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The Presence of the Past

Most of us instinctively know that our family backgrounds influence how we live our lives.

But we’re probably underestimating that influence by a lot.

Let me tell you a story:

When a regular coaching client of mine, “Jack,” a chief financial officer in a mid-sized organization, reached a point of crisis in his relationship with his boss “Judith,” I was invited to help them explore how to improve their relationship.

Each of them spoke to me, individually, about the other.

Judith is a third-generation owner. Her family business has built a strong reputation and national presence. She has grown increasingly frustrated with Jack’s demeanor. Although his technical performance and subject-matter expertise have been excellent, Judith doesn’t like the way Jack treats people.

“He has an anger problem,” she told me. “I’ve watched him interacting with people. He’s arrogant and impatient. I’ve talked with him about this, but, apparently, it hasn’t sunk in.”

Jack, on the other hand, judges Judith as a “silver-spoon” owner who “is only here because of her inherited luck, not her raw talent or work ethic.”

That’s the surface-level explanation of the impasse in their relationship.

But relationship problems always involve more than meets the eye.

Upon deeper exploration, I discovered that Judith’s sensitivity to bombastic men didn’t start with Jack. She experienced her father as a tyrant who constantly criticized her. “People loved my dad. To the public, he was a respectable business leader,” she said, “but in our family, he always had to be right. I don’t know what word I would use to describe him – what’s the opposite of collaborative?”

Strikingly, she stated: “Jack reminds me of my dad.”

Jack’s family history involved generation-defining financial struggle. His grandfather, Marvin, managed the biggest tool and die company in Western Pennsylvania, earning two patents and helping the company build an international standing in quality. The well-heeled family that owned the business sold it to a large out-of-state competitor, and Marvin, then 56, was fired.

That firing ignited Marvin’s long-standing resentment towards the business-owning family, and led to financial struggle for the remainder of his life. Years later, Marvin’s daughter communicated messages of “the betrayal” to her son, Jack, and his siblings.

Even a casual observer might notice the pattern of suspicion that likely influenced Jack’s judgment about Judith’s “privilege.”

It’s much too easy to evaluate a situation based on shallow understanding rather than taking the time to discover what’s really influencing the interactions.

As a coach, my goal is to help each participant in a relationship impasse “think family systems” – that is, understand clearly and deeply how their own family experiences may be impacting here-and-now responses.

That awareness often makes it possible to see our beliefs and behaviors not as our own inventions, but as family patterns passed down over one or more generations. The hope is that such clarity helps us become more objective about ourselves, and less triggered by the presence of the past.

We can apply this awareness in relationships everywhere, by developing genuine curiosity about what hidden factors might be influencing those with whom we experience tension.

The goal is to increase understanding about “what’s really going on here” moving beyond judgmental roadblocks to productive, rewarding relationships.

Jack and Judith give us an example of two motivated leaders. Each broadened their awareness of the family forces influencing them. The intensity of their sparring decreased as they acknowledged the incompleteness of their initial assumptions. Their new perspectives allowed them to pursue generative dialogue and sing their relationship song in a different key.

Family history influences all of us through the presence of the past. When we can become aware of those powerful forces, it’s often a game-changer.


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