We then used these interviews to refine the meeting objectives to deal with the additional issues we uncovered. The clients decided that they wanted to encourage a sense of intellectual curiosity and shared learning among family members. Second, they wanted to foster a sense of stewardship and entrepreneurship in the future generations—especially among their grandchildren. Third, they wanted the money to be used to help keep the family together.

In this case, the family meeting was very successful. The carefully crafted agenda, in conjunction with our facilitation of the discussion the clients wanted, softened the sibling dynamics. They communicated with each other and admitted that they never wanted their own children to experience similar tensions. They also expressed their admiration and gratitude for their parents’ decision to use their family wealth to further the education and business ventures of the grandchildren. And, as the clients had hoped, the siblings developed a policy about how the vacation home would be used. They quickly solved the problem that sparked the need for the meeting. We attribute this positive outcome, in part, to our ability to refine the clients’ objectives and design an appropriate agenda.

Role Of The Facilitator
When the family has established a clear objective and the meeting agenda, an outside facilitator or co-facilitator may be helpful. A good facilitator will help ensure that everyone is engaged and contributes to the conversation, will keep track of timing and will assist in handling areas of potential conflict. We often find that younger generations have important insights to share, but may feel their opinions are secondary. A good facilitator will make sure that the younger generation contributes to the conversation. To establish an inclusive tone, some families start the meeting with an exercise to help identify the different communication styles in the room and review the principles behind active listening. Others develop a code of conduct to keep conversations constructive.

A code of conduct typically includes such items as:

• Be punctual and prepared.

• Don’t interrupt.

• Treat disagreement as an opportunity for learning.

• Address issues with the people involved before involving others. 

• Honor the statute of limitations on all specific issues.

When we act as facilitator, we often introduce compelling, low-risk activities to spark fresh insights among family members and enhance communication from one generation to the next. For example, at one family meeting, we asked each person to say something admirable about the person seated on the right. A younger brother turned to his adult sister and told her he had admired her courage as she worked her way through a painful divorce. The brother’s important vote of confidence was surprising and touching—and might not have been shared unless prompted. As a family member said during a break, “These meetings are so important … because we change and we forget to tell each other.”

Donna TrammelL is managing director and director of family wealth stewardship at Bessemer Trust.

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