Inviting a Facilitator to the Family Retreat

It’s more common than you think and not a practice of just the ultrawealthy—Randy A. Fox interviews Gary Shunk.

By Randy Fox and Gary Shunk

Key Takeaways:

  • Most families have developed a pattern of communication over the years, and changing that pattern is often a key challenge.
  • Everything from family business matters to gifting to succession planning to ownership of the family vacation home can be discussed at the retreat. What most families find is that they don’t communicate with each other as well as they think they do.
  • The family facilitator should make it very clear that he or she works for everyone in the extended family, not just the patriarch or matriarch who’s writing the check.

With summer a distant memory, many of us are reflecting on the great family vacations we had in the mountains or at the lake. The special time spent with relatives brings us warm memories to get us through the coming winter. But more families than you might think are using some of this “vacation” time to address pressing or pivotal family issues. The family retreat has become a crucial time for many families to gather and communicate in a safe, honest and forthright fashion about the current and future directions of the extended clan. And more and more families are enlisting the help of a trained facilitator to keep the discussion moving in a way that produces positive outcomes, not just hurt feelings.

The facilitated family gathering, once practiced only by the very wealthy, has become increasingly common for families at all levels of affluence.

There are many reasons for a family to meet and no single right way to conduct family meetings. So I enlisted the help of Gary Shunk, founder of Family Wealth Dynamics, a professional facilitator of family meetings. Gary has facilitated dozens of family meetings across the country in different settings and with different combinations of generations, different levels of wealth and various family concerns. His experience and wisdom guide this article.

Gary, what is the main reason that families decide to hold a retreat?

GARY SHUNK: There is no one reason, actually. Some families have family businesses that need to be discussed, while others are considering gifting wealth to the next generation. There are a lot of triggering causes. The commonality, though, is that there is a need for effective communication. Many families find they don’t communicate as well as they’d like to. They need help. And that help is usually provided by someone outside the family.

How does a financial advisor (or any other professional) know when or how to bring in someone like you?

GS: Typically, an advisor will notice that there’s a problem that isn’t being addressed or solved through the traditional planning channels. Estate plans aren’t being implemented; succession plans are stalled, essentially pointing to the fact that something somewhere is not right. Astute advisors understand that the problem is beyond their expertise. Keep in mind, in order for advisors to even suggest that there’s something wrong, they must already have a deeply trustful relationship with their client. They will then suggest to the client that they consider an outside resource such as a “facilitator” to work through the challenges they’re facing so that their planning can ultimately be completed. There is no talk of therapy or use of psychological terminology—simply improved communication and resolutions.

Once you’re engaged, do you have a specific process you follow?

GS: Yes. After I’m interviewed and engaged, usually by the senior generation, I go through a process of interviewing all the participants. I also make it very clear that even though I may be paid by only one family member, I’m working for the entire family. Since money often represents where the power resides in the family, it is important to distinguish the fact that I’m not a hired gun for the person who writes the check. If there are married children, I insist on talking to their spouses as well. My purpose is to get everyone’s sense of what the communication is like in the family and what each individual would like to discuss at the retreat and to alleviate some of the anxiety that almost always accompanies having a stranger in the middle of the family’s communication.

What about the meeting itself? Do you insist on a specific location? Do you require a certain amount of time?

GS: Of course, every family is different, and I try to stay flexible. Some families use a vacation home where they’re accustomed to being together, while others use the boardroom at the family business headquarters. Meetings can last 90 minutes or over a day and a half. It just depends on the family and how much time they’re willing to commit. What I do insist on having control over is the agenda. I co-create the agenda with the family so there is agreement about what we’ll cover. It also begins their involvement in the process. I set the communication ground rules so that everyone can be heard and can feel safe expressing themselves, and I make sure that everything that needs to be covered gets covered.

Do families do this more than once?

GS: There are many families that meet annually, but I work with a few families that meet monthly. Since this is a client-driven process, I try to allow what works for the family. Some families meet once and never meet again, at least with a facilitator. It just varies from family to family.

What is the biggest obstacle you usually face?

GS: Most families have developed a pattern of communication over many years, and changing that pattern is most often the key challenge. Sometimes it’s getting the addicted individual into treatment or the lazy child out of the business or the older generation to step aside. It revolves around bringing the family to a different level of understanding each other. I go in with the belief that all families really want to be harmonious and that I can help them communicate more effectively. Sometimes it’s just by being a good listener and helping them reframe what seems like a demand into more of an invitation. It’s what I’ve been trained to do.


It seems clear that the family retreat can be an effective and powerful tool for families and advisors. It also seems clear that the retreat is best conducted by someone with skills, background and training in family communication. Advisors who feel that this type of experience would benefit some of their clients should consider identifying and interviewing a few possible facilitators so that they are comfortable bringing them into a situation when the opportunity presents itself. There are many differences in qualifications, pricing, experience and methodology that a savvy advisor should understand before introducing a retreat facilitator to one of his or her client families.

About the Authors

Randy Fox is a principal of Two Hawks Consulting, LLC, a national consulting firm dealing in estate and philanthropic planning. Fox also serves as associate editor of The Planned Giving Design Center and he is launching a new training program located at learnplannedgiving.com.

Gary Shunk, principal of Family Wealth Dynamics, consults with families in business, families of wealth and the advisors who serve them on the nonfinancial issues of intergenerational relationship dynamics, communication and trust building.He can be reached at www.familywealthdynamics.com or by emailing gary@familywealthdynamics.com.