Brothers Who'd Rather Fight at Any Cost

Kenneth Kaye, Ph.D. (one of Ken's columns in Family Business magazine)

The callers were two sisters in a family of nine siblings ranging in age from 35 to 53. Only two of their brothers had taken over Dad's business, and those two brothers were taking each other apart. Four or five of the others had got together, chagrined by the fact that neither Abel nor Cain had come to Mom and Dad's for Easter. They agreed to share the cost of a family business conflict resolution facilitator--if the brothers would only consent to try it.

The situation was grave. They had already used the services of a professional mediator after agreeing to split up the business, which had a retail and a wholesale division (one of which was profitable while the other barely squeaked by). A retired judge had spent twelve hours with them and their attorneys, culminating in a handshake agreement, but when the two attorneys wrote it up, their versions of what had been agreed upon didn't match. Now Abel had filed for a court-appointed receiver to liquidate the corporation's assets (from whom he intended to purchase them at book value, with the help of his wealthier wife), and Cain had countered with a petition to enforce his version of the mediated agreement as a contract. The deposition process was to begin in ten days.

I advised Janet and Ellen (none of these are real names, of course) to ask both brothers to call me "for your sake, not for theirs, just because of the pain all this is causing you and your parents." When both brothers did call, separately, the same day, I asked whether they themselves had any goals that couldn't be met by playing out their litigation hands. They both said no. Both claimed they didn't care "if there's blood on the floor" afterward. Neither admitted to much concern about a future relationship, nor did either one care how much damage might be done to the other, financial or otherwise. A couple of tough guys, each saw himself on the moral high ground and his brother as a scoundrel. I had to laugh when Abel explained, in his gentle Hoosier accent, "Our family is half Sicilian, and Cain is in that half."

I thanked them for their calls-for helping me respond to their siblings' inquiry-and FAXed the sisters as follows.

Dear Janet and Ellen:

You and your siblings should be proud of having done all you can to help Abel and Cain find a fair, mature, amicable way to separate their businesses. You've now done everything possible, and after talking to both "boys" (as you accurately termed them), I advise you to save your money and cut your emotional losses.

The fact that you care for both of them and their families is not enough. Without a desire on both their parts for a peaceful resolution, there is nothing a facilitator like myself can do. We can only help people achieve goals they admit to; when they have an answer to every objection and a justification for every hostility, we haven't discovered how to talk a client into wanting peace. Their dispute belongs where it is, in the judicial system, which gives both parties a fair opportunity to hurt the other as much as he can.

I suggest you write a letter, signed by all of you, expressing how disappointed you are in both of them for failing to find a mutually agreeable resolution. Tell them they are both welcome in your lives, separately or together, only so long as they never mention their dispute. "If you start whining to us about each other," you might say, "or defending your own position, we'll have to leave or ask you to leave." Tell them that if they or their children say bad things to your kids about the other uncle, you'll stop letting the kids play together. And if they ask you to take sides, they will only lose their relationship with you.

In delivering this message to both brothers, the most important thing is not to let either of them think you're in sympathy with the other. "I'm not talking to you about Abel, Cain, I'm telling you both that I'm disappointed in you." End of discussion. Hang up the phone or leave the room. (Same with their wives, if they won't drop the subject.)

Nor should any of you, or your parents, try to mediate the dispute yourselves. The problem is not who does the mediating. The problem is your brothers' present frame of mind, which is more interested in the conflict-or in beating each other-than resolving it.

Naturally, this is a sad ending for your father's dream and a great strain on your family. But if you let Cain and Abel involve you, either by taking sides or even by listening to their tales of woe, you are fueling their battle. They see themselves as heroes, fighting for justice against evil. I am sure they are both wrong about that. Attention from you is oxygen for their fire. You don't, unfortunately, have the ability to extinguish it, because others outside the family will fan their flames even if you don't. But you can at least separate yourselves from the problem.

Both Abel and Cain assured me that they will let me know if the judge tells them "you are both a couple of fools" and gives them a reason to want to reach an accord. In the meantime, you have done the right thing by exploring this possible avenue. Please remember that it is not the family's fault if they choose a more destructive course than the one you lovingly offered.

copyright 1998, Family Business Magazine

Do you agree with Ken's advice? Could or should he have done anything more? Please comment to