A little empathy practice goes a long way

When communication in the family breaks down, reflect on the lessons of the Wisdom Tree.

By T. Roger Peay

Having succession problems? Feel misunderstood by your father or your son or daughter or brother-in-law? Maybe they feel the same way. If only everyone could begin to appreciate the other guy's point of view a little bit.

It may seem obvious, but those who have been through it know how hard it is to get business owners and their heirs to look at things through each others' eyes, to understand the emotions that are disturbing the other and hindering communication.

On the campus of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, there is a large, impressive sculpture called "The Wisdom Tree," which symbolizes the growth of learning but also displays another powerful truth: True wisdom is rooted in an appreciation of different points of view. People walking on the several sidewalks criss-crossing nearby will see the sculpture variously as shaped like a Y, with many branches shooting upward, or like an X, or like an inverted Y, with many roots pointed downward and a single stem on top.

In my consulting practice, I sometimes ask members of family businesses to engage in a little exercise based on the lesson of the Wisdom Tree. I urge the owner and his or her designated successor to take about 30 minutes or so when alone to think about what the other is feeling, to concentrate on sincerely trying to understand what might be going through the other's mind that dictates his or her behavior. Then, when they are together, I ask each to describe the other's thoughts and emotions as they imagined them.

To see how this simple exercise can work, consider the Dean family, owners of a second-generation business called the Mt. Concrete Co. The company had been under the autocratic control of the father, Marcus Dean, since 1963. The son, Charles, had worked his way up and had been loyal to his father for most of his adult life; still, every time he approached his father about turning over the reins Marcus was non-committal.

When Charles was 39 years old, his father, then 74, finally agreed to make him plant manager. Afterward, however, the father constantly undermined the son's authority by maintaining direct-report relationships with his older managers and overriding Charles's decisions. This unhealthy situation escalated to the point where Charles was threatening to quit, sell his home, and move out of the state, taking Marcus's beloved grandchildren with him.

When father and son asked for my help, I immediately perceived that their battle had gone on for so long that neither could budge from his entrenched position, and no communication was going on between them. I explained that they could not begin to solve their problems until each tried to understand what the other felt and why.

I asked both to start with the little empathy exercise that I described. With some coaching, and after several discussions, Charles was able to reflect back the feelings that were churning inside his father. The son had a new awareness of his father's deep attachment to the business and the reasons that it might be difficult for him to give it up.

After the same quiet reflection, Marcus was able to describe his son's eagerness to prove he could run the business. The father began to appreciate Charles's feelings of desperation that he, Marcus, was past retirement age and yet showed no signs of letting go. The exercise neutralized some of the animosity between the two men, allowed long-buried feelings of love to surface, and enabled both to think constructively about a transfer of leadership.

Though it's not quite as easy as it sounds, I believe other business owners and their successors can benefit from the same procedure. Here's what I advise:

If you are the beleaguered business owner under pressure to step aside, let your memory drift back to the time when you started the business or took it over from someone else. Remember how eager you were to be on your own, to be master of your destiny? Recall how much you wanted to prove yourself, to come out from someone else's shadow, to set your own goals, to succeed in a big way.

Then ask yourself how the experiences of your chosen successor are similar to, or unlike, your own. How long has that person been waiting to take over? What must he or she be feeling now? Try to picture the person and imagine his or her hopes, ambitions, disappointments, frustrations.

If you are the frustrated successor, you should reflect on how the owner got to where he is today. How did he start out? What struggles did he go through? What sacrifices did he make? What was the required investment — in time, money, emotion, and plain sweat?

Also try to imagine — and appreciate — the extent to which the owner's personal identity is wrapped up in the business. How does the business reflect his character, his personality, his sense of self? When he is no longer the boss, how is he going to replace the satisfactions he has derived from running the show? What can be done to help him continue to feel achievement, belonging, and inner security after he gives up control?

To get a dialogue going, both owner and successor might first read this column. When practicing the empathy exercise, allow yourself to increase your awareness of the other person's point of view. Don't rush it. Above all, don't let your own feelings bubble up and prevent you from trying to understand the other person's aspirations and frustrations. In thinking about the other's position, you are not agreeing with it or espousing it, only trying to understand it better.

Then owner and successor should get together and share their thoughts. These sessions may last an hour or two. Again, take it slow. Each person should be allowed to fully express what he imagined the other's feelings and concerns to be; afterward, the other can clarify and elaborate as he wishes.

Throughout the sessions, the goal is to "listen for understanding" rather than to wait impatiently until you can get your own point across. If you have both become too defensive or combative to talk by yourselves, seek help from a professional skilled at managing dialogue.

The tendency of many families that pursue such discussions is to focus on business details and hope that sensitive issues related to the transfer of leadership will somehow take care of themselves. Not addressing those issues can be almost as harmful as fighting over them. The future health of the business as well as the family will depend on a full and frank discussion of personal feelings and goals.

And in all these sessions continue to visualize the Wisdom Tree and what it stands for. Without an appreciation of different points of view, real communication cannot begin.

T. Roger Peay, a family business consultant, has a Ph.D. in organizational psychology, and is licensed as a marriage and family therapist. He is a Partner at Dyer, Peay & Associates, consultants to family businesses in Provo, Utah.