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Prenup for a Startup 4: Minimise disagreement, maximise understanding

Image: A segment from a William Kentridge Artwork

Many years ago I read an article about marriage and the arguments couples have. Essentially the author said that the recurring fights you have in your first year of being together will set the tone and content for the rest of your relationship and that issue, if not resolved, will most often be the reason you eventually break up.

The same is true for co-founder relationships. Actually, co-founder relationships can sometimes be even more stressful than intimate relationships. We bring our whole selves to our organisations, wether we think so or not, and our wounds, underlying fears, unspoken needs or overt dreams and desires speak as loudly at work as they do at home.

Our default position is to become rigid and defensive and start looping an argument, again and again; with increasing frustration because we are not getting our point across and feeling misunderstood and decreasing ability to transform the argument and actually hear our partner. Before you know it the old script starts playing in your head and in your behaviour.

It would be much more beneficial for both founders to take the time to dig deeper, do some self-reflection, figure out what the underlying needs really are and then come back to the discussion with an openness to understand each other better. The content of the recurring argument is seldom what is actually important to the parties.

Are you really arguing about timekeeping, or are you in fact arguing about trust? Are you truly arguing about who is doing what, or are you actually arguing about not feeling supported? Where have you had these arguments before? You don't wake up one morning and think: "This is a good day for an argument about power and control." Everything has a history and a context. What is the origin of your needs and content of the repetitive arguments? When you are stuck in conflict, who does your co-founder remind you of?

It takes courage and vulnerability to have a true conversation but you will only be able to resolve the conflict and start having a different conversation if you feel that you have been seen, heard and acknowledged. By your co-founder and yourself!

I know and understand how head-in-the-hands tiring it can be to have the same fight all the time without getting anywhere, except out the door. Below is a of list useful tips and suggestions to implement that will help reduce recurring conflict and communication failure between founders:

  1. Have the difficult discussion! The longer you avoid it and hope it will disappear, the more it leaks into your relationship.

  2. Phrase what is bothering you as a question. That takes the sting out of a statement or accusation.

  3. Use your self-awareness or emotional intelligence to check what is really going on for you so that you don’t project your stuff onto your partner.

  4. Take time to understand from outside of your own frame of reference.

  5. Respect each other as people and as business partners and have clear boundaries between personal and professional lives.

  6. Allow for personality differences to flourish and strengthen diversity.

  7. Communicate regularly and truthfully with radical candour.

  8. Leave your ego at the door and focus on what is best for the business.

  9. Be clear about your expectations. Don't have unrealistic expectations and make sure all expectations are managed.

  10. Prevention is better than cure. Discuss contingency plans in advance.

  11. Ask: Will this decision hurt or help the business?

  12. Always remember every transaction includes: “People”, “Process”, “Problem”.

  13. Listen to understand, not to respond. Research shows that when people are triggered they listen for less than a minute before they start thinking about their rebuttal.

  14. Be willing to be courageous, vulnerable and learn to speak up.

  15. Refrain from destructive behaviours like yelling, trading insults or being passive aggressive.

  16. Have a pre-mediation session with a neutral 3rd party every six months to ensure alignment and commitment.

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