When you hear the term couple’s therapy, the first image that comes to mind is probably something like this: a husband and wife who once seemed blissfully in love have experienced an increasing number of disagreements in their relationship. Tension has escalated into arguments and other problems that have caused one or both members of the relationship to question whether it’s even worth staying together.
Now, a solo entrepreneur might wonder what this could possibly have to do with the business world — but anyone who has ever started a business with one or multiple co-founders knows that in many ways, these business relationships have a lot in common with marriage.
As in a marriage, co-founders bring different skills and expertise to the business, as well as additional financial resources to get your company off the ground. Indeed, more and more entrepreneurs view being one of multiple founders as an essential ingredient to success.
Unfortunately, the stresses of the entrepreneurial world and disagreements over business decisions can quickly bring conflict, anger, and resentment into your business relationship. When things get out of hand, the company is likely to fail — in fact, one researcher found that co-founder conflict contributes to 65% of all startup failures. Needless to say, finding healthy ways to resolve these problems could save your business, making co-founder’s counseling an increasingly in-demand profession.
The rise of co-founder’s therapy
I recently had the chance to speak with Matthew Jones of Presence, Power, Potential. Jones is part of an increasing number of licensed therapists who focus specifically on helping business partners mediate their differences so they can maintain a healthy business environment.
As Jones explains, “Running a successful business can be incredibly stressful. And relationships themselves are challenging. But when you combine the two, you have two people that may have different values, different visions, and different underlying motivations. And those differences — however small — can create a lot of tension.”
“These relationship conflicts are the natural and inevitable outcome of the high-stress business atmosphere and mindset required for successful business ventures. When it becomes problematic, these disagreements decrease business productivity, growth, and progress.”
Continues Jones, “Co-founders often reach out to me to clarify their values, specify their intentions, and practice listening and communication techniques so that they can get on the same page and start building the successful businesses they desire.”
Fixing problems before they happen
While business therapists offer mediation to resolve business conflicts, lawyers offer assistance in avoiding them. After having litigated for several entrepreneurs unable to solve their own business conflicts, Rotterdam-based lawyer Isa Kriens decided to start her own business, called The Voorronde, to help avoid them. The company tagline reads “Voorkomt gezeik,” which translates into “Avoids bullshit.”
Entrepreneurs who plan on becoming business partners can hire Kriens to set up some ground rules, which are then recorded in a legal contract. “Entrepreneurs tend to be passionate people,” she explains in Dutch newspaper NRC. “They let themselves get carried away without managing their affairs properly. As a result, they rush into becoming business partners.”
Of course, disagreements over company spending is hardly the only potential area where co-founders might struggle. Hiring practices, marketing tactics, answering to investors and other complicated situations can all breed conflict. Just like a marriage, when nothing is done to resolve these underlying issues, disaster results, with far-ranging consequences for the company and its employees.
Handling and avoiding conflict
While some situations can only be resolved with counseling, many co-founders can avoid the need for therapy altogether if they learn in advance how to handle conflict appropriately. “Conflict is inevitable in a high-stress environment — especially entrepreneurship and business ventures,” Jones explains. “But by developing a few key skills, you can keep these things from getting out of hand and fix problems before they intensify.”
So which techniques are best suited for helping you resolve or avoid conflict with your business partner? Jones notes that co-founders need to make communication — particularly listening — a top priority:
“Listening is about deepening your presence and connection to the other person. It’s not about problem-solving. It’s not about thinking through your response. It’s not about giving them platitudes or interrupting when you’re uncomfortable. Quiet your inner dialogue, leave your agenda at the door, and simply listen to the other person’s experience. Try to imagine what the world looks like from their shoes. You’d be amazed at how many conflicts can be avoided and solved just by deeply listening to one another.”
Avoiding accusatory dialogue and seeking to truly understand your business partner’s perspective can make all the difference in finding a satisfactory resolution.
Another technique for reducing harmful conflicts is to focus on the big picture. What are the reasons you and your business partner decided to found your startup in the first place? Keeping the end goal in mind makes it easier to focus on why you decided to work with your co-founder. This can also make it easier to realize which sources of tension merit additional discussion and which issues aren’t worth arguing over.
Not waiting to address problems and concerns — even small ones — is perhaps the most important thing co-founders can do to avoid harmful conflict. “You have to get an outside perspective when these issues first become a concern,” Jones says. “The longer you wait to discuss the problem, the harder it is to see things from the other person’s perspective, and the bigger negative impact this conflict will have on your business.”
Indeed, it’s worth noting that some co-founders — in a move similar to many married couples — seek counseling before problems even come up. By taking a proactive approach to managing conflict, you and your business partner are more likely to successfully navigate the murky waters of entrepreneurship without turning against each other.
And what about the worst-case scenario, you ask?
Says Jones, “Cofounder’s therapy is always successful in one way or another. When two people want to improve their relationship, they typically learn a lot about themselves and their relationship patterns, which streamlines their communication. Other times, cofounders enter therapy to get permission to end the relationship. That’s a success too — it helps people get closure, be respectful, preserve their business, and say what they need to in order to continue living happy and fulfilling lives.”
Many married couples who have undergone couple’s therapy have since gone on to have thriving, happy relationships that last for the rest of their lives. While not every relationship is salvageable, many can be restored through the changing of bad habits and learning to be better communicators.
It ultimately shouldn’t be a surprise that a successful business partnership is very much like a successful marriage. It requires a cool-headed approach and the understanding that you and your partner aren’t always going to see eye to eye. As you learn how to work through your differences in a healthy manner, you’ll be able to work together to get through tough times and ensure lasting success for your startup.