Culture, communication and conflict

  1. Introduction

In Preparing Heirs,[1] Williams and Preisser report research which suggests that, of the 70% of wealth transition plans that fail (you may want to rewind and read that statistic again if you’re not familiar with it), 60% of those failures are due to a breakdown of trust and communication within the family, and a further 25% to a failure to prepare the next generation for what is to come; itself, I would suggest, a symptom of failed communication.

Numbers of studies confirm that one of the keys to the successful management of family wealth across generations is to “communicate, communicate, communicate”[2] and some suggest that without good communication, governance structures can provide a false sense of security, with predictable results.[3]

I would just add that, in my experience, the difference between conflict managed constructively (which can be a powerful agent for invention and innovation) and conflict managed destructively (which is utterly corrosive of everything it touches) is the effectiveness of the communication between those involved.

This chapter examines why we find effective communication so difficult, and considers what we might do to improve the situation.


  1. We are family[4]

Speaking at a conference recently, Ken McKracken[5] referred to the “natural governance” that keeps families and their enterprises functioning as “the way we do things around here”.  That struck a chord with me because Joanna Kalowski,[6] who first taught me intercultural mediation, uses exactly the same phrase to define ‘culture’, and I have long believed that every family has its own (micro) culture.  If you don’t believe me, think about the first time you celebrated a significant festival with someone else’s family (I suspect that of a first serious girl, or boy, friend); didn’t they do everything wrong?  Sorry … differently?

So, if ‘we’ are those who do things in a particular way, how do we define our family ‘in-group’?  Who is family?

For some, it is the nuclear family (parents and children) that is most important.  For others it is the extended family, and that can extend a very long way indeed, perhaps taking in all blood relatives, however remote.  I almost used the term ‘me and mine’ in relation to the nuclear family, but that would be wrong; to those whose concept of family is extended, ‘mine’ inevitably includes all of those relations.  Indeed, it is interesting that some ethnic West African languages, and perhaps others, have no words for ‘auntie’, ‘uncle’ or ‘cousin’, using ‘mother’, ‘father’, ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ instead.[7]

What of marriage?  In some cultures it is a joining of families so that, where extended family is the norm, each marriage may increase family size by an order of magnitude.  Elsewhere, marriage means a change of family, generally for the bride who may leave her parents’ family (physically and economically, if not emotionally) and join her husband’s, likely taking on the care of her in-laws in place of that of her parents.[8]  For others, bloodline is all, and in-laws are not really regarded as family proper.

Religion too may play a part, with conversion, apostasy or ‘marrying out’ potentially having an impact on family membership as witness, for example, the UK’s Act of Settlement 1701 (an early family constitution?), which provided that the English throne would pass to the Electress Sophia of Hanover and her Protestant descendants who had not married a Roman Catholic.

All of which is to say nothing of the interesting consequences of divorce and remarriage and the relationships that gives rise to; same sex relationships; or the impact of adoption – not least the Japanese practice of adult adoption, sometimes credited for the longevity of Japanese family businesses.[9]

The point is that there is no one fixed meaning of ‘family’, no Platonic ideal form of which the families we deal with are mere shadows.  Each family defines its own in-group, its own ‘way of doing’, and those of us who work with them must take care not to assume that our clients share our sense of family, or to project on to them the expressed norms of the broader society in which we live.


  1. Who’s there?[10]

We are each the product of our genes, of our environment, of our experience and, seemingly, of an element of randomness.[11]  Does nature or nurture predominate?  Perhaps inevitably, it is not that simple.

Our genes, our DNA sequence, is fixed, but how certain genes express themselves, whether they are switched on or not, turns out to depend on our experience[12] and, in no small part, on our interactions with one another (particularly those with our primary carers during our formative years – typically up to the age of seven), and that state of expression can be passed on to our children.

Research by Nisbett and Miyamoto[13] suggests that we acquire our initial attentional patterns, the way we see the world, through those early socialisation processes, which both reflect the norms of the culture in which we grow up and, in turn, contribute to the ‘default’ neural firing patterns that are characteristic of that culture; a positive feedback loop.

Those patterns reflect in our personality traits.  Siegel and colleagues[14] suggest that each of us tends to focus predominantly on one of the following aspects of new situations and relationships:

  • right versus wrong, errors and mistakes;
  • other peoples’ needs and desires;
  • tasks, goals and achievements;
  • that which is missing or longed for;
  • potential intrusion by, and demands of, others, especially regarding time, space and knowledge;
  • potential hazards and worst case scenarios and how to deal with them;
  • positive or pleasurable options and opportunities, with a general emphasis on planning;
  • injustices and the need for control or assertiveness; or
  • maintaining harmony with one’s physical and social environment.

Those traits, in turn, reflect in our learning preferences (do we tend, for example, to ask why? how? what? or what if?);[15] in our communication styles (are we high or low context communicators, literal or metaphorical; are we visual, aural or kinaesthetic?); in our approach to conflict (do we tend to compete, appease, walk away or mediate?); in our priorities when faced with conflict (substance, process, relationships or identity/face);[16] and so on.

Moreover, our attentional patterns appear to determine not just how we perceive the world, but what we perceive.  Nisbett & Miyamato note, among other things, that:

People in Western culture have been found to organise objects by   emphasizing rules and categories and to focus on salient objectsi ndependent from the context, whereas people in East Asian cultures are more inclined to attend to the context and to the relationship between objects and the context … [Research] suggests that participating in particular social practices leads to chronic differences in perceptual processes.[17]

How we perceive the world also determines how we describe it to others, as witness, for example, the West African use of the word for ‘mother’ to refer to a biological aunt, referred to above, and the fact that: “Russians find it odd that an Englishman uses the same basic term for light blue (Russian: golubuy) and dark blue (siniy).”[18]

Having said all that, it is also now clear that our brains retain their plasticity, and continue to be rewired by our subsequent experiences, throughout our lives,[19] and it appears that individual attentional patterns may be temporarily affected by “priming with different cultural cues,”[20] such as by living, studying or working abroad.

Since no two of us have identical life experiences (even identical twins are treated differently by their parents), it would seem to follow that no two of us see – or describe – the world the same way, which might at least begin to explain why we sometimes find it difficult to communicate as well as we would like.


  1. Life itself is the most wonderful fairytale of all[21]

If we are all so different, how does a family (any group for that matter) become a cohesive whole?

To borrow from Iain McGilchrist,[22] families are not utilitarian relationships but are “based on felt connection and cultural continuity”.  According to Geert and Gert Jan Hofstede,[23] culture manifests itself in shared symbols (words, gestures, pictures or objects that carry a particular meaning only recognised as such by those that share the culture, here family members), heroes (whether living or dead, real or imaginary, who possess characteristics prized in the culture and so serve as role models), rituals (collective activities that are superfluous to reaching desired ends but which the family regards as socially essential) and, at its core, values (broad tendencies to prefer certain states of affairs over others).

Peter Leach[24] says that:

Families learn to build a shared vision by aligning individual and family   values and goals, and that vision becomes a guide for planning and action …  Values are what a family and its business stand for; vision is a shared sense of where each is heading.

and Jay Hughes[25] uses the term “family of affinity” to refer to a family that sees itself as linked by affinity and a common mission rather than simply by genetic lineage, and which he sees as: “ A family system that declares that anyone who loves its stories and embraces its value system is welcome to join.”

Storytelling, it seems to me, is key to all this, for it is primarily through the rituals of storytelling that we share our symbols, heroes and values.  Indeed, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio[26] suggests that storytelling evolved from the inner storytelling we all do to create our very sense of self as a means of making our shared cultural norms “understandable, transmissible, persuasive and enforceable”; in other words, to give culture its continuity.

McGilchrist[27] goes further and suggests that language itself may have evolved, not merely to allow us to communicate (which, he argues powerfully, we are well able to do without language), but to allow us to memorialise our experience of the world, to give it fixity – in effect to create stories – to enable us to collaborate more effectively in solving mutual problems.

Fivush and Nelson[28] also conclude that:

Through the creation of a shared past, individuals gain a sense of who they are in relation to others, both locally within their family and community and more generally within their culture.  They also attain a shared perspective on how to interpret and evaluate experience, which leads to a shared moral perspective.

I learned the practical power of storytelling in my own mediation practice and soon began, wherever possible, to structure mediations to ensure that all parties had the space to tell their own stories, in their own words and in their own time – if only to me.[29]  I now adopt a similar approach in all my work with families, whether they are in conflict or not.  It is amazing just how many people tell me that it is the first time anyone has really listened to them.  And, feeling heard, they become much more open to hearing what others have to say and, through that, to finding common cause with them.

What fascinates me more, though, is the extent to which, in the course of telling their stories, people become aware of what is most important to them, and why.  It is almost as if they are listening to their own story themselves for the very first time; perhaps they are.

Storytelling, however, is not just a unilateral act of the speaker.  Walter Benjamin[30] described it as “the ability to exchange experiences”.  More recently, Siegel[31] put it this way:

The storytelling and story listening process often involves the essential features of social interaction and discourse.  The teller produces verbal and nonverbal signals that are received by the listener, and then similar forms of communication are sent back to the teller.  This intricate dance requires both persons to have the complex capacity to read social signals, to share a subjective experience of mind, and to agree to participate in culturally accepted rules of discourse.  Stories are thus socially co- constructed.  [emphasis added]


  1. The best mirror is an old friend[32]

Those non-verbal, social, signals involve posture, gesture, eye contact, facial expression, prosody (the rhythm, stress and intonation of speech), and the timing and intensity of response.  Reading those signals appears to involve specialised brain cells, mirror neurons, which, working with other structures in the brain, seem to be designed to allow (to cause?) us to mimic one another, which seems in turn to allow us to understand the actions, intentions and emotions – if not the words – of another.[33]  Try it yourself: mimic someone else’s (a consenting adult’s, in private, is probably best!) body language – particularly their facial expression – as closely as you can, and then see how you (and they) feel.  Try doing it again, this time with a pencil between your teeth.[34]

One of the things I sometimes do in mediation is to ask people to reframe their grievance in the form “When you did … , I felt … , because …”.  I started doing it largely for pragmatic reasons: it isn’t accusatory, so it is less likely to put the listener in defensive mode, and is more likely therefore to be the beginning of a dialogue; and it cannot be denied, so the easiest of parries is barred.  (Some might respond “well you shouldn’t”, but that has never seemed very strong to me.)  In the event, most acknowledge the emotion – and are often shocked to find themselves the cause of it.  (Interestingly, research shows that just naming an emotion tends to reduce it,[35] which itself can be very helpful.  Again, try it with yourself sometime.)

But there is much more to it than that.  When Mary told her son, David, that she felt ashamed and humiliated when David suggested to his siblings that it was time they took over looking after the family wealth from their parents, because such behaviour was clear proof that she was an appalling mother (in Mary’s world view, no well brought up child would have suggested such a thing, so she had clearly failed to teach him right from wrong),  David could, and did, try to argue with the words, but her body language was unmistakable to everyone including him, as was his to her (one of the reasons I try to avoid having desks or tables in such meetings is to ensure that all body language is fully on display);  whatever David said, Mary knew that he knew.  If feeling heard is powerful, feeling felt is positively profound and in that case, as in so many others, it provided a breakthrough.

Done as a regular part of family life, it need not (always) be quite so dramatic.  Indeed, I believe that regular storytelling within the family is one of the best ways to breathe real life into “regular extended family gatherings and interaction”; to build “a climate of family openness, trust and communication”; and to develop “sharing and respect for family history and legacy”, three of the five practices identified by Denis Jaffe in his “Nurture the Family” “Pathway to Evolutionary Survival”.[36]  It is also one of the best ways of creating “binding social ties”, securing the “emotional attachment of family members”, and the “renewal of family bonds”, three of the five dimensions of socioemotional wealth described by Pascual Barrone and colleagues.[37]


  1. A tribe of one?[38]

Telling and listening to stories.  That shouldn’t be so difficult, should it?  So why is it?

Walter Benjamin[39] suggested that the art of storytelling was coming to an end, not least because “experience [had] fallen in value”; he felt that the rate of change in life had become so fast that experience of the past was no longer useful in trying to deal with the future – and that was in 1936!  But if families are to achieve the cultural continuity they seek over generations, they must find ways of ensuring that their stories, their myths and legends, their symbols and heroes, their rituals and their values will always have relevance to the rising generations.

Benjamin felt that true storytellers passed their wisdom “from mouth to mouth”.  Stephen Porges[40] suggests that “To develop a social bond, individuals have to be in close proximity”.  Yet, in the West at least, we seem to spend less and less time together as families.  That may be because our families are spread around the country, or around the world.  Or it may be that we have, as Sherry Turkle[41] puts it “sacrificed conversation for mere connection”, preferring texting (SMS), e-mail and social media to conversation, even when we are physically gathered together, something which Turkle says has got us used to the idea of “being a tribe of one, loyal to our own party”; the antithesis of the cultural continuity families need to succeed.


  1. Everyone hears only what he understands[42]

But if story telling has become harder, listening is harder still.

At one level, there are many obstacles to effective listening, born of our individual temperaments and the various cultures to which we all belong (family, of course, but also ethnic, gender, faith, workplace, and so on).  In the short term, these can be bridged with the help of a skilled facilitator, but that is like using an interpreter and, however good the interpreter, it is never as good as knowing the language; which means looking deeper.

It turns out that we have the means to engage in collaborative, empathic, contingent communication, curious as to why the other experiences the world differently than we do, open to whatever may come out of our dialogue, accepting of whoever the other turns out to be, and compassionate towards the other.  That is indeed the way to truly listen; to make the speaker feel both heard and felt.  Sadly, it is much easier said than done.

First, we have to do battle with the oldest part of our brain, the brainstem (inherited from our reptilian ancestors), which manages our fight/flight/freeze response.  It is quite crude, but very fast (waiting for a reasoned analysis of whether that is a fallen tree branch or a poisonous snake would likely not enhance your chances of surviving and breeding, which is the primary driver in all of this!).  If the brainstem perceives a threat, it may get you ready to fight, or to run away: your pulse and blood pressure increase; you start to sweat; your libido disappears, and you may feel a strong urge to go to the toilet.  If the threat is existential, it may do the opposite – freeze – causing a complete shut down,[43] though whether that is a defence mechanism or to make for a cleaner, quicker kill appears unclear.  Either way, it is not setting you up to ask your  brother (with curiosity, openness, acceptance and compassion) to tell you more about the nervous breakdown he has just told you your mother had shortly after you were born, and of which you were previously unaware.

Then there is the brainstem’s mammalian upgrade (a bolt-on rather than a replacement version), the limbic system, which works with and in parallel to the brainstem, deciding what we should pay attention to, deciding whether it is good or bad, and driving us towards pleasure and away from pain.  Of course, we may not always experience it so: how often do we try to avoid the difficult conversation, telling ourselves that we are doing so to avoid causing pain to the other (so giving ourselves pleasure), when it is really our own pain we fear for.[44]

Indeed, you may get both signals at the same time when, say, your father, who provides for you materially and whom you love dearly, denigrates everything you do (perhaps by comparison to your sister’s near perfection).  The effect is a bit like getting into a Ferrari and stamping hard on the brake and the accelerator at the same time – very uncomfortable, and something is likely to get broken!

The good news is that the middle pre-frontal cortex has direct connections with both the limbic area and the brainstem and can modulate their effects, giving us (among other things) what Siegel[45] has called “response flexibility”, what Puddicombe[46] calls “headspace; that is to say the ability to take a mental step back, pause, and consider and weigh the available options, before acting.

The bad news is that excessive states of arousal appear to shut down this process and, in this situation: “ People don’t think; they feel something intensely and act impulsively.”[47]  So, fear, anger, or other strong emotion may leave you at the mercy of impulse.  Alcohol and narcotics, it seems, can have the same effect.

Even if we can keep these higher brain functions online, that is not the end of our challenges.  Our brains are highly adaptive.  We use our previous experience to predict the future, and act accordingly.  Great music, and comedy, tend to play on that: creating expectation and then teasing us by sometimes fulfilling it, and sometimes not.  But our experience often gets the better of us.  It becomes assumption, prejudgment or prejudice, and we act on it regardless of what our bodily senses are telling us, our “gut reaction”.  We may rationalise this as “not letting our heart rule our heads”.

When we prejudge a conversation, we need no input from the other, so we stop listening and spend our time rehearsing our own speeches in the privacy of our own minds.  When we feel hurt, we jump to conclusions: you spoke; I hurt; therefore you intended to hurt me.  And so on.

On the other hand, when we are too much “in the moment”, whether it is a musical reverie, the sight of a gorgeous boy or girl walking down the street, or just lost in our own mental chatter, we may find ourselves hitting the wall of the garage we have driven into without incident thousands of times before.


  1. Remembrance of things past

A word or two about memory is appropriate here.

As Proust surmised, “remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”[48]  First, it appears that what you remember depends (in part at least) upon why you are trying to remember it (not good if you are preparing a witness statement in a dispute over the family trust), and that your recollection of any event may change with each remembrance.[49]  This is not recalling a read-only file from a hard disk.  It is, perhaps, more like taking a paper file from the draw, taking out the bits that do not meet your present need and then putting back the reordered file.

Second, only things that we focus on get incorporated in our autobiographical – explicit – memory, which is all we can consciously recall.  Ever worried about whether you turned the gas off, or put out that last cigarette, or locked the door when you left home?  They are things you do so often that you no longer pay attention to them, so they never get stored in explicit memory.  Here again, intense emotion, alcohol and narcotics can also rob us of the ability to process memories in this way; the route from last night’s party may be something you know well, but the walk home may never be!

But the overwhelming preponderance of our experience[50] goes into what is called implicit memory.  Inaccessible to conscious recollection, it is implicit memory that accounts for our mental chatter; for those inexplicable changes in mood that come when (consciously or not) we hear a tune, or smell a scent, with some strong emotional tag that never made it into explicit memory; and through which our immediate sensory experience is filtered even when our so-called higher functions are online.[51]

And when there is a gap in our explicit memory, we generate a script that suits, typically one that fits well with our worldview, one that tends to make us feel better, and it becomes part of our reality; a process psychologists call confabulation.


  1. The story so far …

To recap: we each experience the world differently; how we experience it plays a huge part in who we become as individuals, but most of that is not accessible to us in memory; we tend to react, rather than respond, not only to events around us, but to our own thoughts and emotions (a double whammy: you get upset, then you get upset that you are upset!); when there is a hole in our personal story, we make it up and believe that is the unalloyed truth; blessed with affluence and technology, we choose to live apart from one another (whether physically or mentally), losing both proximity and shared experience; we have come to prefer connection to conversation, the exchange of information to communication;  … and we wonder why we do not always communicate well!

  1. The mindful brain[52]

Fortunately, we can learn to listen deeply, empathically, to what others have to say.  We can learn to be open to whatever we hear, and accepting of others whoever, or whatever, they turn out to be.  We can learn how to make others feel both heard and felt.  We can learn not to react, but to respond to events appropriately and proportionately.

Our ability to attune to others, to balance our emotions, to be flexible in our responses, to soothe our fears, to create insight (my sense of me), empathy (my sense of you), moral awareness (my sense of we), and intuition are all key to this learning, and all appear to be mediated by the middle pre-frontal cortex of the brain.[53]  Research shows both that the practice of mindful awarenesss (paying conscious attention to our inner sensations, images, feelings and thoughts) tends to increase neuronal growth and speed of function in that area of the brain, and that more mindful people show less reactivity when presented with threatening emotional stimuli.[54]

Those practices have their origins in religious observance,[55] and for many the element of faith is important, but it is not necessary to achieving the results we seek here.  Tai chi chuan, chi kung, yoga and a variety of mindfulness meditation techniques have all been shown to be equally effective.[56]

A number of these techniques are based on simple breath awareness.  We breathe continuously, but are rarely aware of it. Mindfulness practice trains us to be conscious of our breath for minutes at a time.  We also learn to notice when we are distracted from that and, when we are, simply to bring our focus back to the breath. This seemingly pointless exercise trains the mind to be more generally aware, increasing our awareness of our thoughts, feelings, emotions and bodily sensations; and it empowers us to choose whether to act on them, or just to let them go.

As long ago as 1891, William James, the father of American psychology, said that an education which would improve “the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again … would be the education par excellence.”[57]

Further description of such techniques is beyond the scope of this chapter, but guides can readily be found on line.[58]

As we become more mindful, and learn to listen (both to ourselves and to others) with curiosity, openness, acceptance and compassion, we can become more adept co-constructors of our family stories and, through that process, cement the felt connection and cultural continuity that I believe is key to cohesive, multi-generational, family prosperity.


  1. Great stories happen to those who can tell them[59]

Of course, how and when we do our storytelling will vary from family to family.  It generally begins as we reminisce to our infants and young children.  Fivush and Nelson[60] suggest that the more elaborative that reminiscing is, the more effectively past events are set in time and place and in emotional and personally meaningful contexts, and the more the child too is encouraged to talk about his experiences both as they occur, and in reminiscence, the more coherent and evaluative the child’s own narrative will become.

Our symbols, heroes, rituals, and values are all passed on through these exchanges, and reinforced over time through the sharing of nursery rhymes, fairy stories, folk tales, songs, and so on.

For some, their family stories will be factual, full of historicity.  For others, they will be more mythic, full of metaphor.  Neither is right, or wrong, but simply reflects the family’s cultural and communication norms.

For some families, particularly those who remain geographically close, this process develops naturally through daily interaction, birthday and other celebrations, a regular round of breaking bread together.  In some faiths and cultures the regular cycle of feasts and festivals provides a natural framework for that.

Others, for whatever reason, never develop that way of doing.  For those families, a facilitated discussion of “who are we as a family?”, “where do we come from?” and “why do we choose to manage our capital collectively?” may provide a useful starting point.  A genealogical exercise may be an interesting project for a younger generation.[61]  Which branches they choose to research, and the individuals they most connect with, let alone the discovery of how “we” used to live in different social, political and economic times, can be a great stepping off point for further conversation.

It is important that our shared stories look forwards, as well as backwards.  Our dreams and aspirations – our memories of the future if you will – are just as much a part of our personal and family narratives as how we come to be where we are; a shared sense of “where we are heading” just as important to our sense of continuity.

Nor should we expect them to be fixed, constant.  All culture is dynamic, and families are no exception.  People come (birth, marriage) and go (death, divorce), levels of affluence wax and wane,[62] we change with experience (physiologically, as we have learned), and so on.  The value of our stories is that they memorialise our symbols, heroes, rituals and values.  They will, inevitably, change over time, and our stories must change too.  That is not to say that we should consciously edit them, but nor should we be overly resistant to their evolution over time; a changing story may be a clue that other things too are changing.

While the power of the story may be, as Damasio[63] suggested, to make our chosen values “persuasive and enforceable, we should not be too dogmatic about that.  The aim is cohesion, not homogeneity.  To quote Siegel again:

[It] is more like making a fruit salad than a smoothie: it requires that the elements retain their individual uniqueness while simultaneously linking to other components of [the] system”.[64]

To paraphrase McGilchrist,[65] without difference there can be neither harmony nor counterpoint.

Technology has a great role to play in all this, not least in memorialising the family story, creating a dynamic, living and interactive archive, including music, pictures and videos, particularly of family members telling their personal stories while they are still around to do that.  Technology allows us to keep in touch in circumstances where we never could before, but being in touch is no substitute for touching, for physical and mental presence which, as we have seen, is crucial to building and maintaining the bonds between us.


  1. Conclusion

So, to summarise, I am proposing that:

  • The biggest threat to a family’s capital (be it financial, human, intellectual, social or spiritual) is a breakdown of trust and communication within the family;
  • To minimise the risk of such a breakdown, families need to pay attention to the glue that holds them together, to their felt connection and cultural continuity;
  • To do that, we need to spend time together creating, nurturing, and recording our evolving family story, through which we pass on our shared symbols, heroes, rituals and values and win the commitment of the group to them;
  • The listener is as important to that process as the teller, and we each need to learn to listen deeply to the other with curiosity, openness, acceptance and compassion;
  • We each need to learn to assess, not assume; to respond, not react;
  • Ancient tradition, the recorded experience of many, and modern neuroscience all tell us that the practice of mindful awareness improves our facility to do all of these things.

There is, of course, much else that any family must do if it is to succeed in developing its capital (in all of its forms) harmoniously and cohesively over generations, and about which others have written in this book.  This, however, I believe offers a sound foundation to all of that.


Thanks to Roselyn Fell, Cinnie Noble and Martin Stepek for their thoughtful comments on a draft of this chapter.  Any remaining errors are mine.


[1] Roy Williams and Vic Preisser, Preparing Heirs: Five Steps to a Successful Transition of Family Wealth and Values (Robert D Reed, 2003).

[2]  See, for example: JP Morgan,  Effective governance: The eight proactive practices of successful families (2004); Coutts 2005 Family Business Survey;  G Gordon, “It’s Good to Talk”, Families in Business, Sept/Oct 2005; S Barimo, K Rosplock and J Shipley, The 25 Best Practices of Multi-Generational Families (GenSpring Family Offices, 2007); and, most recently, D Jaffe with J Flanagan, Three Pathways to Evolutionary Survival: Best Practices of Successful, Global, Multi-Generational Family Enterprises (, 2012).

[3] SandAire Ltd, Family Wealth, Issue 3, Spring 2005.

[4] Lyrics by Jordan Pruitt, recorded by Sister Sledge, the Pointer Sisters and, no doubt, others.

[5] Co-founder, Withers Consulting group;

[6] Mediator, judicial trainer and cross-cultural communications expert;

[7] Thanks for this to Adjoa Tamakloe, mediator and founder of CLASS™ Resolutions;

[8] Thanks to Dr Xiaohui Yuan of Nottingham University for this, illustrated by the Chinese proverb: “When a daughter is married, she is like the water poured out of the door”.


[10] Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 1.

[11] That is, changes that happen which we cannot currently explain or predict.

[12]The process of epigenesis: D Siegel, The Developing Mind: How relationships and the Brain Interact and Shape Who We Are, second edition (The Guilford Press, 2012).

[13] R Nisbett and Y Miyamoto, “The influence of culture: holistic versus analytic perception”, TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, Volume 9 Number 10, October 2005.

[14] As reported in D Siegel, The Mindful Therapist, first edition (WW Norton & Co, 2010).

[15] B McCarthy, About Learning, first edition (About Learning Inc, 2000).

[16] W Wilmot and J Hocker, Interpersonal Conflict, seventh edition (McGraw Hill, 2007).

[17] Nisbett and Miyamoto, op cit.

[18] P Ball, “Riddled with irregularity: why are languages so different – and disorderly”, Prospect, September 2012.

[19] N Doidge, The Brain that Changes Itself, first edition (GB) (Penguin Books, 2007).

[20] Nisbett and Miyamato, op cit.

[21] Hans Christian Andersen.

[22] I McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, first edition (Yale University Press, 2009).

[23] G Hofstede and GJ Hofstede, Culture and Organisations: Software of the Mind, second edition (McGraw Hill, 2005).

[24] P Leach, Family Businesses: The Essentials, first edition (BDO Stoy Hayward  LLP, 2007).

[25] J Hughes Jr, Family: The Compact Among Generations, first edition (Bloomberg Press, 2007).

[26] A Damasio, When Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, first edition (William Heinemann, 2010).

[27] McGilchrist, op cit.

[28] R Fivush and K Nelson, “Culture and Language in the Emergence of Autobiographical Memory”, Psychological Science, Volume 15 – Number 9, 573-577 (American Psychological Society, 2004).

[29] I Marsh, “Mediating Families at War”, Asian Dispute Review, January 2011, 24 -27;

[30] W Benjamin, The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov (1936);

[31] D Siegel, The Developing Mind, op cit.

[32] Peter Nivio Zarlenger.

[33] M Iacoboni, Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How we Connect with Others, first edition (Picador, 2008); G Rizolatti and C Sinigaglia, Mirrors in the Brain: How Our Minds Share Actions and Emotions, first English edition (Oxford University Press, 2008); J Decety and W Ickes (editors), The Social Neuroscience of Empathy, first paperback edition (MIT Press, 2011).

[34] The pencil stops the micro-muscles in your face mimicking the other’s, which are probably the biggest tell.

[35] D Creswell, B Way, N Eisenberger and M Lieberman, “Neural Correlates of Dispositional Mindfulness During Affect Labelling”, Psychosomatic Medicine 69: 560 – 565 (2007), confirming what had previously been intuited by the proponents of nonviolent communication (M Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, second edition, Rosenberg, 2003).

[36] D Jaffe with J Flanagan, Three Pathways to Evolutionary Survival, op cit.

[37] P Barrone, C Cruz and L Gomez-Mejia, “Socioemotional Wealth in Family Firms: Theoretical Dimensions, Assessment Approaches, and Agenda for Future Research”, Family Business Review 25(3), 258-279 (2012).

[38] S Turkle, The Flight From Conversation (2012);

[39] W Benjamin, The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov, op cit.

[40] S Porges, “Social Engagement and Attachment: A Phylogenetic Perspective”, Ann. N.Y.Acad.Sci. 1008: 31-47 (2003);

[41] S Turkle, The Flight From Conversation, op cit.

[42] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

[43]  S Porges, “Social Engagement and Attachment: A Phylogenetic Perspective”, op cit.

[44] What Brooks calls “the dishonesty of niceness”: D Brooks, The Social Animal: A Story of How Success Happens, second edition (Short Books, 2011).

[45] D Siegel, The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being, first edition (WW Norton & Company, 2007).

[46] A Puddicombe, Get Some Headspace, first paperback edition (Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, 2011).

[47]  D Siegel, The Developing Mind, op cit.

[48] Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu.

[49]  D Schacter, Searching for Memory: the brain, the mind and the past, first edition (Basic Books, 1996).

[50] It is estimated we take in around 11 million bits of data per second but can only process consciously around 15 bits per second: T Nørretranders, The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size, first English edition (Penguin Books, 1998).

[51]  D Siegel, The Mindful Brain, op cit.

[52] Daniel J Siegel.

[53]  D Siegel, The Mindful Brain, op cit.

[54]D Creswell, B Way, N Eisenberger and M Lieberman, “Neural Correlates of Dispositional Mindfulness During Affect Labelling”, Psychosomatic Medicine 69: 560 – 565 (2007); and see also Mental Health Foundation, Mindfulness Report (2010),

[55] Notably in the Buddhist tradition, but similar practices are also found in contemplative Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

[56]  D Siegel, The Mindful Brain, op cit.; A Puddicombe, Get Some Headspace, op cit. Mental Health Foundation, Mindfulness Report, op cit.

[57] W James, Psychology: Briefer Course (Harper Torchbooks, 1961).

[58] See for example:;

[59] Ira Glass.

[60] R Fivush and K Nelson, “Culture and Language in the Emergence of Autobiographical Memory”, op cit.

[61] I start all my work with families by compiling a genogram, a stylised form of annotated family tree developed by family therapists, which forms the heart of my file;  M McGoldrick, R Gerson and S Petry, Genograms: Assessment and Intervention,  third edition (WW Norton & Co, Inc, 2008).

[62] See, for example, Hofstede and Hofstede (op cit.) for the impact of changes in affluence and other factors on various cultural metrics.

[63] A Damasio, When Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, op cit.

[64] D Siegel, The Developing Mind, op cit.

[65] I McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary, op cit.

First published in C Archer and BR Hauser (Eds), Family Offices: The STEP Handbook for Advisers, 1st Edition (2015), Globe Business Publishing Limited, and reproduced by kind permission of the publisher

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