Forgiveness as an Intervention in Family-Owned Business: A New Beginning, Part 1 of 2

Forgiveness as an Intervention in Family-Owned Business: A New Beginning, Part 1 of 2

Article posted in Values-Based on 23 June 2015| 1 comments
audience: National Publication, Thomas M. Hubler | last updated: 30 June 2015


Tom Hubler continues his examination on emotions in family businesses. His thoughts on forgiveness continue here.

By: Thomas M. Hubler

This article explores the notion of bringing a family business's family values and traditions regarding religion and forgiveness into their everyday lives to create healing when family business differences have broken or severed family relationships. The philosophy of the ritual is to pair it with other family rituals and use it as a tool to begin to focus on the future. The ritual helps the family understand that hurts are inevitable in the context of family businesses, but that the ritual is a way to get beyond them and start over again. The forgiveness ritual that is created draws on the family's history and use of religious traditions to create forgiveness and a new beginning.

In my original career as a family counselor, I worked in a medical clinic. My office was located in the specialty center right next door to the clinic where five family practice doctors regularly saw patients. It was not unusual in that setting for one of the nurses to come over and indicate that one of the doctors was seeing a patient and wanted to know if I was available to sit in on their discussion. Invariably, the patient was seeing the doctor for something that the doctor could find no physical diagnosis.

I would then start seeing the patient for counseling and usually what we discovered was a situation where the stress and discomfort in the patient's life was caused by some traumatic experience or wound. Someone such as a parent, a teacher, a friend, or a sibling had hurt the patient and he or she had not forgiven the person for what had been done. D. Patrick Miller, in his book A Little Book of Forgiveness (D. P.Miller, 1994), mentions this dynamic in his own life and it motivated him to write the book. He mentions that after multiple visits to his physician he was referred to a psychiatrist who helped him realize the impact not forgiving was having on his life. I learned at an early stage in my career the power of forgiveness, and much of the work I did in those days was helping people forgive the perpetrator of the wound so as to free the individual of continuing to relive in their life the pain that they had experienced.

Fast forwarding ahead 15 years - I found the same dynamics operating within family businesses. The assumptions, expectations, and role confusion that often plague family businesses can and do create major hurts both in family as well as business relationships that overlap each other and cause considerable hurt and frustration. It's not unusual in family businesses where this dynamic occurs for siblings and parents and children not to be talking to each other or for various branches of the family to be excluding another branch. In some of the most dramatic cases, family members have sued each other. Witness the history of the Koch Refining family as well as the recent Pritzker family situation where one family member is suing another. In both these situations, people had not forgiven each other and then initiated the legal process as a remedy. The end result of the legal process will be to exacerbate the already strained family relationship to the point that a schism is created within the family that will affect the family for multiple generations to come.

The Family Forgiveness Ritual© is designed to avert this process by ritualizing the process of forgiveness, drawing on the family's tradition of religious values and creating a ceremony that draws on the family's fundamental values of love, generosity, and sense of abundance. The goal of the Family Forgiveness Ritual© is to bring the family's religious tradition into its everyday life. Nash and McLennan discuss this very topic in their book on how to integrate people's faith lives with their lives at work, Church on Sunday, Work on Monday (Nash & McLennan, 2001). Their focus is primarily on public companies, so it seems this integrating should be much easier to implement in the context of a family business where all family members have a common religious background.

Family Forgiveness Rituals© are always done in the context of a family business consultation. The process starts with a series of individual interviews designed to create an understanding about the issues facing the family in preparation for the Family Business Planning Meeting. Both during the individual interviews and the Family Business Planning Meeting, assessments are being made as to the family's readiness to achieve its goals. In those instances where obstacles to their achievement exist, family members are encouraged to use the "Collaborative Team Skills" (CTS) (S. Miller & Miller, 1994) as a model to resolve their differences. (CTS is a system we utilize with our clients for communication and management of differences.) To the extent they are not capable of being resolved in the family meeting context, it is not unusual to suggest either individual meetings or dyadic discussion to further explore how to resolve family business differences.

The introduction of the possibility of a Family Forgiveness Ritual© is normally done in one of the early family meetings, but the details are specifically discussed in individual meetings. In these meetings, the concept of forgiveness and responsibility are broached and clients can discuss their response to the idea of participating in the ritual. It is important to note that Family Forgiveness Rituals© are always done in the context of the overall consultation so that appropriate support and encouragement can be given before, during, and after the ritual has occurred. Family members are always encouraged to share their reservations as a part of the decision-making process as to whether or not to proceed.

One of the critical issues facing the consultant thinking about using the Family Forgiveness Ritual© is the question of timing. In most instances, the ritual is used as a summary process to celebrate what the family has achieved through its family meetings and individual discussions. The ritual basically solidifies what the family has accomplished and ritualizes it deeply in the traditions of its religious values and family heritage.

...the forgiveness ritual is used
as a spiritual spark plug
to ignite the family's compassion
and spiritual traditions.

In other instances, the forgiveness ritual is used as a spiritual spark plug to ignite the family's compassion and spiritual traditions. In these types of situations, a road block has occurred and the hope is that the grace created as a result of the ritual will generate a sufficient amount of healing to allow the family to move forward in a positive way.

When the process is utilized, it is always followed up with individual or dyadic type meetings, that is, father and son, or brother and sister type meetings.

From a forgiveness point of view, it's important to define what I mean by forgiveness. There are multiple definitions, but the one I like the best is from Dr. Frederic Luskin's book, Forgive for Good (Luskin, 2002). His book is a part of the Stanford University forgiveness project that teaches individuals about forgiveness and is able to demonstrate in both a before and after fashion the effects of forgiveness training. His definition of forgiveness is as follows.

Forgiveness is the feeling of peace that emerges as you take your hurt less personally, take responsibility for how you feel, and become a hero instead of a victim in the story you tell. Forgiveness is the experience of peacefulness in the present moment. Forgiveness does not change the past, but it changes the present. Forgiveness means that even though you are wounded, you choose to hurt and suffer less. Forgiveness means you become part of the solution. Forgiveness is the understanding that hurt is a normal part of life. Forgiveness is for you and for no one else.You can forgive and rejoin a relationship, or forgive and never speak to the person again. (Luskin, 2002, p. 68)

In his book, Luskin talks about the benefits of forgiveness. The first benefit, and the most important one, is that forgiveness is our assertion that we are not victims of our past. It basically allows people to speak with emotional balance about the people they feel wronged by. He goes on to say: "When we forgive, we become calm enough to say confidently that what our parents taught us was dead wrong.With that calmness, we can chart the best course for our lives. Forgiveness is the beginning of a new chapter, not the end of the story."

The second benefit of learning to forgive is how we can help others - essentially be a role model for them. The most wonderful illustration of this concept is Martin Zaidenstadt, survivor in the book The Last Survivor (Ryback, 1999). Zaidenstadt, a Polish Jew, was shipped to Dakow in 1942. He was 29; now he's 88. After the war, he settled in the city of Dakow, an unusual thing for a Jew from the camps to do.Martin is a witness - 55 years after the fact. Each day he stands outside the ovens witnessing to what he knows. He knows because he was there, because he lost a wife and daughter in this camp, and because he still wakes up screaming. He knows he never left Dakow. This is what Martin had to say on forgiveness.

When people see that I have made a life in the place where I was brought to die, they understand that they too must learn to forgive, that if I can forgive the Germans for what they tried to do to me, they can forgive as well. (Rybeck, 1999)

Not only was Martin healing himself by his witness, but in addition, he was becoming a wonderful role model for all of us in terms of the notion of forgiveness.

The third benefit of forgiveness, according to Luskin, "emerges as we give more love and care to the important people in our lives" (Luskin, 2002, p. 73).

Oscar Wilde was quoted on this topic and said: "Children grow up loving their parents; as they grow older they judge; sometimes they forgive them" (Hazelden, 1986).

In the commentary that accompanied this, the author acknowledges the benefit achieved by forgiving our parents.

Every situation has limited choices, and we work with what we’ve got. As adults, we realize this is exactly where our parents were when we were children. They, too, were born into an important world and to do the best they could. When we can forgive our parents, we are free to accept them as they are, as we might a friend. We can accept them, enjoy the relationship, and forget about collecting old debts. Making peace with them imparts to us the strength of previous generations and helps us be more at peace with ourselves. (Hazelden, 1986)

Wilde's quote captures for me the awesome benefit of forgiveness as it applies to our parents. But the same principle can apply in all our relationships.

Essentially, what Luskin and Wilde are talking about is what I used to speak about metaphorically in my counseling sessions. When you turn your water off to the house, you turn it off at the street, and the whole house is without water. As a result, metaphorically speaking, when we hold a grievance in our heart, we lose our ability to express and receive love from those people who are so close to us.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, in his book From Age-ing to Sage-ing (Schachter-Shalomi & Miller, 1995), talks about the healing properties of forgiveness. He says: "One of the most powerful tools we have is to reformat the template of our being is forgiveness.... [W]e can reach back to repair the places of great hurt - the broken promises, the acts of betrayal, the ruptures and the heartache that come with the territory of intimate relationships, marriages, and divorces. All of us have unhealed emotional scar tissue that keeps our hearts closed and armored against repeated injuries" (Schachter-Shalomi & Miller, 1995, p. 97).

Rabbi Zalman talks about the issue of responsibility in managing differences and forgiveness. He comments on the importance of people realizing their role, even if it's unconscious, in creating problems in families. He says:

We often fail to account for the role that we unconsciously play in creating dysfunctional relationships and situations. All too often we don't ask ourselves, "How did my hidden agenda - my expectations, unacknowledged needs, and unresolved emotional conflicts - lead to my getting hurt?" We cannot forgive the offending party as long as we have not taken responsibility for our own contribution to the misunderstanding. By portraying ourselves as victims we avoid dealing with the pain that we unconsciously inflict on ourselves. Forgiving another's deed against us requires forgiving ourselves for our complicity in the affair. (Schachter-Shalomi & Miller, 1995, p. 98)

One of the key philosophical cornerstones of the ritual is self-responsibility and the notion that each one of us contributes to whatever the issues are in our families.This has often been the hardest part of the ritual for family members to accept.

Another concept of forgiveness that's important to note is "what forgiveness isn't." Forgiveness does not mean condoning or accepting someone or something that hurt you. This common notion is to forgive and forget with emphasis on forgetting rather than forgiveness. It is important for people to realize that they need not continue to place themselves in situations of continual hurt or pain. When it comes to forgetting, I not only encourage clients not to forget, I actually encourage them to embrace and celebrate the hurt as a precursor to letting go.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, in a lecture from his book Full Catastrophe Living (Kabat-Zinn, 1990), speaks eloquently about the paradox of embracing the pain in order to let it go.

McClendon and Kadis comment on this phenomenon in their book Reconciling Relationships and Preserving the Family Business (McClendon & Kadis, 2004).

Moreover, forgiving does not mean that future hurtful acts done by persons who caused earlier afflictions will be excused, avoided, or ignored. Nor does it mean that permission is given for relationships to go back to the way they were before, or that past offenders are now freed from accountability for their actions. Instead, forgiving is a conscious choice to release oneself from the burden of anger and resentment, as well as from overwhelming preoccupation with hurts,which for some people can be an obsession. Forgiveness can also help others release themselves from the anger they hold toward themselves for having participated in the problem, if only as bystanders. (McClendon & Kadis, 2004, p. 179)

The idea is to remember fully, but release yourself from the burden and pain of anger, resentment, and deep hurt. By forgiving, not only do you release yourself from this burden, but you also make it possible, by coming to a place of emotional neutrality, to allow the other to be released and open to new possibilities for the relationship. D. Patrick Miller comments on this phenomenon when he states in his book A Little Book of Forgiveness: "Forgiveness allows one to share what has to change in order for the relationship to continue" (D. P.Miller, 1994, p. 15).

McClendon and Kadis, in their book Reconciling Relationships and Preserving the Family Business (McClendon & Kadis, 2004) note: "Apologizing and forgiving are behaviors of choice - transitional acts that aid family in reestablishing necessary good will, rebuilding relationships, and refocusing on the future" (McClendon and Kadis, p. 177).

In my work I present forgiveness to clients as a new beginning. Forgiveness allows the client system to generate the necessary goodwill to reestablish the family process of building the family's emotional equity and trust. Forgiveness allows the family to create the positive emotional reservoir that is essential to survive the hard times in any family business.

Part Two will discuss the Ritual and a Case Study.


Hazelden. (1986). Touchstones: A book of daily meditations for men. Center City: Hazelden Foundation.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living. New York: Delacorte Press.
Kornfield, J. (2002). The art of forgiveness, loving kindness, and peace. New York: Bantam Books.
Luskin, F. (2002). Forgive for good: A proven prescription for health and happiness. New York: HarperCollins.
Miller, D.P. (1994). A little book of forgiveness. New York: Penguin Group.
Miller, S., & Miller, P. (1994). Collaborative team skills. Littleton: Interpersonal Communications Programs, Inc.
Ryback, T. (1999). The last survivor. New York: Pantheon.
Schachter-Shalomi, Z., & Miller, R. S. (1995). From ageing to sage-ing: A profound new vision of growing older. New York: Warner Books.

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