Dr. Alexander Chan

by Sonja Heyck-Merlin

Dr. Alex Chan, a mental and behavioral health specialist with University of Maryland Extension, recently gave a presentation titled “Tips for Successful Family Meetings” for the Mid-Atlantic Women in Agriculture Program.

According to Chan, there are three common sources of conflict for business-owning families. One relates to justice or conflicts related to fairness, such as compensation and workload. Decision-making is another source, resulting in conflict related to who has power and who makes the decisions. The third source relates to identity and is often intergenerational and related to succession.

“It’s common for these conflicts to come up,” Chan said. “The way you handle them is unique because family-owned businesses mix business and family. You can’t manage these meetings from a purely business point of view because you also have family relationships to think about. You also can’t be entirely focused on managing the relationship side because there’s a business to run.”

Before Chan delved into a specific conversational strategy for managing conflict, he outlined some basic behaviors people should use at meetings. The first is active listening, which promotes real understanding. “I know you have probably heard this a million times,” Chan said, “but it’s critical to not just hear what somebody’s saying but to actually try to demonstrate your understanding.” He encouraged people to ask themselves the questions “Am I understanding them? Does this make sense, or do I need clarification?”

Another basic skill is to avoid interruptions because “when people start interrupting one another, it’s like a snowball effect,” Chan said. “People feel like they have to start talking faster and louder, and their tone of voice changes and becomes more aggressive. It interferes with the entire process of a meeting.”

A third basic skill is to show people you’re listening by paraphrasing what you hear. One way to accomplish this is to start a response with “So, what I hear you saying is…” A final basic tip is to think internally about how you are communicating with your family. Questions to ask yourself include “Am I doing what I know contributes to a healthy conversation? Do I ask family members about their lives, thoughts and feelings? Am I sensitive to my family members’ worries and needs? Do I talk about my own expectations?”

However, even if all family members are practicing these basic techniques, conflict will invariably arise. “Conflict physically changes the way our hearts and minds function,” Chan said. “When people are in conflict, the heart rate changes, and that literally affects brain function. As your heart rate increases, it’s a signal to your brain that perhaps this is a dangerous situation.”

If someone at the meeting becomes hyper-agitated or angry, Chan said it’s acceptable for that person or the group to take a break until emotions have settled. This will also require the person who is agitated to engage in something that is soothing rather than ruminating on angry thoughts. Milder demonstrations of emotionality, however, can be mitigated through the emotion coaching process.

“Emotion is like an elevator, and the door to reason, logic and problem-solving is on the ground floor. When emotions are high, whether from excitement or anger, people can’t think straight, and the elevator rises. Emotion coaching is a way down to the ground floor, allowing people to stay on the ground floor, so they access the capabilities that make us human – reason and logic,” Chan said. “Using this strategy opens up the climate to real problem-solving, creativity and connection.”

Emotion coaching only involves two steps; the first is validation and the second is support. Validation is neither reassurance nor problem-solving, which are the most common responses to helping a person who is experiencing an emotionality. Validation is also not saying “I can understand what you might be feeling/thinking/wanting, but…”

The word but automatically shuts people down. “The use of this word will put peoples’ defenses up and raise the emotional level,” Chan said.

The goal of emotional coaching is to change the but to because. Using because validates what a person is feeling rather than negating it. “When you change that but to because it’s an instant cue that you’re there with the person experiencing the emotion,” Chan said.

When a person uses validation with someone experiencing emotionality, it shows that a person understands those emotions. People are not going to be open to practical support, which is the second step of emotion coaching, until they believe others have shown an understanding. “When you can show that you understand their feelings and their reasons behind a particular stance, it lowers the defenses, so that you can actually step in and do some influencing and negotiating related to the business,” said Chan.

On a physical level, creating this environment of understanding triggers a release of oxytocin, a hormone that aids in bonding, from the brain. Over time, as this bonding occurs, it helps create connections between the front of the brain (where all the thinking and logic take place) with the mid-brain (where emotional functions occur). Ultimately, according to Chan, this helps people keep their emotions in check. This is especially important in family business settings where important matters are being discussed among people with personal histories who will be interpreting one another in light of those histories.

Chan acknowledged that employing this strategy might result in longer meetings because it’s not just about speeding through an agenda and hitting all the points. He suggested taking breaks, allowing conversations to last longer and trying not to force big decisions into one meeting.

Though it takes practice and may involve some changes, Chan predicts that employing emotion coaching will make the family business stronger. “In our default way of approaching tough conversations, most of us resort to defensiveness or aggressive strategies. These don’t help us self-regulate, and it just makes people try to strong-arm their way through a conflict. Over time, as you practice this skill, you help yourself and others stay more even-keeled,” he said.