Disagreements between co-founders are inevitable.

But just because it’s inevitable doesn’t mean that founders need to resort to shouting matches with one another, using a win-lose mentality. Disagreements can actually be healthy, if the founders involved are able to discuss things openly, are willing to hear their partner(s) out, and want to work together towards innovative solutions.

If your startup is caught in a co-founder dispute, consider the following suggestions for framing the conversation into a productive, resolution-focused conversation.

1.     Prepare Beforehand

There’s nothing worse than trying to have a difficult conversation on the fly.

Take some time to reflect on your fellow co-founder(s) position. What are the reasons they are advocating for their position? Why are you advocating for your position? This will ground your understanding, the conversation, and, depending on the issue, the course of action(s) that can achieve common ground and preserve the working relationship.

The following questions are a good starting point:

1.     Am I making this personal? If so, why?

2.     Why might my fellow co-founder want his or her desired outcome?

3.     Might there be a potential zone of agreement that would leave everyone happy?

2. Point to Your Partnership Agreement

Difficult conversations need a starting point to be productive and partnership agreements (if there is one) can be a helpful first step in the process.

Don’t have a partnership agreement? That’s all right. It’s never too late to write one out.

The partnership agreement should be able to point to how decisions will be made, what happens if a unanimous decision cannot be reached, and what values are underlying the partnership and the startup at large. When there is ambiguity in a co-founder dispute, these sections of the partnership agreement help with expectations, reduce personal ego within the negotiation, and provide for an objective anchor without turning the conversation into a potential shouting match.

3.     Consider the Approach

“You catch more flies with honey than you do vinegar.”

In the same respect, your approach for resolving disagreement should be kind – rather than angry – if you are to maximize your chances of leaving the situation on good terms and growing your business together.

An example approach for a co-founder dispute sounds like the following:

“Hey Tom, I know we have been having issues agreeing on the product’s timetable. I’m open to hearing you out and trying to find a solution that leaves us both happy. What do you say? Let’s talk about it later this evening when we both have some free time.”

It’s all about word choice and making sure that you are as inviting and collaborative as possible. This guarantees receptivity and openness from your co-founder(s) so you can engage in a conversation that is about finding solutions and not a match between who is “right or wrong.”

4.     Keep an Open Mind

Cognitive rigidity is a real thing, which means a person has a hard time letting go of a particular position despite facts to the contrary, and staying entrenched in a position will not help the situation progress forward.  

That’s why founders caught in a co-founder dispute need to keep an open mind. The minute people close themselves, thinking they have the right answer, and that they simply need to persuade the other side to their point of view, the capacity for innovative problem solving is severely inhibited and the outcomes produced are less than stellar.  

5.     Active Listening

This is actually one of the more difficult steps for people to follow when engaged in a difficult conversation.

People are so caught up in their heads, formulating responses and feeling attacked, that they forget one of the most crucial elements to having a productive conversation: active listening.

Conciliatory gestures can be overlooked because a person is caught thinking of a reply; they don’t even notice that the other side has apologized. Mastering active listening skills could be the difference between a speedy resolution and a drawn out conversation.

6.     Solicit Solutions

Moving the conversation forward requires soliciting solutions that identifies the business outcome to be achieved and framing solutions around that idea.

Asking the question “In an ideal world, what would a resolution to this look like?” is a helpful first step in the brainstorming process that makes finding a solution collaborative and simple.

If an impasse occurs, pause and breathe. (Or consider these other tips, too). Finding solutions takes time and energy, but the founders should be ready to tackle divergent positions, listen to each other, and do what is best for the company to move things forward.

7.     Be Fair

While the founders may each have different versions of what they consider “fair,” establishing an objective basis for a decision will ensure that not one person’s view is paramount over the other.

That’s why A/B testing is ubiquitous in startups. Not all answers are clear-cut and sometimes the founders will need to test their positions to either validate them or see if something better exists.

When negotiating, always give a little to get a little. If a founder gives a concession, don’t get walked all over; make sure to get something in return for what is being given up, which shows flexibility while also making sure that everyone can continue working together happily.

Bottom line: Co-founder disputes don’t have to be nerve-wrecking affairs. Plan for them beforehand, point to the partnership agreement if possible, and approach them with tact. Keep an open mind, listen more than you speak, and solicit solutions in order to be future-focused and resolution-oriented. And don’t forget to be fair!

September 22, 2016

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