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When Should Spouses Attend Sibling Meetings?

By John Ward, Ph.D.

Approximately half of all family businesses are or will be owned by sibling teams. Many of us who offer advice urge sibling teams to meet together frequently. Should spouses be included in these meetings?

Employed Brother

  • I think we should get together without spouses. Their participation will only complicate things. We haven't much experience among ourselves handling conflict...Besides, I don't like to talk business at home. I live it all day, every day.
  • I understand. In fact, in the long-run, I know we will need the full support of all the spouses. It's valuable to make them a part of the team. I should do a better job of keeping my wife informed. This is a good opportunity to do so.

Inactive Sister

  • *I think it's important that we invite spouses. I let my husband know everything. I respect his judgment about business. I don't feel good about leaving spouses out.
  • Yes, but on the other hand, I know we need to build our sibling team to be stronger. If just we siblings met, we could strengthen our personal bonds more. I like the prospect of getting closer to my brothers.
We're confused!

Legitimately so. We struggle a lot with this question too. Obviously the best course depends a lot on the history and circumstances of each family. But, as a general recommendation, we advise that the first few meetings be "siblings only." From our experience, that team needs to renew their communication skills and abilities to confront conflicts that go way back. To lay that groundwork suggests some sibling-only meetings to identify the important issues and to test the bonds of trust.

We do, however, soon urge the full participation of in-laws. They not only have a huge stake in the future, but can bring fresh perspectives and additional skills to the discussions. And, as we all know, it's better to hear something first hand than to receive information filtered by others.

If families do proceed on this two-step process -- first siblings, then including spouses -- they have the question of what to tell their spouses while the sibling only meetings get things started. We offer a few suggestions:

  • Be clear with the spouses that the reason they are being excluded at the onset is to facilitate stronger bonds among the siblings that have become weaker through the years.
  • Agree on what will be shared with spouses after each meeting.
  • Share with spouses any written notes or agendas, from the meetings.
  • Encourage the in-laws to get together as a group to know each other better and to raise questions they have for the sibling team.
  • Include spouses when the meetings begin to discuss family history, values and codes of conduct.
  • Once the siblings have agreed on the agenda for the future then we recommend that meetings be open to spouses. But, the siblings should still get together regularly to just have lunch, or play golf, or go to trade shows.

We appreciate that this subject is paradoxical. On one hand we always preach inclusion, on the other hand we know how unusual it is for sibling teams to have well developed relationships.  

 

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