I live in a high rise on Chicago’s lakeshore. I have always loved living here. When I step into the elevator to leave the building, I love greeting neighbors who join me. When I take our dog Stella out for a walk, I love spending time with the other dog owners who have become our friends – although too often I am better acquainted with the dog than the owner! I love walking on Navy Pier and offering directions to tourists who are lost, even though they have maps open on their smart phones. And I have always loved walking, running and biking on the 20 miles of bike paths that line the lakeshore, happy to see others doing the same.

That is, until now. Until social distancing.

Now, I insist on riding the elevator alone. I walk in the opposite direction of our neighbors and their dogs. I avoid any possibility of offering directions. And although I still walk on the bike path, I avoid any eye contact with fellow travelers.

We haven’t seen our friends in person in weeks. Haven’t been to a restaurant. Haven’t hugged our kids or our 10-month-old grandson.

We are living through a crisis and social distancing is the best coping response we now have. But I am concerned about the long-term impact on our families not only of the crisis itself, but the impact of our steps to cope. That’s because all families cope with crises in one of two ways: either by coming together or by coming apart.  

Some families will confront a crisis with an “all hands-on deck approach:” They will increase the frequency of their communication, share openly their fears and anxieties, share coping strategies and, perhaps most important, reaffirm their love and commitment to each other.

Other families will respond to a crisis quite differently, with an “every person for themselves” approach. Family members may withdraw, isolate themselves, focus inwardly and prepare for the worst.

Cohesion Requires Connection

While there may be good reasons for a family to express either one of these approaches to coping,  enterprising families have a great deal to risk when they follow the “every person for themselves” approach. Isolation, withdrawal and inward focus could undermine the ownership alignment, shared vision and active collaboration that are at the heart of successful family continuity. And this could happen at a time – in the midst of a crisis – when pulling together is crucial for the survival of a business or other form of family enterprise.

It is essential, therefore, that enterprising families be proactive in counteracting any inclination to come apart in the face of a crisis. And it is even more crucial today, given the external demands to cope by social distancing. Indeed, it is crucial that social distancing does not lead an enterprising family to isolate emotionally and relationally, as well as physically.

There are no predictable, consistent stable family characteristics that determine whether one enterprising family will be “all hands-on deck” while another will be “every person for themselves” in the face of a crisis. Indeed, it is likely that every family may find themselves on one path or the other at various times, and that most families are capable of either – coming apart or coming together – depending on the circumstances.  However, in all families an external crisis may intensify negative moods and amplify fissures already present in some relationships by strengthening habits or patterns that already exist, and which may contribute to a splintering of emotional connections.

Some of these patterns include:

  • A personal quality that inclines one to withdraw or isolate in order to cope when faced with difficulties.
  • A pattern of externally demonstrating anger, impatience or intolerance when internally the experience is one of fear, anxiety or depression.
  • A tendency to seek persons to blame for events, actions or choices, rather than seeking a path forward to better manage those circumstances.

Building Cohesion

So, given the impact our current crisis may have on distancing physically, emotionally and relationally, here are some thoughts on how enterprising families in particular may ensure that they come together rather than fall apart.

1. Consider best advice on how any family may manage the impact of social distancing on emotions and relationships. There have been many good recent discussions on this topic, including the following:

2. Understand that personality factors will mean some people are more likely than others to isolate when confronting this crisis. Reaching out to those people may be helpful by simply offering a willing ear to listen to any feelings they may be open to sharing.

3. Understand as well that expressions of blame, anger, or impatience may be “covering up emotions” that reflect deeper feelings of fear, anxiety or depression. Therefore, strive to not take these expressions personally and again, listen deeply.

4. Pay attention to your own personal crisis coping style. If you tend to withdraw when under stress, or to express anger or impatience rather than fear or sadness, or to look for blame rather than solutions, consider the impact this may have on your family and on your enterprise. Might this be an opportunity to try out some new coping skills?

5. Use this crisis to put behind you, at least temporarily, historical conflicts or emotional cut offs. Old hurts are often resilient because ego prevents one from apologizing or forgiving. Externalizing the reason for reaching out – “this crisis affects us all and we need to hang together” – may be the first step toward a broader and longer lasting reconciliation.

Call a Virtual Family Meeting to:

  • Reaffirm the value of family bonds and lead with expressions of love, empathy and compassion.
  • Provide for open dialogue from the extended family on how an operating company may adjust to external circumstances. This would be a valuable exercise to affirm family connections, even if none of the options discussed would actually be implemented.
  • Consider whether and how the family may deploy philanthropic assets to assist your stakeholders, including employees and broader communities. Ensure that all parties have a voice.
  • Revisit a mission or vision statement to consider whether and how this crisis adds meaning or calls forth a revision.

In the midst of this crisis, enterprising families who communicate frequently, who are open with each other, who share conquests and fears, and who enhance any collaborative efforts will be drawn together, while those who shut down, isolate and withdraw into private domains will find themselves drawn apart.