This week, Eefje Chalmers, a family business advisor with
Deloitte Netherlands, discusses the dynamics of family
Many people are creatures of habit. When given the choice they
like to sit in the same place at every meeting. They may like to
see the door – out of comfort or cultural habit – or
they might prefer sitting next to a particular person. Even in
classes and courses, the same people always sit in the front row
and others might feel more comfortable in the back row.
A seating arrangement can psychologically influence a meeting
however. Looking at family meetings, people tend to seek a
comfortable place, next to someone they like. Individuals often
also try to sit as far away from people they do not like as much or
feel dominated by. Someone who wants to exert influence may seek
direct eye contact with the person she or he wants to influence,
and this person may therefore choose a strategically powerful
position. People who want someone to take notice of them often sit
to the right or opposite of that person. Or better still, take a
seat next to the leader as everyone will be looking at the leader
and will therefore automatically look at you as well.
If the aim of a particular meeting is problem-solving, the
person organizing the meeting may want to encourage an environment
of open discussion with a high level of interaction and
participation of all people involved. A round table is an excellent
option in such a case - all seats are considered neutral and there
is no head of the table.
However, in the case that the purpose of a meeting is to make a
decision, a rectangular table with a leader at the head of the
table can be preferable. One should try to avoid conflicting
personalities sitting next to or across from each other - it can be
preferable that these conflicting personalities are spread within
In a family I have previously worked with, one family member
often has an opinion, but can feel insecure as a result of some
issues in the past. In this case, she had decided that her opinion
was not worth sharing.
We therefore knew from the start that it would be challenging to
get this family member to speak up and be part of the discussion in
family meetings, which we took into account during our preparation.
In fact, we decided that one of us would sit directly across from
her, so that we were able to notice her reactions (verbal and
non-verbal) to the topics discussed during the meeting and to
ensure she was involved in the discussion. The result was that all
family members were actively involved in the discussion.
Later in the process, this family member shared with us that
during the second meeting, she sat next to my colleague who had
been keeping her involved in the discussion during the first
meeting, hoping that by positioning herself this way she would be
out of my colleague's line of sight (and attention) and that
she would be able to lapse into old habits. She realized afterwards
through reflecting on her previous experience that, in fact,
engaging in the conversation was better for the family as a whole
and for her personally.
For her, these two meetings changed her role within the family
and the family dynamics in general. After two intense meetings of
being involved in the discussion and sharing her opinion with her
family members and being heard, she was committed to make the
transfer of ownership of the business a family success.
Family meetings can be important to ensure the continuity of the
family business and to build a stronger business as well as a
stronger family. It is vital not to underestimate the importance of
your position at the table during such meetings.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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