Have you ever been blind-sided by the scope and impact of a transition in your world that you just didn’t see?
It isn’t unusual for small business owners. Or business partners. Or large organizations. Or – in my experience – families who own a cabin together.
If you grew up in Minnesota or Wisconsin, you may be familiar with how common, ubiquitous and emotionally-loaded shared family cabins can be.
After my grandpa’s death in 1961, my grandma was determined to buy a cabin. She’d spent childhood summers at a cottage on Lake Minnetonka, and wanted her grandchildren to have the same opportunity to create shared memories on a lake. She found the perfect one that same year. For the next 47 years my extended family spent several weeks each summer at the cabin fishing, reading, sailing and creating the kind of memories my grandma had imagined.
Over the years, my father and his three siblings created a system of shared ownership that allowed each family to make it their own while sharing maintenance, cleaning, expenses, and an occasional weekend there together. Since my father and uncles were all Lutheran pastors, we had the common experience of living in homes we didn’t own (parsonages) and were encouraged by church policy to move often. The cabin became a very sacred and meaningful place for each of us.
In 2008, it started to fall apart.
We’d just survived a challenging spring weekend, preparing the cabin for the summer. Twenty of us, ages 2 – 65, arrived ready to clean and enjoy the weekend. The water pump wasn’t working, so we had no water. My brothers worked diligently to fix it, but weren’t successful. We spent 48 hours dependent on the generosity of our neighbors as we hauled water for cooking and cleaning. Throughout the weekend, there was an unacknowledged conflict at play between those who thought we should bite the bullet and hire professional help, and those who thought we should do the work ourselves. The latter group prevailed, and the pump was repaired…until it broke down again a few days later.
A day after we returned home, my siblings and I received an email from my uncle. I can’t remember the content now, but I remember the feeling. It was as though we’d been slapped – albeit virtually.
After decades of our families kindly and calmly co-existing, my uncle was expressing a kind of pain and anger we hadn’t seen before. As indirect, conflict avoidant, nice pastors’ kids, we were shocked. We had no roadmap for handling conflict within the extended family. It felt scary and dangerous. The divisions among us were exposed. The irritation and judgment were no longer covered up.
Have you ever had that experience? Being suddenly smacked by a reality you didn’t see coming and feeling completely unprepared to handle?
I knew we had to get the conflict out of email rapidly, or risk escalating the conflict.
For some unknown reason, I volunteered to wade into the fray by initiating a call to my uncle and aunt. I’d never had a “real” conversation with them before, especially one that clearly contained so much emotion. I had to make myself dial the phone.
That initial phone call lasted for two hours. As we talked through some painful situations, it became clear that we’d been ignoring a larger reality. The ownership needed to transfer to the next generation – my generation – because three of the four siblings had died, and the systems they had put in place were no longer working as intended. At the same time, the next generation wasn’t prepared. We didn’t have the skills, relationships or aligned vision we needed to figure out a new way to make it work.
The “system” had been able to handle the deaths of the first two siblings. We grieved, but continued to work through the issues as needed. When my third uncle died, the system started to falter. That uncle had been the heart and soul of the cabin. He brought humor, financial management and a steady hand to the annual operations. When he died, we wanted to believe that the system could handle it. We carried on, naively hoping if we didn’t acknowledge the impact of his death on our experience of sharing the cabin, it wouldn’t be as painful.
Once we were able to name the current reality on that phone call – with all the grief and hurt it contained – we were able to find a path forward. The issue of whether or not we should have paid a plumber to fix the pump was never really the issue – it was just pointing the larger system failure. We needed to let go of what had been, and step into what was now needed.
In the years since that phone call, we’ve learned how to have hard conversations about expectations, assumptions, values and money. We’ve made new agreements, worked with a lawyer, and found a way for family members to exit the ownership agreement while remaining connected to the experience the cabin provided.
We needed to shift the system in response to our changing reality. But we couldn’t do that work until we were willing to see the new reality.
My uncle’s willingness to hit send on the email was courageous. And vulnerable. It opened the conversation that needed to happen, and I continue to be grateful that he did.
Conflict in a “system” is often a sign that something needs to change. Leaders are willing to enter the conflict with curiosity and an open heart, even when they can’t yet see what is needed.
If you find yourself in conflict, either with family or with your business partner, make sure to take a step back and reflect on what has changed or may need to change in your “system.” Replacing the pump is a short term fix – the underlying conflict will remain until it gets identified. If you’re unsure about whether or not the simmering conflict is in you or your system, reach out for a complimentary conversation with me. I see systems quickly, and our conversation may open a path forward that you can’t see right now