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Dead Cats are like the elephant in the room but smellier. When you have a Dead Cat to deal with, your family dynamic will be hard to navigate. As a metaphor, Dead Cats perfectly captures how dealing with the hardest conversations for family members in business together can feel.

On the one hand, no-one wants to go there – Dead Cats really smell, are unpleasant to touch and you’re not sure what other surprises could be revealed. Rubber gloves, face masks and nose pegs might all be needed if we are going to get into the relationship clean-up they call for. On the other hand, you have to tackle them: if you don’t deal with the Dead Cats they keep negatively impacting family dynamic. The smell has a habit of getting worse and seeping into everything.

When 40 people joined our recent workshop on ‘Burying the Dead Cats’ at Family Business United’s spring conference in London, they were asked to consider how they feel in their relationships when they are not dealing with a Dead Cat issue.

The Cool Cats word cloud for this exercise shows that the emotional states they captured were overwhelmingly positive: happy, calm, safe, collaborative, feeling seen, heard and valued, a sense of fun and even joy and excitement. Evidence of a good dynamic.

By contrast, when thinking about their Dead Cats, there is a clear emotional shift. Frustration comes to the fore, mixed with anger, anxiety, loneliness, and hopelessness. Notably there was a move from feeling heard and valued to vulnerable and devalued.

Both states are probably familiar to you. As humans it’s normal for our emotions to fluctuate.

Whether or not our family dynamic is problematic, everyone has ups and downs in their relationships, and everyone has conversations they avoid or handle badly.

However, sometimes the ups and downs of family business life become mired in longer term problems, and this is when communication breaks down and rifts emerge. The pressure of being in business together exposes our different wants and needs, brings emotion and then confusion to communication, and makes families in business vulnerable to conflict.

What is going on to create this vulnerability? The roots of moods and emotions are sensations called “affect”. Serious depression or anxiety illnesses are called “affective” or “mood” disorders. When we have an affective illness, there will be inflexible or chronic moods that we struggle to shift without help, like depression. Our moods colour how we make sense of everything that is happening.

When moods become inflexible, they can shift our perceptions in ways that make little sense to loved ones. Sense, nonsense, meaning, meaningless, “that’s not what I mean”, “you are making no sense!” [I don’t understand] “I don’t believe you” “I can’t trust you” [I don’t feel safe].

It is how things feel that is the main way we make sense of the world around us.

When we are not in the grip of a mood illness our moods and feelings vary widely and this is healthy. It is captured well by the Affect Model. Pleasure and discomfort are nature’s way of encouraging learning.

Imagine climbing up a ladder – for most of us, the higher we get the more intense it feels, and whether that is elation or fear depends on how safe we feel on the ladder.

Look at the states at the top of the ladders in the affect model – where tone and intensity are high - our behaviour becomes reactive and powerful. We feel intolerable discomfort or unsustainable highs, and an irresistible urge for these feelings to go away: to climb down so that we feel comfortable and safe.

Feeling off balance and unsafe physically and in relationships comes from our nervous system. Feelings are generated by processes that keep us in balance in life. These include how we adapt to changes during the day, and consistency needs like temperature or energy. Our feelings are instructions to change something to stay in balance, or to stay safe, whether that means taking a paracetamol for a high temperature, eating when hungry or slamming a door and walking out of a row.

Models of our physiological needs perfectly describe why and how our behaviour changes when we are calm, distressed or elated.

Our feelings and behaviours when we are dealing with Dead Cats, mirror the physical state of being off balance.

If you look again at the word clouds, perhaps you can pick up the emotional patterns shown in the Affect Model? In the Dead Cats word cloud can you sense more discomfort and intensity? If you’ve recently experienced a row, can you remember what it felt like physically - did you feel tight, tense, and rigid? Was your (and others) behaviour and language more inflexible and intense? Would you agree this word cloud feels uncomfortable and unsafe?

Now look at the Cool Cats word cloud again – isn’t the vibe pleasant? Do you agree the tone is less intense? Can you see the language is more flexible? Would “comfortable” and “safe” be good words to describe this?

So, what are Dead Cats and why are they so unpleasant? They are our energised nervous system reactions when our needs are not being met. This is why they are visceral and throw us off balance. They result in a breakdown in communication because being off balance triggers a threat response.

Typically, we can all behave in similar inflexible, intractable ways when we encounter a Dead Cat. In our culture and lives we are taught to avoid emotions, instead of experiencing them fully to gain control of them. As we cannot learn what we avoid and can only learn what we experience, we keep repeating the same behaviour. However, as humans we are able to learn greater emotional and social intelligence skills in order to tackle the routine Dead Cats in our lives in a more useful way.

Mindfulness is a bit of a buzz word these days but at its heart lie ancient teachings designed to help people cope in war. Many modern, scientifically tested therapies place mindfulness at their centre: teaching people how to control of their emotional states, by being more aware of the feelings they’re experiencing and also choosing not to react. If you would like to explore this further a great read is ‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy’ by Steven C Hayes – while changing your old habits might feel uncomfortable, tolerating the discomfort can be incredibly useful when dealing with Dead Cats in your day to day life.

When a family or team has a room full of Dead Cats, it’s easy to understand how these may even put the business under threat. It’s at this point Alembic are often brought in to help Bury the Dead Cats – to facilitate uncomfortable conversations, expressing and listening to difficult emotions or behaviours, so those involved can express feeling unsafe and understand what has happened and what is needed more deeply.

If it’s a rift, the first step to resolving it is processing feelings in a safe way. If it’s not yet a rift but there is a lot of tension between team or family members, Burying the Dead Cats will clear the air, and, as we like to say, can make the impossible possible once more.

Every business is different and the issues they face will be unique. It could be a fallout between sibling founders once private equity backing has been secured to develop the business. It could also be that the business experiences an implosion in the relationship between the CEO and newly promoted MD during succession, resulting in the possible loss of the latter and all their experience. In each case there was a huge loss of trust.

Nevertheless, we helped both to resolve the problems they were facing.

About the Author - Nick Mayhew is the Founder and MD of Alembic Strategy Ltd. If your business is experiencing similar issues to those referenced in this article and you’d like to discuss how Alembic might help you to Bury the Dead Cats please get in touch for a chat (via or 44 (0)204 5058068).


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