Safety In Family Businesses

Safety in Families
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Safety In Families


I recently had meetings with several families where it became very clear that members of the family did not feel psychologically (or even physically) safe. As I reflected on these situations, I realized that the concept of “safety” is not one that we have discussed, but is essential to comfort and collaboration in families, especially business-owning families. In one family, there was fear that because of differences in lifestyle and gender identity, that the family’s support of organizations that opposed his way of being would lead to more discrimination and even physical harm. The response was to defend by harassing those family members leading to them feeling unsafe as well. There was a sense throughout the family of disrespect, misunderstanding and fear. Distrust of each other’s’ actions, beliefs and self-control lead to a lack of safety.

In another family, the lack of safety was more emotional. Earlier life experience of feeling neglected, experience of family conflict, judgement and psychological abuse left younger family members feeling unsafe psychologically. It was hard for them to be open, close to family members and even to “show up” because of fear.

The feeling of “safety” in relationships means one can relax, be one’s true, authentic self and feel, understood, valued and connected in a meaningful way. When the relationship is safe, we feel free to take risks with being open, assertively communicate and to deepen the relationship. We trust that when differences arise (as they do in all relationships), they can be worked through in a constructive manner. Differences in perspective are valued and explored. There is a sense that the relationship is one of caring, compassion and mutual support.

Safety is essential for families to have close relationships and to sustain them through the stages of life where differentiation requires looking at, we as individuals, where exploration make take members on different paths and where new partners may change the nature of relationships. Safety is even more important in families with shared assets or businesses that require many decisions to be made and overlapping roles to be sorted out. Without a base of safety and trust, these additional layers of complexity can pull a family apart.

Types of Safety

While we may be focused on the emotional sense of safety, it is important to distinguish the types of safety and how safety is differentiated in my thinking from trust. For the purposes of this discussion, I look at trust as the “verb” that leads to the outcome of “safety.” If I don’t extend trust for one reason or another, I am unlikely to feel safe. Similarly, if I feel unsafe, I am unlikely to trust. As I have discussed elsewhere, (cite past blog on trust) trust is not unidimensional: e.g. I may trust you to take care of my money, but not trust you to take care of my child.

There are at least 4 types of safety:

  1. Physical: free from fear of physical harm
  2. Emotional: ability to be ourselves comfortably (vs. fear of potential criticism, blaming, shaming, or rejection)
  3. Social: assurance that there is respect, understanding, caring, compassion and direct, authentic communication
  4. Moral: an environment that are free from cruelty, violence, dishonesty, injustice, hypocrisy, discrimination and/or ignorance.

Obviously, these are often overlapping and when found together contribute to great comfort. When all are absent, it is likely that there is great anxiety, avoidance and a range of psychological mechanisms to try to protect oneself. Developing healthy interpersonal boundaries is an important, constructive tool to maintaining our own safety and allowing us to stay in connection while preserving our integrity and well-being in a range of situations.

Fostering Safety in Families

For many years, when helping people to understand the type of communication that is demonstrated in good leadership, I conduct an exercise called a “trust walk.” In this exercise, we go for a walk in pairs: one partner is the blindfolded-follower, while the other is the sighted- leader. The blindfolded partner depends on his or her leader to feel safe: physically and emotionally. What each follower needs in order to feel safe differs from person to person. Some people need a continual stream of words describing the situation, what is coming up, what others are doing, etc. Others, like the quiet and the ability to listen for the sounds of footsteps of other pairs. Still others like a gentle guidance of the leader’s hand signaling how to move safely in the right direction. The ability of the leader to understand what his partner needs to feel safe demonstrates the compassion, commitment and caring that are essential to trust and the feeling of safety.

There are a range of behaviors and attitudes that contribute to the sense of safety in families. They include:

  • Demonstrate understanding: one of the greatest sources of safety is to demonstrate that you understand how another feels and his/her perspective. This shows that you care about how they feel and are not simply projecting your own needs and ideas. When someone strives to understand us, that gives us the hope that they will also strive to meet our needs. The best way to demonstrate that you understand is, of course, to paraphrase what it is that you understand. Showing your respect for each other is a great source of safety.
  • Understand and appreciate differences: it is easy to understand points of view that are close to ours! What is more difficult is to understand and appreciate differences. In families that require everyone to think, feel and act the same in order to be safe, it is difficult to differentiate, and to value your own unique qualities. When we can demonstrate that our family is stronger as we consider a range of points of view and honor our differences, we foster safety. This does not necessarily mean that we embrace the difference as right for ourselves. I often use the Myers Briggs Type Indicator as a tool to help families understand the differences we have in our individual sources of energy, how we gather information, how we come to decisions and how we like to organize our lives. Having diversity in these 4 dimensions creates a stronger team to cope with whatever challenges or decisions come our way.
  • Tell the truth and keep agreements: We feel safest when we know that we can count on family members to tell the truth and to keep agreements. This mutual accountability and openness assure that there is a level of predictability and honoring of our relationships. These trust-building actions yield safety.
  • Address distrust and safety issues: A practice which helps maintain safety is to quickly address issues that lead us to question the trustworthiness of a relationship. Misunderstandings, poor choices or emotional reactions in the family can undermine our trust and sense of safety. This is particularly true when there is a history of feeling unsafe in the family. Thus, it is essential to constructively raise the issue and seek to clarify and understand the other’s behavior or attitude. This practice requires courage on our part as well as commitment to the overall well-being of the family. It also leads to greater intimacy and well-being in the family.
  • Demonstrate vulnerability and openness: There is nothing that contributes to trust more than openness. When we are being ourselves and “visible,” others are more likely to take the risk to be open as well. Our vulnerability adds to the sense of safety much more than our guardedness or defensiveness. Further, for us to be seen and known, we must make ourselves visible and know-able.

In Conclusion

Often in my work, I am creating a safe “container” for open and respectful dialogue. Once the members of the family see that they are being respected and understood, their guardedness reduces, and they can connect more comfortably to one another. In the first situation I mentioned, the family was able to directly discuss their assumptions about each other and correct their misunderstandings. They genuinely cared for one another and wanted everyone to feel respected and safe. They had unnecessary fears about each other and once it was safe to share these unfounded assumptions, they could clear the air and commit to supporting each other. They now give each other the benefit of the doubt and work to clear up potential sources of distrust more rapidly. They are safer with each other.

The second situation will take longer. While they are all showing up and participating (which is an indication of some safety), they are still very sensitive to feeling judged, dismissed and/or disrespected. The process of rebuilding safety is both an internal process to each person as well as an interpersonal process within the family. We each have our own pace and work to do as well as the work of the family. Patience and persistence are required to rebuild trust and safety.

And the process is very worthwhile. To have the blessings of a family that is mutually supportive, available to us for celebrations, collective stewardship and fun is a result that is worth the work.

Leslie Dashew
About the Author

Leslie Dashew has specialized in working with families in business for over 30 years. She brings her prior experience in family therapy and organizational development to her practice, which focuses on assisting families gain clarity about their vision for the future and develop comprehensive, integrated plans to achieve those goals.      ( view bio )

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