Longing to be Friends Again with Your Business Partner?

I just finished an initial Business Partnership Session with two co-founders and long-time friends. Well, former friends.

They’ve been in business together for over a dozen years. In that time, their business has undergone remarkable success and growth. However, all the pressures, disagreements, conflicts and arguments have been escalating to a near breaking point. Their working relationship had deteriorated over the years, and their personal friendship was essentially non-existent, and other stakeholders were being impacted as well.

I’ve sadly seen the same in working with many of the business partners who come to me. When they start a business together as already established friends, spouses or siblings, there is often a crushing disillusionment the relationship takes a nosedive.

Especially when business partners have a personal relationship as well (e.g. as friends, spouses, or siblings) there is no way to improve the personal or business relationship if either person feels grossly misunderstood regarding what is important to them.

And yet, problems that arise in the business setting have a tendency to do that. Issues connected to survival, investment, livelihood, reputation, fairness, trust, power, accountability to investors, board members, employees, even spouses — all of these turn up the heat. As well as differing assumptions about quality or timeliness of deliverables, customer relations, priority of work vs family commitments or health needs. The list goes on issues related to the business itself as well as external pressures and stressors.

In this case, the tensions had kept accumulating until finally a breaking point had been reached. The alternating avoidance and volatility became too great to go unaddressed. The list of issues I’d assembled during my assessment process was sizable.

As we kicked off our first session, they noted nervousness and tension but we walked through our agenda items. They engaged with each other around the goal-setting, reactivity and communication skills exercises. We identified, discussed, and prioritized the organizational and interpersonal issues, including some particularly difficult ones, such as work performance concerns.

In hearing each other and balancing our focus between the good and the bad, we got to a place of significant disclosure, acknowledgement, appreciation, and openness. Over the couple hours, there were even some smiles and laughter to help break the tension. It took a lot of willingness, trust in the process, and commitment to have gotten this far is such a short amount of time. A lot of work is still ahead, but they had achieved a very strong start.

In the end, one’s summary statement was “I feel like I have my friend back.”

When I asked what made that possible, he said it was when his partner truly listened to him with curiosity and openness, providing validation and empathy — the cornerstones of active listening and constructive communication. Sometimes it is that simple.

That is what can come from being listened to, acknowledged, and validated, with the help of a third party, as needed. To have one’s thoughts, feelings, and needs validated after weeks, months or years of feeling misunderstood or disregarded is a very powerful experience. It was such a meaningful and touching moment and a good reminder about how impactful such a simple gesture of giving some time and attention can be. Active listening is so easy to do, but is so frequently overlooked and underutilized.

One of the best and easiest ways to move your partnership in a positive direction is by active listening.

I gave them an assignment to practice these skills in between our sessions so we’ll have a more robust foundation as we continue to dig deeper and move forward in our work together and get into the more complicated and changed underlying issues.

Healthy communication can’t solve all problems. Deep-seated distrust and resentments, reactivity, differences in priorities, goals, work styles, values will not magically resolve with even the best of communication. However, it is one of many necessary ingredients for a well-functioning business partnership. It will always enhance the working relationship, the business, and the quality of life of the partners, and at the very least, it will always help the cofounders get more clarity about the other issues needing to be addressed.

In this case, the supportive environment and reflective listening rekindled the feeling of safety and connection he had been longing for.

I challenge you to find out for yourself by practicing reflective listening with your business partner today.

Within the next few days, make a point to spend a minimum of 5 minutes providing your business partner with your attention, curiosity, and active listening, and see what happens as a result. Notice how they respond, how you feel, and what opens up in the dialogue or the dynamic as a result.

Would you be willing to share with me the results of this experiment or your memory of the last time you did this for your partner or they did for you? Feel free to reach out to me. I’d love to hear what you learn as a result of this simple experiment and important practice.