The Many Faces of Mediation: Family Businesses

The Many Faces of Mediation: Family Businesses By Susan Ingram

By their very nature, family businesses can be especially challenging to manage successfully. First, there are the normal (and not so normal) demands and pressures of running a business. But then, superimpose on that the complex relational issues that arise within a family structure . . . and you have the makings of what could potentially be a very difficult work environment.

If a couple is having issues in their marriage, they can go to a couples’ therapist, or perhaps a family mediator, to try to work things out. With a family business, it’s different. While the business would not seek out the help of a therapist, it might benefit greatly from working with a trained mediator.

So what exactly does the family business mediator do?

A family business mediator functions as a “process expert” who facilitates the difficult conversations the family members need to have about their business. And then they (not the mediator) make their own decisions as to what is best for them. While the mediator does not need to be a content expert and have specific knowledge about the company or its industry, it is important in this arena that the mediator have an understanding of businesses and how they function.

Recently, I conducted a mediation for a family business in New York that was having “growing pains” as its next generation, the three adult children of the founder, were seeking to become more active in managing the company and setting its future direction. Although he stated otherwise, the father, already in his mid-‘70s, was reluctant to let go. The daughter and two sons were frustrated with doing things the “old way,” but they were also appreciative of all the father had done to create and build the business.

As their mediator/facilitator, I helped them articulate their family/business values and goals. Working from that shared foundation, it was easier for them to build trust and identify their common interests. Ultimately, they worked out a business plan that honored their father, but also put into place a succession plan that allowed the next generation to take control.

Sometimes I’ve been called upon to go in and help a family business address one specific issue that’s forefront in everyone’s concerns. Other times, I’ve helped a business plot out more comprehensive plans and goals. The beauty of my work as a mediator is that my process expertise lends itself to many diverse situations.

Experiencing some difficulties with your family business? I can answer any questions you may have about how the mediation process might help you resolve those difficulties.


Comments from Social Media

Nice post, Susan. There is real opportunity in this area/niche if someone, as you have done, can show a family business that there is a neutral third party that can help facilitate a safe expression of emotions and ideas and set an atmosphere for healing and progress.

Michael Toebe


Your article is very true. I have run a “family” business now for 25+ years, in one iteration or another as it has evolved, and the experience was actually what moved my career choice to include mediation. The only effective way to keep family issues and stress out of the equation (but never 100%) is to focus on the end game first (where does this go when I am gone or leaving) and have a great plan for external intervention when conflict arises.

Buddy Thornton-BS-AHS, NACM


It is a brave workplace mediator that mediates in a family business! We find we need a combination of mediators who understand about the workplace but also are skilled family mediators. Often these are the most challenging workplace mediations to do.

Rebecca Foreman

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