Sometimes it’s fighting between parents and the next generation. Sometimes it’s sibling conflicts that have existed for many years. Unresolved family disputes can destroy successful intergenerational wealth transfer with or without a family business at stake. When you’re managing the money, it can feel like torture seeing your clients behave so destructively. Expensive lawsuits or standoffs that damage businesses the family is arguing about can threaten the very work you’ve done over time. You’ve tried to preserve wealth and keep families on track. They can ruin your best efforts.
You may try persuasion. The individual with whom you have the conversation agrees with you that this hassling must stop. And then he turns around and engages in battle just as before. A lot is at stake in these cases but the emotion of the conflict seems to be the only thing that dictates what happens next.
Are you frustrated with a family or a client in this situation? Don't give up hope altogether. Mediation is one underutilized way to resolve conflicts. You may be able to help your clients by suggesting mediation and finding a good mediator.
What It’s Not
It’s not therapy, not by a long shot. When family members are throwing insults at each other or fomenting estrangement by what they say and do, they probably all should have gone to therapy long ago. But they didn’t or wouldn’t and you now have a mess, often years in the making.
It starts with the help of a trained and qualified mediator who understands conflict resolution principles as a professional. The purpose isn’t to change any individual’s personal traits; rather, it’s to see if the family can come to some rules of engagement on the path to reaching agreements on specific issues. For example, if the parties decide to sell a family business, mediation can help reach agreements as to a time frame, who will direct the sale and what method will be used to liquidate the assets. Focus isn’t on who’s right or wrong. It’s on the tasks at hand. Reaching an agreement about division of authority can be a major step forward.
Based on my own experience over many years of being an advocate at mediation in lawsuits, I saw that most of the time, the matter did get settled by the mediation process.
Role of Mediator
The mediator is neutral to the conflict, rather than being invested in how it turns out. The mediator doesn’t favor one side over the other. No one is a judge. The family mediator has to keep track of multiple parties and what each one wants to get out of it. Training is essential to be effective, as is the right kind of personality to withstand what can sometimes be ugly and unpleasant in the process of working things out. Lawsuits with lawyers for each party can look tame compared to families screaming at each other. At some family mediations, no lawyers are present to keep a client in check. The mediator does it all with unrepresented parties.
I invited my husband, Dr. Mikol Davis, a skilled clinical psychologist, to work with me when I began doing family mediations. I could see that with large families, it was going to get unwieldy to do it alone. It was a fast learning curve for him. He had dealt with family arguments for decades. The two-mediator model works well for us and for families. One of us is always observing what isn’t being said—the facial expressions, body language, subtle signals of how participants feel—and react to what each person is doing.
Family mediations can take a few hours or a few sessions, depending on the number of parties and the complexity of the fighting. Some mediations are by phone or Skype, though most are in person.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of a family mediation is that the underlying emotions that typically drive the conflict can come to the surface in a neutral setting. The mediator guides the discussion and helps each party identify and clarify what they want, guiding them to their own solutions. Generally, this isn’t something they can do on their own. They’re too caught up in resentment, anger, fear or other feelings.
Finding a Mediator
Finding a skilled mediator to do the job may seem like a challenge, but online directories exist. For example on Mediate.com, I found 62 listed as “adult family mediators” in my state. The directories list qualifications and areas of mediation experience.