Messervey: To Create Change, Listen-AND Talk

by Shel Horowitz

Two-way communication, with both parties able to express themselves on the most deep-rooted issues and really hear the other, is key to change in a family business. That was the central point of John Messervey’s address to the Family Business center, September 9, 1997 at the Springfield Sheraton.

Messervey, of the National Family Business Council in Lake Forest, Illinois, believes that nearly every family business will benefit by change-and that those who attended are ready to catalyze that process: “You are here because you want something to change.”

The specifics will vary from business to business; in recent cases, Messervey encountered these desires: a son wanted his father to invest in a new project; a mother was accused by her child of meddling; a sibling looked for ways to prevent his brother from antagonizing key employees; another sibling was asked to “quit pretending she’s working.”

Messervey’s analysis concentrated on the family, which he sees as “the prototype for all organization; business patterns are just an extension” of the roles played out in family dynamics. In every family there will be “customers for change”-those who stand to benefit from upsetting the applecart, often the family scapegoats or those who feel disenfranchised. But there are also “guardians of the status quo,” who like things just the way they are and vigorously protect their turf. One of Messervey’s clients compared change in his family to “bowling in sand.”

Every family has its own set of myths, roles, and rules or customs. But at the same time, there are “secrets” and “unspeakables”; these hidden shames are the action points for change

To demonstrate, Messervey showed a short clip from “Prince of Tides,” showing a sharply dysfunctional family. Nick Nolte plays a husband who blocks his wife’s every attempt to bring up important issues. But at the same time, he and his own mother have some serious unfinished business to take care of-deep and dark “unspeakables”-which causes every interaction between them to run up against a wall of mutual hostility.

In Nolte’s fictional family, as in any other, those who are ignored find a way to act out and be noticed. And since family members know better than anyone else how to hit the “hot buttons” that will get a reaction from other family members, the stakes can be pretty high. When you know how to get someone really furious, you run the risk of starting a long-lasting feud that could run for decades. But Messervey comments, “they must have really cared for each other; you don’t fight if you don’t care.”

He believes many of the silly disagreements among family members are “to add heat. Over time, all relationships cool.” These little sparks are a way to keep the relationship fresh and interesting, even after a half-century or more, as Messervey demonstrated with a second video clip, from “For Better or For Worse”-where, despite 56 years of happy marriage, a couple still can’t let go of an ancient minor argument.

But that family was able to openly air their disagreement. In families with deeper problems, attempts at communication are continuously rebuffed. Messervey quoted sociologist Carl Whittaker’s book, The Family Crucible:

Why, in spite of a genuine desire to change, does a family hold back?…If a family has tried repeatedly to change and has met only pain and failure, making still another attempt can have frightening overtones…What if they really try-and fail again? What is left except utter despair? The family cringes in fear; they fight against the change which they know they must attempt.

But don’t confuse fear by disempowered family members of initiating change with resistance to change by those who will lose power: that resistance, says Messervey, is a sign that things are working. Change is imminent and the guardians of the status quo are desperately trying to block it. They feel the pressure, the need to acknowledge the issues; the call for change can no longer be simply swept under the rug. In fact, the rug is bulging so high off the floor-to stretch the metaphor a bit farther-that someone had better do something before there’s a liability suit to contend with.

Some families have ignored so many little issues that, like a dense forest that needs a huge fire to clean out the underbrush, they really need a big blow-up to clear the air.

One option to deal with this pressure is to bring in a different kind of consultant: one who is oriented toward process, rather than symptoms. Messervey says this kind of consultant is much better suited to complicated systems.

The old fashioned expert consultant may provide a checklist of solutions, but if those solutions focus on past mistakes, on fixing only the obvious symptoms-and fail to address the underlying issues at the root-the destructive patterns will reemerge. The process consultant, on the other hand, looks at systemic health, patiently approaches the situation with a focus on the present instead of the past, and works together with the client to find solutions the client will “own.” Rather than affixing blame, the goal is to change the long-held patterns, to strive toward organizational wellness in a non-judgmental, intuitive approach that focuses on solutions-not problems.

A consultant-or an organization working internally-should examine power, control, conflict, and intimacy. Intimacy isn’t often discussed in family businesses, but, says Messervey, “it’s easier to stay angry than to admit our need to be loved.”

Messervey uses the Beavers Scale for measuring conflict management: family members self-evaluate based on a series of questions, and are ranked into five categories, from severely dysfunctional to optimal. Another part of the test measures the level of family entanglement, from extremely enmeshed to disengaged. At the severely dysfunctional level, there is not only no communication, but no leadership. The next two steps are tightly bound, either by a dictatorial leader or by an inflexible set of rules.

Finally, the adequate and optimal families are flexible, comfortable with feelings of “love, annoyance, and frustration,” focused on goals, and able to resolve most conflicts. They rest easy, knowing that, “whatever happens, we can work it out.