FounderFuel: Co-founder and communications conflict – how to manage it constructively

Those of us with experience as co-founders often joke about the relationship being more like a marriage than anything else. But it is no joke – in truth the relationship does require deep understanding and investment to thrive.

The comparison has some depressing weather-warnings though: Marital research shows that 69% of conflicts amongst couples are perpetual. They are simply not resolvable and will never go away.

And these “perpetual” problems come up with co-founders regularly too. In fact, the statistic touted by Harvard Business professor Noah Wasserman is that 65% of start-up companies that fail are found to do so because of co-founder conflict. 

For me, it inspired my specialism in co-founder coaching.

For you – is it an off-putting statistic? Maybe even a reason not to partner up in the first place? 

Or perhaps, this perpetual conflict is a healthy sign of two independent human beings with all their individual wants, needs and habits?

When we think of it like that, of course there will always be clashes!

The key therefore is to manage these “perpetual” issues in a constructive, respectful and positive environment. And in so doing, to reframe conflict from being something negative to something natural and indeed generative.

The aspiration is to allow differences and learn from them. To find new ways forward. To fully allow that two people can have different ways of seeing things and both can be right.

Not sure?

Take a look at the picture below.

What do you see? 

Your mind will instantly leap to either an old lady or young woman.

For some, the other is incredibly hard to even see.

Even when you see the other image your mind will keep going back to the image that you naturally see.

So hold this thought in your head for a moment: Your partner might see one thing. You might see the other.

Neither is wrong. They’re just different.

If you can both appreciate that, then you’re on your way to managing and honouring those perpetual conflicts in a respectful, positive way. 


So what are the steps to create a positive conflict mindset?

The framework below lays out how I work with co-founders to help them create the best possible relationship they can – and it’s perfectly possible to do it yourself – helping everyone focus on the work of their startup rather than battling each other.

1. Know Thyself

It all starts with self-awareness. The first and most fundamental part is to understand yourself. Not as easy as it sounds because most of how we behave and react is subconscious.

A good place to start is to proactively start noticing yourselves. These questions can really help:

  • How do you show your emotions? Easily, keep them hidden, dramatically and so on?
  • How do you react to stress? Keep it inside, blame others, look after yourself etc?
  • What do you do in the face of conflict? Compromise, assert, collaborate, or avoid?
  • What is your style of arguing? Sniping, passive-aggressive, steam-rolling, smoothing over…?

This stage is about understanding yourself and in turn, having more choice. I encourage people to take personal responsibility for flexing their natural style. Maybe compromising automatically is not always the best idea? Maybe the sniping could be toned down? There is no judgement, rather just reflection over what alternative ways of being could bring to your partnership.

To further help with self-knowledge there are diagnostic tools out there such as the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode instrument or a favourite of mine (and a free one) is that of Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler which helpfully lets you look at your conflict style, and your emotional style as well.

2. Know each other.

The next step is becoming aware of each other. What is the other person ambitious about? What does the other person dream about? What upsets them? What is their ideal day? (working and personal). Does one feel scared in a conflict and the other invigorated? Does one want to sit and talk whilst the other prefers to bond over an activity?

This stage is about really creating an ongoing sense of curiosity and respect for the other.

To do this yourself, simply craft a series of questions and then spend dedicated time with your co-founder answering and listening attentively to one another. Take your time asking clarifying questions and exploring deeply (using those skills we use in Circles!)

Follow this up with a series of more practical questions: What are our roles? Who holds what decisions? What are our working hours? What happens if one of us gets sick? What happens if we do seriously fall out: what is the mediation process we will use so the startup (and sanity) remains protected?

3. Actively create a positive space for those perpetual issues and differences to sit happily in

The next step of my journey with co-founders is to look at various tools to create an atmosphere in which conflict is managed in a positive, functional way. These are discussed and experimented with and eventually are crafted into a “behavioural charter”.

Non-negotiables include elements like:

  • Active listening so that everyone is listening to understand, not to reply (with no interruptions!)
  • Feelings being encouraged and seen as vital to clear the way for proper conversation
  • Both parties committing to reducing negative behaviours during arguments such as name-calling and stonewalling
  • A commitment to making the praise to criticism ratio 5:1

Other ones might include: 

  • Monthly “conflict” meetings in which all elephants and ongoing issues are voiced and cleared
  • A code word which both know to use when they want time out
  • An “empty chair” placed in the room at meetings which represents the voice and perspective of the startup. Both founders take turns to sit in the chair and speak from it. This works to depersonalise arguments and allows founders to go back to the big picture.
  • A mantra written up stating that “everyone is always 2% wrong”. This encourages humility.
Create a Founders’ agreement

The above all goes into the creation of a living document that charts the founders’ ambitions, vision, values and roles in the company as well as mapping out their personal ways of being in the world and how they can best communicate.

This document can be kept digitally or printed and beautifully bound. What is crucial is that as founders you revisit it together every six months or so to reread it , iterate it and ultimately to recommit to each other. A ritual really worth committing to and keeping.

So what does all the above add up to?

Ultimately the energy and time put into thinking about your relationship upfront means that you as founders can focus on your business operations and strategy, rather than waste energy on battling relationship issues. A sure-fire way not to be part of the 65% failure rate.

And learning these tips will do wonders in your personal life as well…

Written by Sanja Moll, founder coach at weare3Sixty

Founder coach | Trainer | Co-founder Conflict & Mediation specialist.

Passionate about the leadership skills transition from founder to C-suite and the communications challenges along the way.

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