I’d like to tell you the story of John and his family. Their story demonstrates how difficult it is to change — even when not changing spells catastrophe for both the family and the family business.
John called me for help in dealing with Bruce, his 34-year-old son, who was addicted to alcohol and other drugs. Bruce was causing trouble both at home and at work.
In his personal life, Bruce was in and out of a turbulent and troubled relationship with his drug-addict girlfriend. He’d been arrested for domestic violence. He was rude and insolent toward his mother, degrading to his siblings, and often didn’t show up for family dinners or events. He lived the typical, chaotic lifestyle of an out-of-control addict.
In his business life, Bruce was the vice president of the family company and was positioned to become the president and CEO when John retired. But he often came to work very late — or sometimes not at all — and never let anyone know if he wasn’t going to make it in.
When he did show up, he walked around like a big shot and yelled at employees, putting them down for no reason.
Even though others were counting on him, he didn’t come through on jobs he was responsible for, causing confusion in the office and slowing down production.
Two other family members who worked in the business alongside Bruce and John reported that several longtime employees had threatened to quit because of Bruce’s behavior.
Clearly, disaster was brewing on all fronts.
As we discussed the situation at a family meeting where all adult family members (except Bruce) were present, everyone acknowledged the dire need to initiate significant changes. The well-being of both their family and their business was at stake.
They realized that when there’s an addict running wild, there’s no way to move forward productively until you address that problem first.
They also realized they might not succeed in getting Bruce into the treatment he needed, but that they could make changes in themselves that would interfere with Bruce’s ability to continue his outrageous actions. They knew they needed to learn how to stop enabling Bruce’s addictive behavior and letting him get by with his crazy, destructive lifestyle.
Yet, they hesitated.
They wanted things to be different, but they were reticent to plunge in and make the changes necessary so that things could be different.
It reminded me again how difficult it is to change. And it reminded me of a change model I’ve used many times with clients to help them understand how change really happens.
The Six Stages of Change
According to Virginia Satir, preeminent pioneer in family systems theory, change is a six-stage process, no matter who is involved or what the circumstances are.
You start with a system that is running smoothly — a person, a family, a business — any kind of system. In all stages of change, there are two options: a positive one and a negative one. Even in stage 1, you can either just sit back and be oblivious, blindly enjoying your comfort, or you can take a positive stance and stay vigilant, open to things on the horizon that could come into your system and challenge or upset it.
Inevitably, something will enter your system that will cause disruption: an illness or death, an economic downturn, a conflict in the family, an in-law who doesn’t fit in, a divorce, a business failure. Something is bound to happen because, in this life, the only constant is change.
Once again, you have two choices. You can stick your head in the sand, deny reality, and refuse to acknowledge what’s really happening. Or you can look at the reality and prepare for change. Either way, the disruption seems to have a life of its own. It’s going to continue, so it’s better to prepare for what’s coming.
Chaos is inevitable — at least for a while. Any time your system is disrupted, there is a period of confusion, not knowing, feeling like your world is being turned upside down.
And you can become very scared. You can either panic, freeze, and become paralyzed by fear and stress, or you can move positively. Take a step away — out of the fray — and be willing to examine the situation from all sides.
This is the time to normalize stress. Stress is a normal part of life, in part because change is a normal part of life and change causes stress. The goal is to move into it, not become paralyzed by it.
Into this space, where you are willing to examine the situation, come new ideas. Even in a panic, while you’re rigid with stress, some new ideas squeak through. But when you’re living in a frozen panic, you tend to resist the new ideas and hold on to your old ways of doing things.
We all prefer the familiar. And when something new comes along, even when there’s some hope of it being better, it always feels unfamiliar. Our first impulse is to reject it. But if you can stay in the positive, it gives you and others in your system the opportunity to brainstorm new ideas and envision new possibilities.
Implementation and practice are what solidify your new ideas. Even if you’ve resisted the entire way through, the change is coming, so you might as well embrace it. But the negative person will expect instant perfection. If it isn’t instant, he will look to the past, reminiscing about when things were better, at a time that no longer exists and can never come back, anyway. So it’s futile.
With a positive outlook, you can develop an attitude of practice. You can get support and help for implementing and integrating your new ideas and strengthening your new learnings. You can make room for stumbling and for failure as people begin to practice and learn the new ways. This is what takes you to a new level of functioning.
When you’ve practiced a while and settled into the new way, you begin running smoothly again. Some people sit back and once again blindly enjoy the new comfort. But wise people continue to re-evaluate and to look forward toward where the next disruption might come from. They create stability by letting everyone know that things are going well. But they also remind the others in their system that disruption and change are a part of life. And they encourage them to prepare for the next change by staying open, flexible, and willing to face whatever comes their way.
Changing Family Patterns
Let’s compare John, his addicted son Bruce, and their change-resistant family with another family I’ve recently consulted with. During the process of helping this family establish their family council, they openly admitted they were afraid of conflict. It had been a deeply embedded family characteristic to avoid problems of every sort by either turning their backs or delegating the issues to a paid employee. They wanted nothing to do with trouble — either on the family or the family business front.
Within the first year of coming together in their newly formed self-governance system, one of the siblings dug up an old hurt and presented it to the family council with the hope that they would finally resolve it for him.
The first impulse of the family council was to back away — perfectly in line with the old family patterns — and to tell that sibling that the problem was not theirs. It really belonged to him and he should either solve it on his own behalf or live with it. They feared opening the proverbial “can of worms” and doing more damage than good.
I reminded them that one of their stated goals in their family council charter was to handle family conflicts and promote family harmony. Courageously, they took up the challenge and committed to changing the several-generations-long habit of trying to avoid conflict.
It was an enormous change for the family members. They felt the disruption when the sibling dumped his problem on them. They experienced the chaos of not knowing what to do and fearing their family would be torn apart by taking on this project.
But they willingly and openly brainstormed new ideas for how to become a liaison between the troubled parties. Not to become involved, but to create the bridge so the disgruntled family members could talk and work through their differences.
They implemented totally new strategies and practiced with each other so they would not fall into their old, unhealthy ways. They respectfully gave each other feedback to make sure they were saying and doing things right.
The story is not over. This family is still working toward running smoothly. But the path has been greatly widened, and the forecast looks very promising.
Here’s a quote from one of the family members after they had gone through this change process:
‘There’s just a kind of gorgeous symmetry to the fact that, because of this journey we have undertaken, we have become much more empowered to give voice to our own perceptions, values, and truths. This process has, in the end, allowed more room for everyone to be where they are and to express themselves without judgment… we are healing an already powerful legacy in profound ways. I see this healing affecting our lineage and the world, healing the wounds of the past, opening tremendous possibilities for a brilliant and beautiful future. And making the present so much more fun.”
Change is difficult. And it’s risky, because you can never be sure what lies on the other side. But once you and your family are able to make a positive change, it’s something to be proud of. And it gives you confidence that you can do it again, even though the next situation may be totally different.
Making changes as your family grows and expands and as circumstances shift is vital to the long-term success of your family. You simply have to become comfortable with shifting gears, changing directions, staying flexible —as well as with adjusting to new people, new ideas, and new attitudes. Not changing your core values, but changing habits, family patterns, and ways of doing things when the old ones no longer produce positive results.
Problems and conflicts don’t go away on their own. Instead, they tend to fester and grow. Economic difficulties don’t solve themselves. Even grief doesn’t resolve without doing the painful work of mourning.
Relationship troubles don’t just melt away. People have to be willing to look at themselves and confront the things that aren’t right.
It’s tough out there. As a family, you have to be ready to address things you may never have imagined you’d be faced with. You cannot ignore the need for change. If you do, things will get worse. It requires courage and commitment. But how well you can embrace change predicts, in large part, how well your family will fare over the long haul.
© Joanne Stern, PhD. All rights reserved. Originally published in the Bonner & Partners Family Office Strategic Review, Volume 4, Issue 3, March 2016 • www.bonnerfamilyoffice.com