Working with business families, there are always areas that are ripe for potential conflicts. I know that I have certain traits that lend themselves well to diplomacy, but I had never attended even a single course that was aimed specifically at dispute resolution.
For over a year, I have wanted to fill this void, and during the past couple of weeks, I have immersed myself into the area quite deeply, taking 2 courses, or workshops, each lasting 4 days.
The courses that I took were given by the Stitt-Feld-Handy-Group, out of Toronto. Due to the scheduling and the timing, I enrolled in their workshops in Ottawa, where I took both their ADR Workshop and their Advanced ADR Workshop.
Before leaving for the course, I decided to tell my kids that I would be attending a course on Alternative Dispute Resolution, hoping that they would ask the question, “Alternative to what?” because when I first heard that term years ago, that was my first question. Unfortunately, they did not seem to care enough to ask, and did not even seem thrilled when I answered the question for them.
Of course the expression evolved from the desire to find a way to avoid going to court, so ADR came about as an altenative to the long and costly way of solving disputes through traditional legal channels.
In the realm of family business, the disputes that do make it to the courts are relatively rare, but they do make for great stories, albeit almost always very sad ones, that most families would want to avoid. My grandfather apparently used to say that the worst negotiated solution is better than the best court judgment.
When I say “apparently”, that is because I never really heard these words from him, but I cannot tell you how often my father passed this wisdom on to me. I, in turn, try to pass as much wisdom down to my kids, and I like to think some of it is getting through, even if they often seem disinterested.
One thing that I have learned so far is that ADR is often just an acronym that means mediation in one form or another. The first course started with lots of negotiation exercises, because, as was pointed out to us, a mediation most often is nothing more than a facilitated negotiation.
I thought that was pretty cool, because I love negotiation, and I like to believe that I have some facilitation skills. In fact, towards the end of the second workshop, the exercises became much more than one-on-one plus a mediator, but instead involved co-mediators and multi-party scenarios.
In most family scenarios, coming in as an outsider, the skills that an advisor needs to rely on are facilitation, coaching, and mediation. Facilitation is mostly about running meetings, improving communication, and concentrating on relationships. Coaching is more of a “one-on-one” process, helping people find new perspectives and ways to contribute to the whole. Mediation is not always required, especially where there is no presenting conflict issue, but the skills of mediation are certainly helpful in many large family situations.
What the workshops made me think about also, was that many families do not give enough thought to this related question: “What is the alternative to NOT resolving the dispute?” If there is a dispute, is it better to just let it fester, in the hopes it will go away, or should you at least try to resolve the issue?
Avoiding conflict is not always the best solution, even when it feels like the most obvious and the easiest.
But when looking at the timing component, it is usually better to take a shot at resolving issues when you are not under the gun, because when time becomes one of the constraints, your range of options usually closes down very quickly. In those cases, ADR can be your best choice.