Restoring What Is Broken

By Kim Farris-Luke

Some of the saddest stories I hear from colleagues in the funeral care business are related to fractures within families whose work relationships have impacted their familial ones. Our own family business has caused strife amongst my relatives through the years. I can empathize with the pain many of them feel.

Avoiding important, emotional conversations is common in families, so it’s no surprise that it’s common in family businesses. A colleague of mine shared his own experience. He worked in his family business for many years prior to another brother joining the family firm. When their parents passed away within a year of each other, my friend was stunned to learn that the ownership of the company had been left solely to his brother, the one who had only been with the company for a short time. My friend felt quite wounded and full of questions – why had he been excluded? Had he disappointed his parents in some way or did they not trust him? Had his brother somehow manipulated the parents into writing the will in the brother’s favor? So many difficult questions could have been alleviated had the parents taken time to talk to their children beforehand.

Another colleague spoke to me about the frustration she had about her cousin being considered her equal in the family business because their parents shared ownership 50-50. My friend is a licensed professional with a business degree, while her cousin has no training in funeral service and does odd jobs around the facility. Equal status with equal pay for very unequal responsibilities, all because their fathers do not want to discuss their children’s roles. My colleague has developed strong feelings of resentment toward her cousin and her uncle, yet she follows her father’s lead by not talking about how she feels. Leaving doesn’t seem like a viable option because she is committed to her community and her career, so she continues her work under stressful conditions with no end in sight.

Each of these situations could have been handled in a healthier manner if the interested parties were able to express their opinions or concerns without fear of repercussions. As business partners, the lines between family members often blur as children defer to their parents and siblings fall back into patterns of behavior reflective of childhood dynamics. Are our family ties so fragile that we fear they cannot withstand honest, difficult conversations? Think about some other important relationship in your life, like a close friendship. My acquaintances usually see me at my best, with a smile on my face and a pleasant demeanor. But my closest friends see the true me, including my mistakes and bad moods, and they accept me anyway. Shouldn’t we be able to speak our truth in our family businesses and trust that we will be heard? Tamping down our feelings typically leads to an explosion of emotion later, and that’s when bonds can break.

Is there hope for restoration? I believe so, even as I am immersed in challenges with my own family business. Strong personalities and differing visions for the future have given rise to some emotional exchanges between my brothers and me. When emotions flare, we tend to dig in our heels and fail to accomplish anything productive. One thing that has helped is bringing in a third party to act as a mediator when the conflict has escalated beyond our ability to reach compromise on our own. Those meetings still tend to be emotional but having a voice of reason encouraging us to see the others’ viewpoints has been very constructive.

As someone with a peacemaker personality, it is quite difficult for me to sit in the hard place of unresolved conflict. But there’s freedom in acknowledging that my way is not always the best or only way. In some issues our family will never see eye to eye, so I choose to acknowledge that truth and not continue to pursue compromise. Setting that boundary has helped me release my family members from expectations I had for them that they never could understand or meet.

If your family business is facing the risk of broken relationships, it may be due to broken lines of communication. I encourage you to seek ways to build a bridge toward restoration. Reach out. Listen. Invite a trusted guide into the conversation when needed. And speak up respectfully. Your perspective matters, too.

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