Siblings who have inherited a family business approach me for help. Each makes a case for why the other siblings shouldn’t have power, shouldn’t be trusted, and are damaging the business. They are, of course, playing out a lifetime of wounds not forgotten.
Their coalitions change and morph, several against one, then several others against a different one. They are playing out decades of frustration with each other and while they maneuver and fight, their business is in ever deeper trouble.
This sibling conflict has been going on for several years now. They are intertwined and stuck like a Chinese wood knot, one of those interlocking puzzles where some pieces hold other pieces fast.
They use the past like a weapon in their conflict. They use it to justify the way they feel and act. They use it to embarrass and threaten each other. They use it to build alliances. They feel comforted when certain employees take their side, friends in hostile territory, even though the alliances repeatedly prove only temporary. Employees quit or try to distance themselves from the fray.
The siblings are well defended and well stuck, their past-focused habits deeply entrenched. At one level, they are enjoying the fight, even while it is destroying the business their forefathers built from nothing.
We can consider these siblings and intuit quickly that their past is holding them fast. We can see clearly that to unlock the Chinese wood knot of their conflict they must turn away from the past long enough to glimpse a possible future.
It is not so hard to see what others must do when held fast by the past. It is harder to see the same for ourselves, to turn willfully away from what has happened in order to face forward. My forthcoming book, The Conflict Pivot, is intended to help us do just that.