Application of Bowen Family Systems Theory in Consulting to Family Businesses, with Kathy Wiseman

So much of what gets decided in business is based on relationships.”

On November 12, Kathy Wiseman presented a day of her thinking about how she uses Bowen family systems theory in her work as a family business consultant. She encouraged the audience to think about how they go about their own work. The goal was to stimulate thinking about the field of family business consulting as seen through the lens of emotional process. Ms. Wiseman told the audience how she came to her interest in emotional process, Bowen theory, and family business through her own family history and from her experiences in the field. She showed a video documenting the natural history of a family business succession through the lens of emotional process over a period of ten years.She talked about the challenges and outcomes of her consultation experiences with several family business foundations and outlined her approach to consulting. To demonstrate a principle for productive family meetings, she led the audience in an exercise of thinking in groups that are structured to protect and promote individuality.

Four Themes in the Application of Theory to the Family Emotional System in Family Business

1. Relationships are the underlying determinants of how individuals make decisions and the problems in doing so.

In families and in the workplace people are connected and interdependent and they depend on one another. Whenever people spend time together it is automatic that an emotional system is established. People develop opinions about one another and they affect the ability to work together and make decisions.
The degree of ability to work together, and to separate, varies between workplaces. Those connected to the system such as suppliers and consultants are all part of the system.
In groups emotionality shows up as anxiety and is transmitted instantaneously. Each person influences the emotional system and has the ability to affect the entire group to decrease anxiety.
The impact of anxiety on thinking and sensitivity in the group is not often recognized, but if someone can recognize the anxiety and take positions that slow down reactivity so that people can think more it can make a difference. With anxiety everything gets amped up including real and imaginary problems, making everything more difficult to deal with.

2. Consultation based on knowledge of emotional process involves structuring a process over time that facilitates individuality and thinking in the family. This is so that the family is better able to come to a resolution that fits them and that steps they will take are ones that are best for them and their assets.

Expectations that the family problem can be solved by prescribing what to do can work out for some, some of the time. Often however the emotional process is such that it will take time for a family to resolve the underlying tensions that block resolution. If the consultant can stay neutral and in contact with the family, the family has a way of finding their own way through the impasses. The family may need a long period of time to process all the issues and for the individual family members to be able to define where they stand.

Pushing people to bring emotional issues out in leadership retreats and family meetings can result in the escalation of anxiety rather than the resolution of emotional issues. In a family or leadership team where the emotionality is too intense externalizing issues in a haphazard way will not have good results. Understanding what happens when anxiety hits is a guiding principle. Another guiding principle is to structure meetings to protect and promote individuality as a way to interrupt the reactivity in the group and promote productive thinking.
The subject of individuality in groups sparked a lot of discussion.

3. Like the client family, the consultant’s functioning is affected by their relationships

The consultant is influenced by their own family relationships, which impacts how they relate to clients.  Understanding one’s own family means the consultant has the ability to understand how they are being influenced all the time and to manage self based on understanding it.  For instance, how the consultant is programmed to automatically operate in a problem situation may not be effective. “Knowing what you are bringing with you helps you get a better sense of families you are working with even if they are very wealthy.”
When the challenges of the consultant’s own system are too great, they may not be able to maintain a self in relation to the emotional pressures of the client system. A consultant who is anxious in his or her own system is vulnerable to the emotional process in the client and to losing perspective along with the possibility of progress. It’s humbling.

4. To facilitate individuality and the best thinking of all involved the posture of the consultant is one of inquiry and neutrality.

The posture of inquiry and neutrality fosters individuality and a productive group process. The consultant’s posture is one of interest in how others think and how they came to think as they do. There is recognition that the individual contribution to thinking of each person is potentially important.

The Family Business Succession Case Study

Ms Wiseman took a research posture in the family business succession case study. She began the project to see if she could track succession as an emotional process. The emotional process in succession, even between a mother and a daughter over holiday dinners, can be very significant. Understanding succession as emotional process might help with the question of what is the help that helps?

The video of a father and son over ten years in a process transferring leadership in a national company involved interviewing them separately and together. They reflect on their relationship and the struggle to define and separate their roles and responsibilities in the company. The son was experienced in business his own right and he learned the family business from the father. As the son struggled to take leadership his father struggled over relinquishing it. and they differed over how to go forward.

The study was not a study of consulting or coaching, but of just observing the very emotional nature of succession. The neutrality of the interviewer may have been important in the thoughtful and reflective way both the father and son described what they were struggling with and their candor may have been important in the response the video has elicited from audiences.

While some react to the emotionality and want the interviewer to do something to fix it, it is interesting how many others focus on thinking about emotional process in their own lives rather than on what’s right or wrong with the consultant or the family.

Some questions raised in discussion were: Would the family have been better off had the son not entered to take over leading the family business or if he had left it sooner? If the level of differentiation in the family is low and the fusion is high is it wise for a family to be in business together? How do people end up in their family’s business – is it a motivated or a reasoned process, or is it a very automatic emotional process driven by the larger system? What about the positive value of the many opportunities for differentiation of self emerge for family members in business together? How much success can be expected from prescribing administrative solutions if the underlying emotional entanglement is what gets the process stuck?

Consulting and Coaching

The consultant strives to think systems as much as possible and to identify where the anxiety is in the family, and in the consultant, as well as how patterns can be interrupted. Here is an outline of the process Ms. Wiseman uses:

1. The question the family brings is considered carefully.
2. The consultant observes and helps the family observe the larger system.
3. The consultant helps the family move to emotional neutrality and calmer consideration of where they are.
4. The consultant continues to be present.
5. The family takes a stand to the question if they can.
6. The consultant continues to be present.

Consultation Cases of Transferring Wealth to the Next Generation

Three cases were presented of families with foundations trying to plan the transfer of assets to the next generation. These cases illustrate some of the variations in family emotional process and the associated problems families face in decision-making for the future. The consulting project varies accordingly.

In a family where there were multiple marriages with children, the parents were trying to decide how much money to leave to a family foundation and how much to leave to the children. The parents wanted to talk about it with all their children together (which is wise since this reduces the potential of legal challenges later after the parents’ death). The first family meeting the family tried to do blew up emotionally. The consultant had put the meeting together based on a togetherness orientation in which family members expressed feelings to one another without clarity about the purpose of the meeting. The second consultant put in a whole lot of work and called in a second consultant to help cover all the bases before the next attempt at a family meeting. The goals in for the meeting were to clarify its purpose –for the parents to hear the children’s thinking and the children to hear the parents and one another’s’ thinking before the parents would go about making the decisions – and to learn enough about the emotional process in the family to manage it effectively in the meeting and throughout the consulting effort. Additionally, the principle of protecting and promoting individuality in the way the process of the meeting was structured was key to the success the second time around.

In another family, the parents were stuck in their estate planning over the issue of how much to leave to the children and how much to the family foundation. In this case the answers for them emerged through in a number of steps that took place over a number of years. The adult children gradually defined themselves in relationship to the family foundation and in doing so altered the foundation and its mission to be consistent with their life goals. The children’s life goals also developed in new ways as a result. The family foundation advisors provided some creative structures the family used such as a family bank, but they mostly supported the process that unfolded in the family as their thoughtful interactions with one another gradually produced a very satisfying outcome for the family members and for their foundation.

Another case involved a family foundation where the younger generation did not have the capacity to take it over. The foundation leadership was passed from father to a daughter who found herself in the difficult position of surveying the young people in the family and not seeing a capable successor. The consulting principle was to simply continue talking with the daughter as she considered her options such as to spend the foundation down. The question for the daughter was how to best honor the legacy left her that she was no longer willing to carry on her own and was unable to transfer in the family.

Exercise in the Principle of Individuality and Thinking in a Group

The group exercise was an experiment in an effort to apply theory and demonstrate for audiences how structuring the process in a group to protect and promote individuality impacts thinking. The question is whether having such an exercise at the end of the meeting would benefit each person in integrating their ideas from the day and if individual thinking can be enhanced by listening to the thinking of others.

In trying to apply the ideas of this theory requires appreciation of what people are up against, and what they are up against is approval and disapproval – somebody shakes their head a little one way or the other. What does it take to let somebody talk without influencing them with approval, disapproval or interruption? That can be difficult. We are such social animals and are profoundly affected by one another’s approval. So to take a stand in ones own family that is different and risks disapproval can be an enormous undertaking for many people.

The exercise: Sitting in small groups of five, each person thinks alone for 5 minutes about their questions and ideas from the day or any question or idea or situation on their mind. Each person then reports, one at a time, their thinking, for as long as it takes to get their ideas out and until they say they are done. Then the next person speaks to get their idea out until they say they are done. Go around the table once, then twice, and if possible three times. It is not allowed to ask any questions or make any comments. You are telling your thinking from today. You don’t have to have a relationship with the people.

These are some of thoughts and observations reported by participants after the exercise…

It is easier to listen when you are not looking at anyone, which gets you into seeking connection with concern about response from the other. There was a lot of difference between people about what ideas and questions they were thinking about.  There was a desire to connect and its hard not to try to. It’s automatic to be concerned about the reaction of others. The exercise required in a small way each person to define a self in the group without any feedback. Not looking at one another forced thinking more deeply for oneself and resulted in the sharing being more individualized.

How do you get ideas during the day and how do you integrate them? While one person found they included more in their own thinking after each time listening around the table, and that a lot was added for them in even just two times around, someone else found their thinking did not change. Someone else thought the exercise would help consolidate their memory of the main ideas of the day. A related question the exercise brought up was what does it take to hear and be heard in a group?

Someone reported on how they were thinking about talking about issues in their own family about inheritance. Someone reported on how they were thinking about relationships in their family business.

As opposed to setting up a situation to develop individual thinking often groups operate on the principle of consensus and agreement. On boards, for instance, conversations that occur with everyone present in the meeting can be quite different from conversations afterwards when people say what they really think. It is often really tough to get that thinking out on the table and not end up with superficial group discussion.

Structuring meetings to support individual thinking could go some distance in interrupting automatic process, slowing it down by posing a question and letting people listen to each other. What might emerge and be accomplished with a family thinking about the future, going around three and four times, following a thought through?  It is hard and requires discipline.


Ms. Wiseman ended the day with a personal story. In a clear state of mind about emotional process after the Bowen Center symposium, she is with her 8 year old grandson at the park and he confides to her that he is shy and is bothered by not knowing how to get in the pickup soccer game his older brother just joined. Instead of advising Kathy indicates to him that she understands because she gets shy at cocktail parties and can find it hard to know what to say and do. Pretty soon he was actively trying to join the soccer game and he ultimately succeeded.

“When people need to think about complicated things that are emotional triggers for them, very aggressive suggestions are not as helpful as just being there and having a way to think about it. I watched him figure it out. I think that was an interesting lesson in how you consult when people are in very emotional territory.”


After the meeting I emailed and asked people if they would be willing to email me a short summary of their thoughts for this blog reflecting on the ideas of the meeting to continue the thinking in another virtual go around. Here are the responses that came back… Laura Havstad

“I was trying to think what made me so energized after the conference. I came up with a few thoughts. 1. Kathy led us into her work, as she presented it, with the curiosity and enthusiasm, and the thinking out of the box that had led her into it. 2. Kathy encouraged openness and questioning both in her work and in how she led the audience. 3. “The individual-thinking-in-a-group” ended the session by adding an additional powerful way to be ones self, express self in the process of being ones own self, and hearing others still being ones self and hearing with openness.
This was the way I perceived the day.
Hope that makes sense, Inge Weinber

“The day was very rich and thought-provoking for me. I struggled to write a summary that would reflect why the day was useful to me, and yet also be intelligible to others. As an alternative, I’ve included some “best hits” from the day for me
– The importance of relationships in decision-making -this is an often hidden vector.
– Asking, “where is his functioning?” Not “where is his dysfunction?”- A different philosophy from togetherness, talking about feelings and how you’ve hurt me. It’s about what each person thinks as an individual. Developing a personal point of view.
– A group isn’t a family, but develops an interdependence based on each other as they interact. They come to know each other, notice each other.
– [Note to self: When presenting, throughout the day, remind the room that the day is about them developing their thinking.]
– A group frame that says, “As a speaker, your goal is to develop your own thinking. As a listener, you are here to support others in developing their thinking.”
Paul Konasewich

Dear Laura,
I thought the conference was a good one and I appreciated the work on both your part and Kathy’s, which went into designing and producing it. The exercise at the end was a very useful experiment, and I was eager to participate.  At the end of it, I did not find it as useful as I had hoped. I was pretty clear about my own thinking. I found the listening to others without interrupting very useful and respectful.
This may sound a bit different, but one of the memorable features of the conference for me was Kathy’s comment at the beginning, which went something like “Here I am in a red outfit, but who I really am is this.” At that point, she turned a page on the flip chart to reveal the diagram of her family. I thought to myself, “Well, through a systems lens, that is who we all are.” When I went home I looked more closely not just at my family, but also my husband’s family. This effort generated a freshened perspective for our fit in our respective families and how these fits impact our interaction.
I thought the examples of G & B were excellent illustrations of the heart of the matter in Bowen Theory for me, and that is developing self and maintaining effective contact with others.
Again, my thanks to both you and Kathy for your hard, productive work.”
Cynthia Kohles

Three things stood out for me at the meeting– (1) the great importance of relationships in decision making, (2) how emotional the succession of a business or just money can be and (3) how useful the idea of arriving at more individual thinking in a group can be and how this might be enhanced by having people think through a list of relevant questions all by themselves prior to any important family meeting and then have uninterrupted time to present their ideas at the meeting without any feedback. I hope to use this idea in the future. I have also gotten to thinking more about the succession of the farm and money in my own family. I’m wondering if there are things I still need to do. I am also curious how family members think about the prospect of more money in their lives. I intend to ask them if they can think of more things I need to do. I also intend to make a list of important possessions and memorabilia for each of them to look over and decide and prioritize what they would like to have and mark what they know they don’t want. Finally, I intend to lay out for both children exactly what our assets are. I’m sure there will be more ideas to come.”
Pat Scofield

”Hi Laura,
The most potent part of the day with Kathy Wiseman for me was the interview, of the father and son describing their experience of being in the business together, separation when the son went his own way, each reflecting back and the perhaps not so surprising decision of the son to start a business with his children. It was an illustration of family emotional process, which got me thinking more about how my family system impacts my participation in a family business.

Mary Helm”

“Some Thoughts Stimulated and Regenerated by Kathy Wiseman’s Meeting on November 12, 2011
Yesterday afternoon I went to see the new film The Descendants” and as it ended I became aware of the tearful reactions of those around me. I observed my own reaction and reflected for a moment on what my response to this family drama might have been twenty years ago, or pre-Bowen Theory. No doubt I would have reacted with similar emotions. Yesterday’s response was more one of interest in how this family, presented with great challenges, would find their way and less about the emotional process that consumed their unit as the drama unfolded. I sat in the theater for several minutes after the film ended and reflected on my thoughts, taking note of my reaction and the significant change in how I look families, my own and those of my clients since studying this theory.
Kathy Wiseman’s presentation and her emphasis on striving for a non-reactive process in her work has stayed with me and influenced my thinking or more accurately has reminded me to think more and react less in my own life and particularly in my work. Her question “What is the help that helps?” has stayed with me as a reminder to resist getting caught in emotionality.
Kathy’s comments “the group becomes affected by its most dramatic element” and “groups transmit emotional stimuli instantaneously like a virus or electricity” ring true here. The tendency to grasp for quick solutions to relieve anxiety is ever present. My own goal is to continue to develop the ability to sit on my reactions and resist engaging in the free-for-all that often results, to remain calm and ask questions.
One thing that has stayed with me after Kathy’s presentation was the way in which she modeled a non-reactive stance as she fielded questions and comments from meeting participants. She was very neutral in her body language as she heard people out, allowing them to develop their own thinking without head nods, smiles, etc.
The group exercise at the end of the day was a way for us to practice this same stance as we heard our group members out without interruption or feedback as they talked about and refined their thinking. The desire to get approval, be liked (and hence influenced) was less of a force in this structured exercise. I found it somewhat difficult to really articulate my thoughts in the moment; the real benefit has been my continued efforts to return again and again to develop my thinking, be less solution-oriented and to appreciate that life just happens. Any attempt on my part to “fix” things for others says more about my own anxiety and less about their situation. Again, there is that question: “What is the help that helps?”

Kathy Wiseman, MBA, CEO of Working Systems, is a family business consultant practicing with the Learning Space and is on the faculty of the Bowen Center in Washington, DC.