Love may not keep us together: Working collaboratively to advise family firms.


Reaching for Greater Heights: Collaborations between a family business advisor and a family therapist
David Bentall and Peter Vaughan
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In my work as a family business advisor, I have had numerous opportunities to collaborate with a registered clinical counsellor who specializes in family therapy. Working together, we have enjoyed a powerful synergy of combined experience. More importantly, our clients have benefited from our different perspectives and complementary skills.

We recently explored a simple, but important question: “When should a family seek the input of a family therapist?” Upon consideration, two related questions emerged: “What is the true value of doing so?” and “How can a combination of skills assist families to achieve a breakthrough?”

Virtually every opportunity comes “wrapped in a problem,” as all entrepreneurs will recognize. A family business is no different. The six problems below give us a glimpse into family business dynamics and some of the opportunities they afford. In addition, we have noted the creative solutions we have discovered by working collaboratively. Sometimes the rewards were easily obtained, like low hanging fruit. However, even when the fruit was high up and out on a limb, it was always worth reaching for.


Problem:  One client family we worked with could not agree on whether to have their family meetings on weekends, or during the week.

Opportunity:  Most of us become frustrated when simple problems are hard to solve. We have learned that curiosity, rather than frustration, is the most effective response. As an added bonus, it tends to bring forth honesty.

One Solution:  We slowed things down with our client family and asked the question: “What is really going on behind this simple challenge?” Then we started to hear compelling stories of stress, anxiety and hope from the family. One sister wanted to meet on the weekend so she could focus on the meeting, worried that she would otherwise be distracted by the demands of the business. Her brother needed it to be during the week, as he had committed to being at his son’s sports games. He teared up, remembering his own pride as a child when his dad attended one of his games. Once these important needs were shared, everyone relaxed, started to smile, and rolled up their sleeves to solve the timing issue.


PROBLEM:  We once worked with two brothers who were constantly ‘at odds’ with each other, impeding the work and dynamics of the whole family.

Opportunity:  Working with siblings is very interesting. They come from the same DNA, but they are so different from one another. Their perspectives, needs and concerns can be radically opposing. We have learned from the work of Dr. John Gottman (internationally renowned marriage and family researcher) that when faced with radical differences between family members, there is an opportunity to react in one of two ways. The first is to acknowledge the differences, calling them “perfectly normal and expected,” but to be not particularly concerned with addressing them. The second response is to address the family members directly, letting them know this problem is not one to be taken lightly.

One Solution:  We helped our client family to start to pay attention to the ‘way’ they were communicating, as opposed to the ‘what’ of their discussions. According to Gottman’s research, the first three minutes of a disagreement predict its outcome with over 90% accuracy. In other words, a good start predicts a good outcome. It is not difficult to identify helpful characteristics of a ‘good start’. They include:  expressions of good will; specific, rather than generalized complaints; references to past successes; and the provision of clear options for moving forward. With a good start, the pair of brothers we worked with was able to develop new patterns of communication. Even though some differences remained regarding business strategy, with better communications, new solutions began to emerge.


PROBLEM:  One sibling group spent years talking about what to do with their deceased parents’ home. Some wanted to sell it; others wanted to keep it as it is and simply enjoy it. An interesting phenomenon arose in the conversations between siblings. Virtually every difficult conversation between siblings, whether about money, position within the business, where the annual retreat would be, etc., always came back to “what to do with the home”.

Opportunity:  For experienced advisors, an opportunity like this one is a real delight. They can now make a profound difference in this family’s life by using the “power of leverage”. By leveraging one issue, we can help the family leaps and bounds with other issues that arise. The key question is “What is the issue?” as often it has both nothing and everything to do with the topic at hand.

One Solution:  This family was greatly helped upon discovering that their family home was not a problem to be solved, but a symbol to be honoured. “What to do with the home” was a symbol of ongoing tension in this family between longing for the good old days versus longing for a new and exciting future.  It was a symbol of choosing and respecting their parents’ legacy versus empowering the next generation to live out their vision. In the end, the family decided to renovate the home and rent it out to dear family friends. For them, this honoured yesterday, while acknowledging tomorrow. Not surprisingly, addressing this “past vs. future” competition spilled into new solutions for the many other problems the family faced. They leveraged the symbol, and moved mountains.


PROBLEM:  In one family we encountered a pattern, which is not uncommon. Mom was the ‘Chief Emotional Officer’ (focused on family relations), and dad was the ‘Chief Executive Officer’ (focused on the business). As a result, they often had very different criteria for defining success.

Opportunity:  Not unlike our discussion of the power of symbols, this is a competition between two good and essential elements for every business family: Successful relationships and successful business. But if a couple are each specializing in, and advocating for only one side of the coin, this often results in a loss of the original vision and excitement that brought them together.  The opportunity is for the couple to rediscover one another.

One Solution:  Our family client desired success in both family relations and business performance. To help reach for these twin goals, we encouraged this couple to temporarily place the business issues aside, and enjoy one another. Because the husband was always working late supporting the business, and his wife was caught up in supporting the kids, somewhere along the way they forgot to support one another. Simply by reconnecting, the couple was helped to recover a healthy balance in their family life.


PROBLEM:  In a family business client we encountered, sometimes conflicts between the parents were poorly resolved, resulting in harmful implications for the rest of the family. This triggered the triangulation (unhelpful involvement) of other family members in the conflict. Over time, because the triangulation continued unabated, the family became divided into teams or coalitions with competing interests. These powerful and divisive dynamics needed to be addressed, in order for the family to prosper.

Opportunity:  Dr. Salvador Minuchin is the founding father of Structural Family Therapy. He shares that not only can families get incredibly stuck, but that families are very resilient and also far more flexible than they realize. He is also a master in understanding the “leveraging” power of a symbol.

One Solution:  When a family is split down the middle on some controversy, watch where they sit and who they sit next to. Then watch them do it exactly the same at the next meeting. To help break this pattern, and the related coalitions, we simply changed who sits next to whom, and it helped break the simple unwritten rules of who talks to whom. For many families this simple shift allows new conversations, and inspires new opportunities.


PROBLEM:  Working with one family, it was clear to us that they were conflict avoidant because they were genuinely very nice people, and didn’t want to offend. This is a fascinating, and surprisingly common problem facing many ‘very polite’ families.

OPPORTUNITY:  Why is this an opportunity?  Because both research and logic show that successful complaining leads to both successful problem solving and better friendship. Therefore, without the complaint, the problem is felt but not articulated, and the friendship doesn’t grow. We see a very powerful correlation between conflict avoidance, and a lack of emotional connection. Both contribute to a lack of creativity and synergy. As a result, there is a startling opportunity awaiting every conflict avoidant family. Finding effective and relationally intelligent ways to bring complaints to the table is an almost guaranteed way of building connection, releasing creativity in problem-solving and reducing stress.

One Solution: With these conflict-shy folks, we encouraged them to define complaining as an act of friendship. Rather than being afraid of opening up a can of worms, we invited them to see a challenging topic as a jar of honey. At the same time we also worked to legitimize the anxiety about hurting one another’s feelings, which helped to inspire courage.

By encouraging these family members to say “thank you” when they receive a complaint, we were helping them to genuinely be thankful for the feedback, and to learn a new way of relating. The joy and relief of putting words to these “hard to share” observations and feelings, will be reward enough for most families to be able to take the next step, and to be able to begin addressing the concerns raised.


Earlier in my career, as an advisor to families in business, I phoned my co-author because I was afraid that I might “do harm” to a family I was working with. They had bigger relational problems than I was comfortable with, and I wanted help from a therapist!

He bolstered my confidence when he explained that: “Families are amazingly resilient. Unlike fine china, they don’t break easily”. Armed with this knowledge, over the past decade, I have had the confidence to dive into the deep end, and to help families swim to safety on more than one occasion. As a result, I have discovered that sometimes there is “low hanging fruit” which is ripe for the picking, as long as I have the courage to reach for it. Consequently, I am not an advisor who is always worried that the sky is falling, if the family is having some emotional or relational challenges.

Nonetheless, sometimes the fruit is high up and out on a limb, and not available to me on my own. In these circumstances, I have found that the collaboration with a family therapist can be a powerful, enjoyable, and innovative. Together, we have been able to assist families to face their problems in new and brave ways. It has been a delight to see many of them discovering the opportunities and solutions that await them. We have been honoured to play a supportive role; however, ultimately it has been our clients who have demonstrated the courage to reach for greater heights.

About the Contributors :

Bentall, DavidDavid C. Bentall is founder of Next Step Advisors Inc. in Vancouver, BC, and a graduate of UBC’s Commerce Faculty and Harvard’s Business School. He is an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia (in the Business Families Centre). For twenty years, he worked in his family’s real estate and construction businesses. During his years as president and CEO of Dominion Construction, the business doubled in size to just under $300 million in sales. David can be reached at [email protected]

Vaughan, PeterPeter Vaughan has provided over 29,000 hours of therapy to families, individuals and couples since 1982, as well as ongoing and extensive consultation, coaching and training to professionals, family groups, businesses and organizations since 1990. With a special interest in assisting business families, Peter’s M.A. in counseling psychology specialized in systemic theory and practice. Peter is the principal of West Vancouver Therapy, co-founder of TGIM Group Inc. and Greater Vancouver Therapy Inc. and previous Executive Director of Burnaby Counseling Group. Peter can be reached at [email protected].

Don’t miss FFI Practitioner next week when James Olan Hutcheson catches up with Christopher Kennedy Lawford, who is on a national book tour for his newly released book, Recover to Live. Chris and Jim discuss addiction, recovery methods and the impact on the family business. 

Yours in Practice,

The Practitioner