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Break the Conflict Cycle in Family Business

“My mom and uncle fought about their pay for decades, and here we are doing it again in the third generation,” said Nelson, Director of Operations in the business his grandfather started decades ago.

The argument boiled down to this: Whereas Nelson’s uncle wanted all family employees paid the same, regardless of title, Nelson’s mom wanted family employees to earn what any non-family employee would earn.

When Nelson noticed that he and his cousins were fighting the same compensation battle their parents fought, he realized that each cousin was taking the side of their respective parent. Nelson defended his mom, the CEO; Nelson’s cousins defended their dad, VP of Finance.

“I’m sad that we cousins are perpetuating the conflict into our generation. How do we break the conflict cycle in family business?”

Break the Conflict Cycle in Family Business

Nelson brought this topic to his leadership coach, seeking strategies to break the cycle of conflict so that he didn’t model behavior with his own children that extended the argument into the fourth generation.

By the end of the call, Nelson had identified three strategies to break the conflict cycle in family business:

1. Active listening

2. Empathy

3. Polarity thinking

As you read Nelson’s ideas below, think about how you could use these strategies more in your work and home life.

Active Listening

Nelson started by interviewing his uncle to understand his perspective more fully. After asking some clarification questions, Nelson paraphrased back what he heard, then asked “Did I get it?” Nelson kept at it until his uncle replied “Yes, you got it.”

Active listening makes people feel heard, which keeps a conversation moving forward. When people don’t feel heard, they tend to reiterate their point, over and over, until they are confident that they are understood. Without that key element of communication in place, people tend to talk past each other, missing the opportunity to deepen mutual understanding, then define better solutions.

Once Nelson heard those magic words, “Yes, you got it,” he knew he could move on to empathy.


After pausing to imagine how Nelson’s uncle felt, Nelson said, “After seeing it through your eyes, I can imagine how hurt you feel.” By naming the emotion, Nelson gave his uncle an opportunity to confirm or correct the emotion(s), which reinforced his uncle’s felt sense of being truly heard.

Important note: Nelson didn’t have to agree with his uncle. Empathy doesn’t require agreement. Empathy involves feeling how another person feels, even if you would feel differently, and it greases the wheels of communication, especially during constructive conflict.

While actively listening to Nelson’s uncle, Nelson began to see his uncle’s perspective more fully. He then realized that an either/or solution to their conflict would fail because they were arguing a polarity. Like all paradoxes, both sides of any polarity have truth.

Breaking the Conflict Cycle in Family Business

Polarity Thinking

Leaning into the Family Mindset, his uncle believed equal compensation was “right.” Leaning into the Business Mindset, his mom believed market-based compensation was equitable and “right.”

Nelson called a meeting and reframed the argument as an equal :: equitable polarity. Together, they identified the upsides and downsides of equal pay and the upsides and downsides of market pay. Then they co-designed an innovative compensation plan that captured the upsides of both equal pay and market pay, while minimizing the downsides of either one.

I described this process in more detail in my last post called Creative Compensation in a Family Business.

I’m so passionate about polarities in family businesses that I’ve written a book about them! (Publishing date: July, 2024.). Join my mailing list to receive communications about how to leverage polarities to help your family business thrive.

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