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Horizons: Family Office & Investor Magazine

Love & Care: The Greater Role of a Family Office

Monday, September 16, 2019

Patricia Woo is Partner of Squire Patton Boggs in Hong Kong where she is also co-head of the firm’s global family office cross-practice team with around 60 partners from different offices.

Patricia is a fund, trust and tax lawyer noted for her practice in helping global ultra-high- net-worth families set up, restructure and operate investment-centric, service-centric, and comprehensive value-centric family offices.

She is also a Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst, Certified Tax Advisor, member of the Academy Community of the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners and Certified Islamic Finance Executive. She is Adjunct Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law of the University of Hong Kong, and Adjunct Assistant Professor at the College of Law of the National Chengchi University of Taiwan. She is also honorary fellow of the Asian Institute of International Financial Law.

Hong Kong 2019, The Legal 500 Asia Pacific 2019, Who’s Who Legal: Private Client 2019 and CityWealth Leaders List 2019. She is also ranked in Chambers HNW 2019 and recognized in 2017 IFC Powerwomen Top 200.

The Greater Role of a Family Office

Most of the family clients I work with are on the rich list. For these wealthiest of the wealthy families in the world, many of them have established or are looking to set up their own single family offices to organise their affairs, financial or otherwise.

Family office is no longer just a hype word in the private wealth sector. Many of them are reported to be overseeing internal funds of the families, investing in a wide array of financial instruments and backing the most innovative ventures. Usually less visible is the family office’s functions related to the creation, management of the asset holding structures and the planning of the succession of such assets according to the wishes of the family in a tax efficient manner.

All these technical aspects matter, but there is another intangible aspect of a family office representing perhaps the most important, secret ingredient in the formula for its success. This secret ingredient is love. I touched on this topic in an article entitled “A New Dimension to Family Office Success”. (Woo, 2016)

A key question I have been considering since the publication of such article is how love, being such an abstract concept, can be instilled in the family system. Family members should have love for each other, but what does it really mean? Why is love so important? What negative impacts the lack of love can create in a family? How exactly can love be brought or brought back to the family? What exactly should family offices do?

A trusted family office is like a traffic control tower. Many planes are in the sky and the pilots trust that the family office can provide them with information on things that they cannot see themselves and they are communicative through the family office to each other.

Like the pilots, family members can have their own directions and destinations, but if there is a family office they can trust, they will always come back for advice and information and, by doing this, the bonding will always be there. This bonding is what one calls love.

Psychosynthesis: A framework

Conventionally, wealthy parents believe that to provide for the children’s financial abundance is the ultimate expression of love. But authentic, non- material love goes a long way beyond just money. Could a family office be an institution to provide a favourable environment for authentic love to be expressed? Yes, but a framework backed by solid theory and which is implementable is called for.

Perhaps there is no one single best way to approach this, but I would like to discuss how psychosynthesis as discussed by Firman and Gila (2017) can help ultra-high-net-worth (UHNW) families. I am also setting out a non-exhaustive list of reflective questions based on such approach to aid family office in the process of application. Professional psychologist and psychotherapist would be required. It usually takes consistent and persistent effort of the family to adapt to a new approach but this is a starting point worth considering.

Psychosynthesis was developed by Italian psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli as a psychological theory and methodology of human development. The core theory of psychosynthesis is presented in the Egg Diagram (Assagioli, 1958). We will refer to in this article a variation of the Egg Diagram as depicted in Diagram 1 below (ie. the Changed Egg) subsequently modified by Firman in 1995.

Our everyday, ongoing awareness is depicted as the central field of consciousness. Immediately surrounding such field of consciousness is the middle unconsciousness. Within this area of unconsciousness, which is in direct association with and accessible by one’s awareness, is the person’s way of thinking, feeling and behaviors “structured” or “conditioned” by the environment faced by him (including his roles within the family). Subpersonalities exist in this layer of consciousness and could be in conflict.

If a person is in a non-empathic environment where he is not treated as an “living, conscious human beings” but as “objects” and “things” (Firman and Gila 1997, 93), he would develop a survival personality which suppresses such experiences and suffer from primal wounding.

To survive primal wounding, one has to “disown” the experience of pain and suffering by splitting it off from the ongoing awareness. Such hidden wound becomes a person’s inaccessible lower unconsciousness. Also hidden are not only the wounds but also the positive aspects rejected by the non-empathic environment, constituting the higher unconsciousness which is also inaccessible.

Relevance and importance to ultra-high-net- worth families

Psychosynthesis is about the process of self- realisation where one might experience both personal and transpersonal developments. (Firman and Gila 1997, 183). The once disowned parts (in both the lower consciousness and higher consciousness) are re-discovered and the middle consciouness of the person is broadened. In other words, the hidden gifts can be embraced and hidden wounds can be healed.

The important questions a family office could ask are: what are the conditions that enable such process? Are the members of UHNW families, with all the resources in the world, in a more favourable position to experience the process of unfoldment and actualization? How can a family office resolve the potential conflicts between the family members pursing their authentic selves and contributing to the family system as a whole?

Some people would imagine members of UHNW families grow up with fewer primal wounds compared to those from a modest background. This is not true. Issues arising from high expectation and conformity with family requirements (or the cultural/family superego in psychotherapeutic language) are often observed. In some family offices, the leader or the family rules might have a strict way with how the family should be organized, and this might create resentment. In some extreme cases, it is mandatory under family rules that members have to work for the family business. Some families even prescribe in the family constitutions that divorce is not allowed. Suppression might also be experienced by the family leaders who have to take up the responsibilities due to family situations or pressure from the earlier generations. There is no or little room for the family members to express their own individuality and uniqueness unless they break themselves free from the family (as the source of wealth).

The true picture is hardly visible from outside. As observed by Firman and Gila (2017, 39), “more hidden are the situations in which we seem, both to ourselves and outside observers, to be receiving healthy nurture when in fact we are but reassured objects conforming to a role needed by the environment”. This is very typical of an UHNW family environment.

Reflective Questions for Family Offices

A visionary family office seeking to help the family members unfold and self-actualize themselves should consider the following reflective questions. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but can serve as a good starting point. These questions could be tailored to suit the specific situation of the family.

1. How can the family office serve as an external authentic unifying centre? Does it encourage family members and institutions to be such an unifying centre?

Self-realization is a process of finding one’s own sense of direction in life and nurturing one’s authentic personality. A family office could take on the role as an external authentic unifying centre to provide an environment in which the family members are acknowledged, accepted and given genuine “love” as they are (even though they want to pursue a passion totally unrelated to the family business or publicly support a belief that is not in line with the family’s belief system) and their paths to freely develop the unique authentic personality are supported. This is a sensitive issue a good family office should be mindful of since some families might see that being their authentic selves the family members would not support being part of the family system or contributing to the tangible return- maiximising aims of the family system.

Practically, the family office should, through the inclusion of appropriate provisions in the family constitutions, letter of wishes of fiduciary structures and internal investment documentations, permit the flexibility for family members to be their authentic selves yet remain part of the system and provide an expansive breathing space for each of them to “bring diverse inherited abilities and acquired learnings into a unified sense of identity and self-expression.” (Firman and Gila, 2017: 33) The family office could also encourage and facilitate the individuals and institutions associated with the family to take on and appreciate the importance of such role.

2) Has the family office acquired the capability to identify primal wounding and deal with survival behaviour in family members? Does it have the awareness that it might behave as survival unifying centre?

It is as essential a role for a family office to identify whether the family members have developed survival personality and whether the existing family system is in any way a non-empathic environment that leads to primal wounding. “Positive” parenting driven by the parents’ need for the child to be successful, talented, or intelligent (Firman and Gila, 2017, 39) is typically observed amongst UHNW families where a culture of expectation and achievement is prevalent, and competition and comparison are common between families and branches within the same family. The pressure can even come from having to marry up or at least to an equal to maintain or elevate the social and economic status. If the patriarch has multiple “spouses” and “mistresses”, the children from each spouse might have to suppress their feelings and experience to “survive”. A family member on whom such expectation or environment is imposed might be treated as an object, a non-human and suffer therefore from primal wounding.

Each family office has to, for the sake of management of family affairs with consistency, lay down many rules on how family affairs are to be run and this will potentially create a survival environment. The family office therefore has to find the right balance and if appropriate bring such issue to the attention of the relevant family members and help them understand the impact of a potentially non-empathic environment and what can be done. Sensitivity is required in this respect as it usually involves complex family situations where no solution can please everyone. Likely the prioritisation of wealth creation and maintenance has been already developed as a powerful defence against authenticity of persons and symptomatic of fear of it. Authenticity tends to require courage to let go of such defences. There could, therefore, be some powerful incompatibilities between the two aims. Unless handled with care and professional help (such as psychotherapeutically-informed analysis), it could result in negative feelings and unwanted conflicts.

3) How can the family office encourage self- awareness among family members?

The family office can arrange education on psychology and spirituality for family members in order to improve self-awareness. The Egg Diagram can be used by experienced practitioners to the help the family members understand their own personality development. The concepts of unifying centres, when applied effectively, would help them become mindful of external and internal forces that shape their personality and interaction with others. More often than not, self-identify of members of a UHNW family is largely defined by the family and its public image. Disindentification is an essential skill the family office can consider to introduce to the family members as an exercise to first detach from the part of such identity given by the family and social environment and then to see their own uniqueness and create a stable sense of identity. (Whitmore 2014, 56) When the family members’ sense of personal power arise as “I”, they are freed to see beyond mere survival and begin to actively explore their own, independent identities and purposes with more freedom and awareness (Firman and Gila 2017, 115).

4) How can the family office assist the family to cultivate a culture to encourage Self-Realization?

Self-Realization is a process that has to be undertaken and experienced by the family members themselves (even though they might have a family office which understands how to and is ready to create a favourable environment) because only they can drive the development of their very own self-awareness in the power of “I” (for example, to quieten their inner critical voice) to open the door for deeper quest in the Self. The Self occupies a position of utmost importance in the process as it is the source of altrusic love and spiritual empathy without which “I” cannot be realized fully. The family office as the external unifying centre can be a “channel”, providing “an indirect but true link” for the family members to achieve such Self-realisation (Firman and Gila 2017, 89). At a practical level the family office would be in a good position to support such exploration by bringing in education and professional help when required.

5) Does the family office encourage the family to believe in the power of love?

To encourage the family to believe in love and its power is perhaps the most valuable, fundamental contribution a family office can give to the family as “human being flourishes within an empathic, respectful communion with others, a communion that we believe can be called love.” (Firman and Gila 2017, 2) The family office can help design and implement a family system which acknowledges explicitly in the documentations and during family meetings the power of love and provides a safe environment for the family members express and feel the altrusic love and spiritual empathy.

This love transcends romance, desires and materialism. Rather, it is an unconditional, all-embracing love coming from the Self regardless whether the family member is the eldest or the prettiest, controls the family assets or receives the largest inheritance, has been educated in the best school or has done anything special to stand out. Only a deep presence of such love can cure primal wounding and survival personality.

6) Can the family office assist the family members to deal with their challenges from crises of transformation?

Expansion of the middle unconsciousness is a positive movement along the path of personality development where one releasese the unhealthy attachment to a survival unifying centre and connects to one or more authentic unifying centre(s). It is a tricky, challenging process with all the discomfort and emotional distress leaving a comfort zone. When a family member opens up to a band of previously inaccessible unconsciousness, a range of new experiences and feelings surfaces. It happens usually by “installments” from with family history and behavioural patterns retrieved, primal wounds and subpersonalities unveiled and explored, hidden and long-suppressed transpersonal qualities reintroduced, and new identity acquired. (Firman and Gila 2017, 103 & 107)

Is the family office able to maintain an empathic environment in the process? Is it capable of or prepared to help the family members get the right help in meeting these challenges? When a family member moves from survival to authenticity, he might have been awakened by a crisis and exposed to painful feelings before healing and growth take place. Other family members might also be affected. The family office should notice the needs for professional help and encourage the family members to receive such help when needed.

7) Does the family office have a mechanism for regular unifying centre review?

A well-managed family office has in place regular review of investment strategy and implementation, family system design, legal structures and documentations to ensure they are up-to-date with the family’s evolving situations and can thrive through changes in economic, tax and regulatory environments.

Another type of review that is important is related to psychotherapeutic self-exploration and the exploration of the family’s psycho-emotional cultural change so that the family office and the family can improve by “continually discovering new and unique” authentic unifying centres. (Firman and Gila 2002, 119).

On the other side of the coin, such review is essential also because “even today’s authentic personality can become tomorrow’s survival personality”. (Firman and Gila 2017, 149)

A successful family office should strike a balance between enabling the family members to be the best of themselves and over time becoming overly protective or restrictive especially when a system has proven to work and no change has been made to match the evolution in personal and transpersonal needs when the society modernises. The family office might turn out to be an unintentional external survival unifying centre. Self-review should be instituted.


One of the biggest challenges of a family office is how to respect the individuality of the family members while providing consistency and predictability in how the family manages its wealth, succession and relationships. A psychosynthetical approach emphasizing the power of love provides a framework the family office can incorporate into the family system and implement at the most practical level. This approach goes to the fundamental layers of unconsciousness and brings in both the personal and transpersonal aspects to augment the offering of a family office in bringing genuine value to the family it serves.


Assagioli, R. (1958). Dynamic Psychology and Psychosynthesis. Retrieved from psychology.pdf

Firman, J. (1995). A Suggested Change in the Egg Diagram. Psicosintesi 12(2):37-42.

Firman, J., & Gila, A. (1997). The Primal Wound: A Transpersonal View of Trauma, Addiction, and Growth. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Firman, J., & Gila, A. (2002). Psychosynthesis: A psychology of the spirit. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Firman, J., & Gila, A. (2017). A Psychotherapy of Love: Psychosynthesis in Practice. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

Whitmore, D. (2014). Psychosynthesis Counselling in Action, Fourth Edition. London: Sage.

Woo, P. (2016). A New Dimension to Family Office Success. Retrieved from publications/2016/09/family-office-services-a-new- dimension-to-family-office-success-familyofficeservic esanewdimensiontofamilyofficesuccess.pdf

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