Dealing with family rifts in a family business

Picture this: it’s Thanksgiving and your whole family is gathered around the table except … wait. Your brother and his family said they couldn’t make it this year because they had other plans. You know the truth is that you and he haven’t spoken since last Thanksgiving and that his absence is as much avoidance of what happened as it is a clear message to you that he will not be making peace with you any time soon.

Every family has its struggles, tensions, and dysfunctions. But what happens when there is a shared business venture, family board of directors, foundation, or a large inheritance at stake?

When money and business add that additional layer of connection to a family system, the stakes are much higher, and this can often lead to temporary or permanent rifts. So what’s to be done?

How to move beyond

I’m not going to pretend that I can solve the problem of family rifts in one short article, but I will say that I’ve seen the film-making process be a unique way of moving beyond such rifts through the sharing and reflective space it creates within a family system.

One family I worked with had a rift in Gen 2 that had lasted all the way to Gen 4. The original three brothers’ grandchildren didn’t even know each other!

My client was excited about the prospect of tapping into her father’s nearly 80-something-year old cousin’s memories about the family. This cousin agreed to meet with me, shared his memories in the family history film I was making, and then reconnected with my client’s 90-year-old father.

The two hadn’t seen each other in nearly 80 years after their fathers had had a falling-out when they were children. They had lunch, got to know each other and began a new relationship at a point in their lives when they may have never imagined doing so.

I’ve seen many such examples in my decade of making family films. Families often need projects that they can take on together to help them move beyond whatever caused the silence, resentment or anger. They might also need to reach out beyond their family for someone who can help them mend old wounds.

There are many family business mediators, counselors, advisers, and therapists available, so it shouldn’t take that much investigative work to find the right person to help resolve your family rifts.

Can you keep functioning?

What about the rifts that are recent, raw and relentless? It’s the reason your brother isn’t at Thanksgiving this year and probably won’t be next year. How do you keep functioning as a business, board, etc., without letting this personal clash interfere?

I think the answer is, you can’t. You have to address the elephant in the room and face it head on. Sometimes you have to ask yourself, how am I part of the problem? Am I contributing to the solution in any way?

There are certain personalities that will always be in conflict, and there are certain family dysfunctions that are not always possible to repair. But can you take a step back, examine your values as a family, and ask yourselves what is most important?

If your answer is the business, then I would pose that your business won’t survive without your family being intact, and it may be generations before you resolve it.

If your answer is the family, then I am sure you will do everything in your power to repair the situation. So again, what is a solution or who can help you create a solution or a project that will get your family members back into alignment?

The goal is not just to ensure the success and longevity of your family business, but to make sure that you find yourself sitting across the table from your brother again at the Thanksgiving table.

Arielle Nobile is the CEO and chief creative officer of Legacy Connections Films, which she founded 10 years ago. LCF has produced more than 100 private documentary films, legacy films that serve as a mirror for clients to reflect on how far they have come and to share a vision for where they are going. Visit legacyconnectionsfilms.com for information.