Family Meetings Are Successful Becuase Difficult People Seldom Attend

Thomas William Deans Ph.D.
April 9, 2024
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I have to confess that the most fun I’ve had as a speaker over the past 17 years is not the big-stage events in Vegas or Chicago, but rather presentations to a single family who are meeting for the first time to talk about their wealth.

When an advisor hires me to do a client appreciation event, I’ll often tag-on a family meeting facilitation for them, while I’m in town. I have a couple of rules – it must be the family’s first meeting, and I never meet with the same family twice. I believe that when advisors see what I do, they often see their own potential to facilitate these meetings. In some cases, when an advisor feels that meeting facilitation just isn't their thing, he or she will engage a professional meeting facilitator to run future meetings – and make no mistake, there will be future meetings.

There is something exciting about a family gathering to talk about their wealth for the very first time. Of course there is an awkwardness, even some mild anxiety about how these meetings will unfold.  But I also know that a family who actually assembles with their advisor for a first family meeting, will almost always agree to a second, third, and fourth meeting.

It took me a long time to understand how and why families are self-selecting when it comes to agreeing to gather.  A clinical psychologist, described to me how ten-medically recognized personality disorders cause major disruptions inside family systems. From antisocial to borderline to schizoid, she gave me a personality disorder masterclass based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 -- otherwise known as the DSM-5.

But there was one personality disorder above all others that the clinical psychologist paid extra attention to – the covert narcissist. She explained that covert narcissists are hard to spot, but their numbers are large -- roughly 6 million US and Canadian adults exhibit persistent traits that would land them with a formal diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder or NPD.

In short, covert narcissists are deeply insecure, controlling, manipulative, pathological liars who are thin-skinned and prone to rage. They are, in families in the workplace, golf clubs -- everywhere. In the family system they divide and concur. They commonly, set up a dynamic so that someone is always in and someone is always out. They are basically emotional 8-year-olds in adult bodies who can't self-regulate their emotions. But there is a catch. They can also be incredibly charming, wealthy, and often ascend to the top of hierarchies in corporations and governments (on the left and the right). Lastly, and above all else, narcissists lack empathy – they are simply not kind people. They can play at being kind, but it's not a persistent quality. That's why they are called covert.

It rare that a narcissist would ever agree to attend a family meeting. In fact, the idea of them attending is almost comical. After a narcissist has finished their handiwork of dividing and splitting relationships, there is usually no family left to meet (at least not in any real sense of the word). Are you starting to see why family meetings are a success?  It's because they are self-selecting.

This is not to suggest that someone who refuses to attend a family meeting is automatically a narcissist. Some people simply don't understand what a family meeting is, or they may believe it is something that only the ultra wealthy do, or they may be influenced by their own culture that discourages open, transparent family conversations about money.

The bigger point is that when a family does agree to a family meeting, we see people who are the antithesis of the narcissist – they are kind, decent people who want the best for their family. Trust, mutual respect, and empathy are in ample supply. These are people who don't need to diminish someone in order to raise their own self-esteem. These are the people who do the opposite by preparing their heirs for wealth transfers. These are the kind of people who you want as your, family, friends and clients, not narcissists who thrive on conflict.

So my advice is, set aside your own fear of a family meeting ending badly. If your family agrees to gather for their first meeting, you have a high probability that they are well-intentioned and committed to building smart wealth transfer plans.

Family meetings are entering the manstream - and not just for the ultra wealthy. Middle class families with a cottage are relying on their advisors to gather and facilitate an orderly transition of wealth. The same for business owners wrestling with how to transition a business when one sibling is in the business and the other is not.

If you are curious about what a successful family meeting looks like, order your copy of The Happy Inheritor  here: