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Family Councils and the Role of the Facilitator

There is a move in family business studies to develop a family council, a group which is set-up to hold family meetings. This can be particularly useful when considering succession or in handling family assets.

Family Councils begin with a meeting for the family to develop a code of conduct for the council.

  • What kind of language you are going to use?
  • Whether people are going to stay in the room and if they leave, how they will leave?
  • How can we work together to oversee the development and welfare of family members?
  • How will we consider financial and investment issues?

Family Council Components
Important components of Family Councils include forming family agreements on communication, confidentiality, commitment and how to behave with each other. Some key areas are:

  • Agreeing on a Code of Conduct
  • Identifying who the members of the family are for this forum
  • Developing a Family Tree to identify values
  • Creating a Mission Statement – what’s our purpose as a family?
  • Drafting a Family Constitution
  • Developing a Conflict Management Agreement
  • Tracking the Agenda and recording important items.

Role of the Facilitator
For the facilitator, the issue with a family council is to make sure that you are really noticing the norms of the group. Otherwise people will be compliant to the facilitator and will go along with the facilitator because they are trying to be respectful or stay out of trouble; then they go out of the room and there is a blow up. The facilitator needs to be able to handle the intensity that families can’t handle themselves; without somebody there to support them, these structures and systems and so forth, can get a little tattered. It does not matter if a group has met a thousand times before. You are always going to be dealing with the first stages of group formation for that meeting.

Some of the work is just helping family members to be able to get clearer and clearer about what they want out of the time together and having them able to express some of the language that they find is not helpful overall, perhaps some things that they have been storing up that they never express.

As long as the facilitator can manage to keep them paying attention to their tendency to blame, attack and complain, and help them stay aware of tendencies to upset or to be vague, engage in fight/flight kind of behavior, any family can begin to change, and develop the skills needed to consider succession, or other family business issues.

Facilitation Challenges
At the beginning of the work, what looks like a fight is actually a way to create distance as group members are still feeling the need to avoid and be cautious of connection. They feel it isn’t safe enough to have a real fight so instead group members can complain, blame and do all sorts of things, but are not really going to connect.

If you can help the people to have their turn to talk, it starts to happen that somebody will agree with something that somebody else says. People start to drop off the intensity, start to gradually connect with somebody else and then they don’t feel so isolated.

The facilitation work is to be able to go for whatever the length the meeting is, one hour, two hours, half day, a day, a weekend retreat, and for family members to be able to have more hope that they can work together at the end than when they started.

What a Facilitator Does
When I am called in, while on the surface it may look like everything is fine, underneath there are usually all sorts of ways the family knows where not to go because it didn’t work in the past and it was very painful. These are the places where you feel like somehow you were not heard, not understood, or worse, that you were rejected. Not just for your opinions, but for something that is important to your values, to yourself.

As a facilitator the issue is how to support people in ways that help them get clearer about what kind of outcomes they want. Clearer about what the goal is for getting together. What is it that they really want? And then helping them see how each individual is either helping move towards that goal or part of impeding the process. The facilitator needs to intervene without having people feel like they have done something wrong.

What intrude are the losses of the past. “You did . . .” “When I tried . . .” “And, then you . . .” “And, you always . . . “

People are afraid it is never going to stop. They think that everything is going to get worse; that it is hopeless. They try to console themselves. “I am an intelligent person even if they don’t see it. You know, I tried hard and because he/she or them… You know I’ve done my best and it is not my fault.”

It is how they’ve learned to be together.

You Don’t Have to Do It Alone
When these issues come up in facilitated systems work, you don’t have to work alone. It is not about ganging up on somebody, or about being the scapegoat, “the problem one”. If it is a really small group, then the job for the facilitator is to validate individual feelings and upsets without taking sides against the rest of the people.

Creating a forum for family discussions about the issues important to the family can go a long way to smoothing out the historical, current and future concerns. If the prospect seems difficult hire a facilitator for the process and gradually develop capacities in the family for members to communicate together. As the family comes together in a functioning family council, with some of the blocks to communication removed, they are better able to focus on the discussions needed for a viable succession plan, or on other family business issues.

Ian Macnaughton Recognized for Outstanding Achievement

Communication Problems -- and Solutions -- in a Nutshell