Sacred Conversations

How advisors can help prosperous families unlock their ‘soul capital’

By Gary Shunk

Key Takeaways:

  • A legacy conversation is a frank discussion in which the older and younger generations share their views about what really matters to them.
  • Wisdom is deep and contains painstakingly won insight.
  • Show and tell is a good technique for getting families to reveal their values in action.
  • Combining “soul capital” with financial capital will help families clarify their core values.

I practiced psychotherapy for 20 years before I became a family advisor. At the outset of my education, and throughout the course of my work, empathy was my central practice. Empathy is about “feeling with” the client.

“Walk a mile in my shoes” is the old adage. This is what I learned to do. I learned to set aside my own thoughts and feelings and instead get curious about the people sitting across from me. I gradually learned how to enter their world vicariously. As I did this, clients began to trust me and open up to me more. But what was really transformative was that they were opening up more to themselves. When someone listens to you, I mean REALLY listens, there is nothing like it. The rapt attention someone pays to you is a blessing and a gift. To be heard, seen and validated is a true gift.

Hearing clients at deep levels

Over the years I adopted the process of hearing clients at deep levels. Any good therapist has this skill.

When I began working with families, this skill began to be, and continues to be, a key component in my practice. All family members need empathy. Renowned psychologist Carl Rogers called this “unconditional positive regard.” It is the deepest form of acceptance.

When a family needs to address legacy issues, I bring in certain advisors to help that family open an exploration about what really matters to its members. For a family to do this there needs to be empathy.

When I was a kid in school, my favorite activity was show and tell. To bring some sacred object in to share with my classmates was a sheer joy. I also loved hearing about my classmates’ objects and the stories that filled my imagination. Each time, I learned something new, unique and often intimate about my classmates. And of course, when it was my turn, I beamed.

Talking about what really matters

What is a legacy conversation? It is a conversation in which the older and younger generations sit together and talk about what really matters. What really matters is each other; the family relationships and the way the family relates to each other and loves each other. The money and things that make up the family’s wealth are important, because they sustain and bless the family forward into the future. These things can be seen as giving stability or causing instability, depending upon how the family is doing with itself. If the family is good, wealth is good. If the family is not good, wealth can make it worse. So the show-and-tell notion related to legacy conversations has to do with honestly sitting together and talking about who we are, how we are and what we have. The family elders tell the stories about how they got here. They inform the middlers and youngers what worked for them and what didn’t. These conversations become sacred conversations because they contain wisdom. I use the phrase “soul capital.” Wisdom is different from knowledge. Knowledge is information and wisdom is deep and painstakingly won insight.

Wisdom is unique and particular to each family—for every family is different. So when these kinds of conversations are held, they become sacred, as spiritual capital represents something bigger than the self and family—something that guides and protects us. Legacy conversations are “show and tell” events as well. When grandfather and grandmother are sharing at a family gathering, the stories they tell are gems from their past they show and tell about. Show and tell is a ritual that reveals a family’s values in action. As this sharing continues, the family begins to show and tell together. Over time, this simple sharing turns into what I believe to be sacred conversations. In these conversations lies true wealth.

Wealthy families who initiate and maintain conversations about legacy, values and so on discover deep treasure. Why is it that most families don’t hold conversations like this? In a word: intimacy. When we become intimate with each other, we reveal. Vulnerability is uncomfortable.

Discomfort creates anxiety or pain. The paradox is that when a family is courageous enough to delve into these kinds of conversations, the discomfort passes over time, and what a family and its individual members find is unity. With family unity, anything is possible.

The soul capital of a family

Legacy conversations are sacred because they contain stories from the elders, middlers and newers that carry the “soul” capital of a family. Soul capital married with financial capital clarifies and empowers families to live their core values truly. Sacred conversations lead to true family flourishing.

I use the phrase “sacred conversations” because of the depth that lives in the inner world of family.

At the core is love. Love is sacred; it is divine. In essence what lies in waiting for prosperous families is a different kind of wealth—soul capital.


When a family engages in family meetings to address legacy questions, it is good to begin with show and tell. Simple storytelling captures the essence of what brought a family to have a legacy to pass on.

About the Author

Gary Shunk is Business Relationship Coach at Working Partnerships, which helps firms and companies improve working relationships that are absolutely essential to achieving their annual results both inside and outside of their firms. He can be reached at 312-810-0011 or by emailing shunk@working-partnerships.com