For one family, it’s the time that dad and his older brother parted ways after months of shouting matches over how to grow the business.

For another family, it’s the time that the youngest sister had to be fired because of inappropriate behavior on the job, or when the brother-in-law was asked to leave the business because his management style just didn’t fit the corporate culture.

For yet another family, it’s the time that one entire branch of the family stopped communicating with the rest of the family because of unexpected provisions in grandpa’s will that only became known after his death.

No matter what a family’s size, ethnicity or location, it is likely to have a painful period in the past that is shrouded in mystery. Folks that lived through that time don’t want to talk about it. Besides, because of the emotion and trauma involved, there is never one clear picture of what happened. Raising the topic means bringing up pain and suffering from the past, and possibly reigniting another round of arguments, disagreements and family tension. Younger family members who weren’t involved with the events may want to know what really happened but don’t believe it’s their place to raise the subject.

As time goes on, the need to know and learn from the past becomes stronger than the need to protect and avoid. As the next generation develops policies and practices aimed at creating fairness, respect and trust in their generation, they experience a growing impulse to explore the successes – and failures – of the past. Often, they have worked hard to build relationships and communication skills. They are ready to explore the full story of what happened but don’t know where to start. How can they learn without creating more hurt or threatening current relationships?

Tips to Opening Up Difficult Conversations

  • Be clear about why you want to open up the topic and create an approach that matches your goals. For example, you may be creating policies for the next generation and want to learn from the experience of the past. Or, you may be seeking to build deeper relationships characterized by more open, emotional communication between family members. Or, you may want to give the older generation an opportunity to have their experiences heard and acknowledged. Being clear about your purpose will foster success in the process.
  • Build the family’s capacity to take on tough issues before you get started. Teach people about family and group dynamics, and best practices in communications and conflict management. If there is meaningful absence of trust – or the related wounds from this past are still experienced intensely by some, you may need to bring in a facilitator or “neutral” advisor who can ensure these discussions are held in an environment that feels safe for all members of the family.
  • Take it one step at a time. Seek modest, incremental understanding and sharing rather than a data dump of every thought or feeling anyone has ever had. Break down a large issue into its component parts and take the parts one at a time.
  • Make space for everyone to share their experience and story with respect. Establish clear confidentiality guidelines and strictly adhere to them.

Many families find that when they finally open up Pandora’s Box, its contents aren’t as threatening as they had feared, especially when they complete careful and thorough preparations for the effort. Family members gain great relief from finally sharing experiences that have been long kept under wraps. Many times the process shows family members that the differences between them are not as great as they had feared. By coming together to learn more about difficult events in the family’s past, the family becomes better equipped to avoid repeating them in the future.