation of "two different stories" about the events that have led to the problem. Be sure one party is responsible. Don't be quick to take a side. Always operate based on what you have observed not what you are told.

5. Although the best default is a neutral stance, there are times real issues (anger, alcoholism, abuse) are at the core of the problems. If this is the case--and you have personally experienced this--then tell it "like it is." Tell the person that you see these problems and hope that they will address them if they really want things to improve. Don't blame your opinion on the other party--none of this "you know they have a point." Own it as your own observation. You may get cut off but things don't improve if these behaviors are enabled. Have the courage to "do the right thing" gently even if it means you lose the relationship.

6. True or not. Healing begins with individuals taking as much accountability as possible for their own part in the conflict. Along the lines of: "While I wasn't trying to be disrespectful. Maybe my actions, when seen from your viewpoint, were, in fact, disrespectful." But it myst be authentic. If the party is not trying to see their part in the problem and focused on addressing that . . . then they are likely simply trying a gambit to move past the conflict while still blaming the other person. It rarely works. The other person may be fooled temporarily but we are really good generally at seeing the trends over time and the truth will leak out.

7. Rebuilding trust takes time . . . often, a long time . . . and you typically only get one chance. Don't blow it. I am often surprised by people who tell me that rebuilding the relationship is "the most important thing they want" and then I watch as they allow their frustration and anger to prevent any progress. They demand immediate reclamation of the relationship. They blame the other for not being willing to take risks on their preferred schedule. Often it's fear. The thinking often is, "If I don't make it happen now then it will never happen!". The hard thing is, they may be right. I ask them if the real goal is to "hang a plaque" saying "I tried everything I could but they wouldn't let me in!" or to increase the probability of having a relationship. Despite what they say, their actions will tell the story of what they really want. Think of this time as a "temporary sabbatical" and focus on "leaving the door cracked open" so a reunion is possible.

8. Finally, choose your advisors carefully! Make sure they have the expertise to help with family issues.  I just have to say a word about any advisors/mediators you use to help you in this reclamation project. They need to understand human systems at a deep level. Many, sadly, reenforce the blame game and may be unwilling or unaware of addressing deeper issues that keep the parties stuck. They need to be absolutely committed to the possibility of reconciliation but humble enough to know that even they cannot control the parties in the conflict--or guarantee the outcome of those parties.  If parties refuse to reconcile, the expert can help confirm and clarify the consequences of the choice and guide family members to keep this decision from turning the family life into a "world war." This may. at times, allow other family members the right to make a different choice. "I know you don't want to see our older/younger brother but I am not going to cut either of you out of my life." and help the family accept each person's right to choose.

The caller sounded hopeless about changing the siblings minds on going to court. He acknowledged that they should have done something "four years ago" and they might have avoided this estrangement. The end of the call came when the brother noted, "I'll talk to my other siblings, and call you back if we can do something, but I think it's gone too far to turn back." He went on to say that the court date had been set and he couldn't see them backing down to try something else at this point. When I contacted him later--not having heard back from him--it turned out that he was right. No one saw a way to "restart" the process and avoid court. 

Sadly, re-engagement with the family, in this case, may take a very long time; it is possible-maybe even likely-that it doesn't happen at all. I hope they are fortunate enough to het another chance. So, if you are facing threats to the family act now. Engage the problems. The old adage "the best defense is a good offense" applies. The best way to repair broken relationships in the family is to not let them get broken in the first place. But if they do, these tips can help maximize the opportunity to reconnect.


If you are a member of a family business, or interested in family business issues, feel free to download our free eBook: Family Legacy: Protecting family in family business.

Family Legacy: Protecting the family in business. Free eBook.

Family Legacy: Protecting the family in business. Free eBook.