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The Positive Story Project

The Positive Story Project

What we can learn by talking to beneficiaries, trustees and their advisors

My goal in writing this column is to focus thinking within our community of practitioners—important players in the transfer of wealth to younger generations.   And, with so much at stake for our clients and their families—a good deal more than preservation of financial assets—let’s make this column a conversation.  

Can the widespread dissatisfaction and all the talk of “problem” beneficiaries and “problem” trustees, give way to more creative and productive relationships?  I say:  “Absolutely.”  And, if your intuition is the same as mine, the harder question becomes “how do we get from here to there?”

To begin to find out, my colleague, Kathy Wiseman, and I have been going to the source—beneficiaries, trustees and their advisors—asking them for positive stories about moments in time when their relationships have worked well.  I’ll discuss what can be learned from these individuals and their stories in this column each month.   


When, years ago, I left the practice of law to accept a senior trust officer position, I loved being thrust into the midst of beneficiaries and their families wrestling with a kaleidoscope of dilemmas and opportunities.

That changed over time.  The change wasn’t sudden; it was more like aconstant slippage.  The “traditional” way of administering trusts felt less and less effective.  Financial capital was protected, while human capital deteriorated.  I knew—with apologies to the sterling exceptions—that this profession needed a new approach that went beyond technical expertise and short-term risk avoidance.

Then, in 2005, I met James E. Hughes Jr., known as "Jay" to his friends.  You may be familiar with his work through the seminal book Family Wealth, or his most recent, The Cycle of the Gift, published last month.  Jay has shown us why the long-term sustainability of a family (as opposed to the family’s financial wealth) demands more than impeccable technical skills.  He says that success requires addressing qualitative—meaning interpersonal—issues in a ratio that's at least three parts qualitative for every one part quantitative.

I agree.  Family relationships, a linchpin to family flourishing, can’t be handled like conventional “assets.”  One has to zero in on the qualitative with wholehearted purpose.  My tool to promote positive change in personal trust relationships is the positive story.

Value of Stories

Like everyone else, beneficiaries and trustees create stories to put given moments into context. And, the stories become their reality.  A particular story might serve the storyteller well, or not so well.  The point is the ability to direct thinking: Beneficiaries and trustees can decide on their point of view—trusts as a problem, or trusts as an opportunity.

My approach to positive change is: (1) Figure out what's going right (while also acknowledging any difficulties); (2) build upon that positive core; and (3) set sight on arriving at an exceptional outcome (new story).

That’s why we’ll focus on what we can learn from positive stories.  We’ll take a look at the skills and behaviors of our storytellers as they confront dilemmas and opportunities. 


A sampling of plot lines:

  • Parents speak with children about wealth and values.
  • A beneficiary provides a way for her trustees to see her strengths, changing the way her trust is administered.
  • One grandfather’s decision to search the country to find the right trustee.
  • An aunt wrestles with making a gift in trust that will “first do no harm.”
  • Beneficiaries provide their thinking to restructure the family’s trust.
  • Discussion about their trust prompts the telling of family stories, which in turn, promotes understanding and cooperation.

So start collecting positive stories.   Then, when a client dealing with a decision asks: “What do others do?”  you’ll have a “qualitative” answer in addition to your technical counsel.

Make this column a conversation.  If something you read here resonates well, or deserves a brickbat, write to [email protected]

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