Family Drama

10 Tips to Help You Deal With Family Drama
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As an attorney-mediator who helps resolve messy sibling and intergenerational family money and property conflicts, my work can be challenging. Even so, I faced an even harder task -- and was called upon to "walk the walk" of my approach to resolving family financial conflicts -- when one of my own siblings faced a difficult crisis. All of the ingredients for explosive family disputes were there, including issues of fault, shared obligations, and duties of generosity. The resolution process brought us to the precipice of all varieties of emotional cliffs, hard feelings, and festering resentments. Yet, while the final outcome is not fully in place, it looks like we are emerging with our love and concern for each other intact. No one has cut off communication, no lawsuits have been filed, and we are happily planning our next family get-together.

Reflecting on this drama, I've compiled ten tips for managing extended-family financial conflicts. They parallel the advice I give to clients and the strategies I invoke as a mediator, and I hope they'll be useful to you if you face a similar situation.

1. Gather Information First, Offer Advice Second

Family troubles can bring out the best and the worst in loving relatives. In my family culture, offering advice before it's asked for is the norm, but never before did I realize how unhelpful this can be. We started receiving e-mails with explicit plans for solving the problems before anyone had learned any of the details, and definitely before anyone asked for advice. Suggestions can be useful if offered at the right time, but even then, they should be just that: suggestions, not imperious dictates.

Gathering information isn't just about assembling facts; it's also about understanding each person's perspective. Listening to a rambling narrative can be frustrating, but it also can be a window into the speaker's thinking -- rational or not. Many folks tell their story in a distorted manner, but we need to hear that personal version in order to learn what suggestions would be useful.

2. Give It Time, as It Takes Time

Most of my family lives east of California, so they were usually ready to start talking before I was awake. Fortunately, they were considerate enough to wait until I was ready to talk, and talk we did. Some weeks it seemed that every morning commenced with two hours of counseling, exploring, evaluating, and strategizing.

Time is what these situations take, especially if the issues are complicated. Some folks need repeated explanations in order to process the issues. It's about paying attention to everyone, especially those who are in trouble. Of course, there will be moments when it's totally appropriate to say, "Get to the point" -- or to ask to reschedule a conversation because you have work to do or a family member or pet to attend to. But if you can make the time to let the full stories emerge, tensions will reduce dramatically and solutions will more readily appear.

3. Allow for Idiosyncratic Modes of Information Processing

As a lawyer, I tend to focus on the substantive questions: who should pay what, who should do what, when should something be done. If someone misunderstands something, I simply repeat the story until he or she does understand. But in fact, we each have our own way of processing reality, and when we are under stress -- even those of us who are not 90 years old -- our capacities are limited. Those who are older, disabled in any way, or feeling accused or blamed often are limited in their ability to take in new information and organize their thoughts.

Experts on cognitive abilities describe capacity by taking into account not just someone's physiological state but also his or her emotional state and mode of communication. My mother may do an excellent job at describing a book she's read, but she finds it much harder to process a financial crisis, and she may need to hear the story in person rather than over the phone or by e-mail. For some, the only way to really take in new and complex information is in a private conversation, not in a group discussion.

Managing the decision-making process requires a customized information-delivery system approach, with due attention to the limitations of each participant. As frustrating as it can be, you'll need to repeat some stories before the anxious and concerned listener is able to comprehend the news. But if the goal is to reach consensus and rational decision making with all family members participating, this time-consuming process cannot be avoided.

4. Manage Your Judgments Productively

One of my favorite writers on human relationships, David Richo, reminds us that part of being human is forming judgments -- so it's unrealistic to try to avoid having any, as if we could suddenly morph into a Buddha-like openness and tolerance of all souls. This is especially so when it comes to family members -- the histories are too deep, the recollections and resentments too powerful. But, again quoting Richo, it may be possible to manage one's judgments in a productive way: When it comes to the key conversations, don't ask "Why?" Instead, ask, "How can I help?"

The key is to find the right time and place for your judgments. This is tricky, because complaining to a third person can inflame the dynamics. Usually it makes most sense to talk with someone who isn't engaged in the core discussion -- a friend rather than another relative, or a professional such as a therapist. Other times it requires a gentle deferral of a request for help: It's better to say, "I can't be helpful to you today" and leave it at that, rather than dumping your judgments on the needy one just when they are at their most vulnerable.

A skill we're taught as mediators is translating judgment into a question. Instead of proclaiming that the decision to quit a job seems stupid and self-destructive, it's better to express concern in a question: "It's hard for me to understand what motivated you to quit your job at this delicate time in your family's finances; could you explain it so that I have a better understanding of what motivated your decision?" Then be open to accept the response and not criticize it -- or next time you won't get any answers to your questions!

5. Engage the Extended Family

Inevitably, in every family mediation process, the issue of the in-laws surfaces. Whether it's a spouse or an unmarried partner, chances are there is a chorus of "outsiders" who have opinions and want to be included in the conversations. Rarely is it effective to lock them out as nonfamily members; at the same time, one must balance the need for including these voices with an equally valid concern for maintaining the integrity of the inner family circle. This can be particularly difficult when there are hard feelings against a particular spouse.

The answer is found in a managed series of communication strategies. I usually start with an "inner circle" meeting as a preliminary strategy session, or with a series of separate phone conversations. We discuss the role of the spouses and craft an approach that includes them. Remember, in many families the spouse has been hearing the embattled family member's complaints for years and may feel the need to stand up for him or her. Or siblings may prefer to let their spouses take the hard positions, distancing themselves in discussions but privately pleased to hear their significant other taking a stand.

Try to avoid creating a situation that pits a family member against his or her own spouse or partner or suggests that a family resolution depends on the rejection of a spouse's perspective. Instead, make it clear that there is a core team that has priority in exchanging information and making decisions, but the periphery will not be ignored in designing and implementing the overall solution.

6. Communicate Honestly, but With Restraint

Another lesson we learn as mediators is how to reframe statements, conveying the central import of the message but taking out the sting of the delivery. Instead of saying, "I can't bear seeing how irresponsible you've been in how you've managed your life," it's better to say, "As I'm sure you can understand, the difficulties you've endured are hard for me to watch, given that I care about what happens to you." One of the major tasks of a mediator is to listen to the complaints of each party, reframe the statements in ways that the others can hear, and facilitate a conversation that is constructive and solution oriented.

Honesty means not telling a lie, but it doesn't require telling the entire story, either -- and it certainly doesn't preclude a healthy dose of diplomacy. Over and over again I had to practice this lesson, as I went back and forth in the discussions with my own family. I certainly didn't do a perfect job -- at times I revealed too much at the wrong time or included a detail that was unnecessarily provocative. But I always tried to find the right balance.

Managing the conversation is a form of power that has to be used judiciously. Resentments can flare up if someone feels you're withholding the full story, and it's not helpful to mask the truth just because you think it's going to be hard to deliver the message. That's why I always tried to explain why I wasn't conveying certain information, so that everyone felt I was being appropriate and not abusing my role. Sometimes it's necessary to set boundaries of confidentiality even within a mediation, especially if one of the parties turns to the mediator as a coach to air concerns that they aren't ready to disclose to the other parties. Indeed, allowing such internal confidentiality is part of the typical "contract" for mediation, and it's a healthy practice that can be used productively in resolving family financial conflicts.

7. Pay Attention to the Mode of Communication

I sometimes encourage clients to send old-fashioned handwritten letters to convey sensitive information, for three reasons. First, written expressions convey the personal nature of the missive, which is helpful in tapping the emotional core of the family connection. Second, a letter slows down the communication -- the receiver has to wait at least a few moments before rushing over to the computer to send a response. And third, a letter stays on the desk rather than remaining hidden in the recipient's hard drive, thus minimizing the likelihood of it being ignored over time.

Interestingly, a recent study has shown that if someone sending an e-mail has a photo of a person pasted on to their computer screen -- any person at all, not necessarily the intended recipient -- the tone of their e-mail is less adversarial. Indeed, although one of the reasons folks like e-mail is because they can assert their positions without being interrupted -- not even by a negative facial expression -- such "freedom" to speak without interruption can be highly destructive when it leads to exaggerated emotions and unchecked pontification.

Phone calls often are better for delivering sensitive messages: They allow for an interaction and an informality that can be helpful, and they can't be "forwarded" to an army of supporters minutes after the conversation. But generally, an in-person discussion is the best for resolving family conflicts, even when the geography of far-flung families makes this difficult.

The key is to be mindful about the communication process. Here are a few guidelines to keep the process from derailing:

  • Pay attention to the mode of communicating, and have an open discussion with everyone as to their preferences.

  • Whenever possible, schedule the conversations in advance rather than striking up a sensitive exchange just when your sibling is sitting down for dinner or dealing with a sick child.

  • Also try to develop a specific agenda for each meeting in advance, so that no one is surprised by the topics and everyone has a chance to be prepared.

  • If in-person meetings don't work, conference calls can be effective, since they require advance scheduling and can include all the concerned parties.

  • If you're using e-mail to carry on extensive conversations, be careful about forwarding and copying e-mails to others -- especially if the e-mail chain includes sensitive discussions that you didn't intend to share.

  • If you need to engage in e-mail discussions of complicated issues, consider using an application such as Google documents that allows you to retain the correspondence and comment constructively on each other's statements.

8. Engage Professionals Wisely

Sometimes it's prudent to bring in an outside professional -- an attorney, therapist, or mediator -- to help resolve difficult impasses or simply to structure the family process. Our family situation didn't need outside help, but I regularly monitored the situation to be sure.

This strategy usually involves deciding what sort of professional expertise you're looking for and the specific assignment you're giving to that person. Often families will turn to an accountant, financial planner, or social worker to help with a technical task, such as an estate tax return or a care-taking plan for an elder relative. They may not want to face the reality that what they actually need, as a family, is mediation or counseling services, but over time, these deeper needs surface. Occasionally the hired professional will be able to assist in this other role, simply by dint of personality or concern, but generally it's better to be up front about what's needed and to hire the appropriate professional for the job.

9. Keep Your Eye on the Long-Term Goals

It isn't easy to keep your long-term goals in mind in the middle of a nasty argument with siblings or a discussion about the financial future of a parent or child. But it's essential to do just that, and not get sidetracked by every immediate challenge. Family members are likely to be around for decades -- or for generations. Long-standing conflicts shape family cultures and patterns of interaction; ignoring concerns can set a pattern of disregard that's highly destructive over time. Cruel responses or judgmental proclamations can create wounds that take decades, if ever, to heal.

10. Take Care of Yourself

Few of us qualify as saints, so it's important to recognize that even the most loving caretaker needs some nurturing to keep going. Whether you are one of a team of caring relatives or are the primary family mediator, don't neglect your own needs. Some days that means postponing a phone call so you can focus on your own family or job -- but be sure to ask explicitly rather than to simply fail to reply. Requests for cross-country travel to attend a family meeting need to be carefully considered in light of your own family needs and financial and time constraints.

I found myself needing to be regularly "refueled" as I was helping my own family this year. For instance, one day I spent at a local Buddhist retreat center, attending a class on compassion and judgment and caretaking -- skills I definitely needed for family challenges. I tried to make sure that our phone calls happened first thing in the morning so they didn't unduly interrupt my workday obligations. I confided in my partner and a group of close friends about the challenges we were facing so that I'd be sure to have my own support system in place.

Navigating a family financial crisis isn't easy, and there can be long-term harm to family relationships if the emotional dynamics aren't managed in a thoughtful manner. Even if you aren't the professional mediator, try your best to approach the challenges as if you were -- chances are the outcomes will be far more favorable on both the financial and the emotional levels.

Frederick Hertz

Frederick Hertz has more than thirty years experience as a real estate and family lawyer, with a practice based in the San Francisco Bay Area. See full bio