C-Suite Advisory

Preserving Business Partnerships Amid Conflict

If you work in a business partnership, or even multiple partnerships with different people or entities, at some point conflict is inevitable. And look, it’s normal. Wherever two or more people are involved, there are always going to be two or more perspectives, opinions, or issues of priority. These differences in opinion or perspective are bound to create disagreements at some point in the partnership.

While conflict itself may be unavoidable, that doesn’t mean it has to be unhealthy. Running away from the conflict, or handling it in the wrong way, will perpetuate the problem and make it worse for you, your business partner(s), and ultimately your entire company. Whereas learning to engage in productive conflict can have a positive impact on all involved.

So, if you find yourself in a business situation where conflict is creating stress and tension, I want to give you some tips on how to get to the root of the issue fueling the conflict, so that you can solve it clearly, cleanly, and decisively.

First, Isolate the Problem
After more than 15 years of coaching business partnerships through challenging situations, I had a “blinding flash of the obvious” while chatting with a friend and fellow executive coach, Andy O’Brien. I realized that when emotions are high, we often end up fighting the wrong battle. In other words, your frustration can be misguided, causing emotions to flare up, which prevents you from objectively solving the real problem.

Here’s a question to help you isolate the issue:

“Am I mad at the other person, am I mad at myself, or am I mad at the situation?”

Remember: a true solution to any problem can only come from solving the root cause – not symptoms. If you allow anger or resentment to build up toward the other person, when the reality is that the situation just stinks, your emotions will get in the way of working together collaboratively to get through the issue.

Let’s look at each possible scenario and how to handle the conflict accordingly.

I’m Mad at The Other Person

If you’re mad at the other person, then it’s a clue that you probably need to work on your communication. Perhaps it would help to have a better understanding of each other’s DiSC profile, or maybe it would help for you and the other person to practice both giving constructive feedback and receiving feedback to help you grow.

In fact, one recent study from Northwestern University showed that, of the 2,300 participants surveyed, when people were given the opportunity to receive information on how they compared to their peers on various topics, nearly 1 in every 3 participants opted out of receiving the feedback. This tells us that people actively avoid reflective information or feedback when there’s a risk that it will be uncomfortable – even if that information can help us grow into better versions of ourselves.

Now, giving and receiving feedback in a constructive way isn’t always the easiest thing to do, particularly in cases where your business partnership also happens to be a life partnership or a close family member.  In a business sense, a great executive coach can help to facilitate productive conversations, but if you find the business issues spilling over into your family dynamics,  it would be wise to seek professional marriage and family counseling to strengthen your relationship outside of the business.

I’m Mad at Myself

If you’re mad at yourself, then perhaps there’s a pattern in your behavior that you want to work on. If that’s the case, get clear on what the negative pattern or behavior is, and seek out specific guidance or tools to help you fix it. For example, if you have a tendency to procrastinate, which ends up causing stress that is more likely to incite arguments, then work on some systems or resources to help you remedy that pattern and reduce the tension.

On the other hand, maybe that thing you don’t like about yourself is something that you actually need to accept and learn to appreciate. For example, one of my clients is terrible with details and was constantly angry with himself for mistakes and oversights. This frequently surfaced as blame and excuses, which fueled tension with his business partner. When he learned to recognize that he’s wired for big picture thinking and not for minute details, he and his business partner could set more appropriate expectations and redistribute responsibilities in ways that were better suited for everyone.

Whatever the reason you have for being mad at yourself, acknowledge that it is about you and stop projecting the negative feelings onto your partner.  Again, sometimes assessment tools like DISC or Strengths Finders can help you with self-analysis, and a coach or mental health professional can also be powerful resources in your growth process.

I’m Mad at the Situation

Sometimes lousy things just happen, and it’s really no one’s fault. Human nature is to channel our frustration toward a person, but if you realize that you’re really just upset about the current circumstance and not yourself or your partner, we’ve got a different conversation entirely.

If you recognize that you’re mad at the situation, now you can begin to detach emotions and have a productive conversation. A great way to break the tension and move into  problem-solving mode is to ask, “what is it we are actually arguing about?”

The rule in this conversation is there are no emotions allowed. Only objectivity. Why? Because you’ve already established that you’re not mad at yourself or the other person. You’re on the same team in solving this problem, but letting your emotions run amok could escalate it into an interpersonal conflict and compound the issue.

To keep emotions in check, ban language such as “I feel like…,” or, “you made me….” Shelf the frustration to get to the point of logic, almost like you’re an outside party to the situation, solving someone else’s problem rather than your own. This is where the actual root of the problem will be uncovered. Once it is, both you and your partner will be in a better frame of mind to solve the problem together.

Final Thought: Isolating the real reason for the conflict is key to preserving relationships. Chances are you and your partner have the same end goal, so go into the conversation assuming they have good intentions, just like you. If you stay focused on creating the best outcome for the company, the team, the customers, and each other, you can experience conflict in business and come out better and stronger for it.

Written by Karie Kaufmann. Have you read?
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Karie Kaufmann
Karie Kaufmann is an award-winning executive business coach, entrepreneur, and disruption mentor. Since 2005, Karie has helped over 1,000 business owners and executives achieve their goals and take their business to the next level. Karie Kaufmann is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow her on Instagram, connect on LinkedIn, and subscribe to Karie Kaufmann's YouTube video channel.