"Julius, to be honest, we founders haven’t been speaking the last three months."
A fight was not what I expected. I wanted to curl up and hide—my vision of coaching was one of personal growth, bold visions, and championing the success of my clients.
The three founders had met in Hamburg, started a business together, and rode the startup rollercoaster: They had managed to overcome the challenges of COVID— and business was going well—but sadly, the founders' relationships, well, they were in dire straits.
The Nature Of Co-founder Conflict
Running a VC-backed company comes with a level of acute stress. The high-stress, pressure-cooker environment invites conflict, particularly when its founders fail to invest time into their working relationships. Conflicts intensify when founders lack the tools to work through conflict in a productive way that it damages their relationships (sometimes irreversibly).
For the three founders I worked with who were no longer talking, their conflict simmered long before their communication had completely shut down. They had not dared to face their conflict, and in doing so, their differences intensified; until eventually, they couldn’t handle each other anymore. It took them a full three months after they stopped speaking until they reached out for help.
I recently wrote about the nature of cofounder conflict and its ability to wreak havoc on cofounder relationships. In it, I suggest practical ways to prevent conflict in a productive way to minimize your failure risk by more than half.
This post is the companion piece to that article and provides tangible steps to lead a constructive, non-emotionally charged conversation. It is a guide on how to behave when the shit—as they say—hits the fan.
Get Physically Ready… Not To Fight
“Conflict wreaks havoc on our brains. We are groomed by evolution to protect ourselves whenever we sense a threat. In our (world), we don’t fight like a badger with a coyote, or run away like a rabbit from a fox. But our basic impulse to protect ourselves is automatic and unconscious.”
We often forget that ancient impulses still govern our bodies. Deep down, we react to founder conflict the same way a cave dweller would react to a tiger. What we have learned over time however, is to calm our nervous systems through the power of a good deep breath:
“When emotions run high, you need to calm your autonomous nervous system. We can access the ANS through breath, movement, or touch. Breathing is one of the few body functions under both conscious and autonomic control,"
Taking a few deep breaths or taking a slow walk around a nearby park will do wonders to your battered nerves. Sitting in meditation for a few minutes will also have the same effect. When you are faced with conflict, these simple tools can help you regain control and act with a level head.
Gain Perspective & Disconnect From Your Story
Before you jump into resolving a conflict, take the time and reflect on your observations, feelings, needs, and triggers. This will help you think clearly and prevent you from getting carried away in the heat of the discussion. Most importantly, it will disconnect you from the story you are telling yourself in the the middle of the conflict—the interpretation of events that keeps blaming your partner.
Here are some prompts to consider:
Your Own Motivations
Take time to reflect. This can manifest in different ways: Journaling, meditation, working with a therapist/coach individually or taking long walks. Jerry Colonna calls it radical self-inquiry.
Ask yourself: What are your thought patterns? How do you make sense of the world around you? Who do you depend on to improve your thought process?
If you’re in the middle of a co-founder conflict, here are some questions to contemplate:
- What’s my role in this?
- What are my motivations?
- What needs to be said?
- Who should own what and why?
- How can we (re)build trust?
- What’s best for the company?
- What support do we need?
Deep reflection sometimes requires founders to step away from work for a few days. It’s OK to take time. In fact, I encourage it! With the three founders I mentioned earlier, I suggested that one of them take a long weekend offline with her journal and investigate some of these questions. She came back with the necessary clarity to express her needs and move the conversation forward.
In preparation for our first session with the Hamburg founders, I sent out a little questionnaire to my clients:
- Please describe the situation from the point of view of the other party. Then do the same for yourself.
- Please describe the emotional situation from the other side's point of view. Then for yourself.
- Please describe the goal from the other person's point of view. Then identify your own.
- What is the hypothesis of the other person? What is your hypothesis?
- What conflict behavior do you perceive on the other side? With yourself?
- What are the behaviors you would want to commit to in order to solve this conflict?
These questions help to gain awareness. For example, it emerged that one of the three Hamburg founders had continued to tell himself the same story: He was rescuing his co-founder friend (whom he portrayed as the victim) from his predatory second co-founder. The problem: neither of his colleagues saw the situation that way.
Use Simple Frameworks
Try to use different frameworks to analyze the situation. Here are three simple ideas that can change your perception of conflict:
- Understanding the root causes is key to successful conflict resolution. I talked about this here in my previous article. In short, root causes most often revolve around three themes: power & control, care & closeness, and respect & recognition.
- Clarifying roles and responsibilities helps to realign expectations within the team. Start with the role of your team: What is the purpose of our team? Some teams only exist out of courtesy. How are the key roles filled within our team? Where are recurring clashes that trigger conflict? Role confusion is normal in high-growth situations - but only as long as you are open about it.
- Similarly, you can dissect decision-making. Decisions are often about power, status, and recognition. They become a hotbed for conflict. How are decisions made within your team? How does the process change for different topics? How are you recording and committing to decisions.
These frameworks are about gaining perspective. They are neither the final nor the only approach. What they do achieve is helping you disassociate from your own narrative. If that helps to de-escalate the conflict, these frameworks have already done their job.
Fighting Well: The Ground Rules
Once I did bring these three cofounders into the same room, I established a few ground rules. For you, you want to keep these in mind when you are getting into that crucial conversation with your business partner or cofounder. Here are some suggestions for clear ground rules:
Keep It Short
If you want to be heard, keep it short: During conflict, our brain can only pay attention for ten seconds! To put that into perspective, that's three short sentences. After that, according to researchers Howard Markman and John Gottman, your brain will start formulating a counter-argument.
Non-violent communication (NVC) is the most helpful conflict communication framework that I’ve come across. At its core, communicating non-violently helps you separate observations from emotions and express concerns clearly and professionally to your partner.
It’s really a simple pattern, and I cannot practice it often enough: ‘When ____[observation], I feel ____[emotion] because I’m needing some ____[universal needs]. Would you be able to ____[request]?’
The best resource is the book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg (2015). NVC is not only helpful professionally, but you can use this technique at home and the next time you’re complaining to customer support. It works wonders.
Ask Open-Ended Questions
There lies tremendous power in the choice of our questions. Asking open-ended questions demonstrates respect for the individual by encouraging them to express themselves. A few notes on asking good questions:
- Begin your sentences with “How...?” “For what reason…?” and “To what degree…?” and see how people respond. These simple phrases help defuse conflict in your conversation.
- The most powerful question is often the most simple one: “What do you need?” I call this the growth question. It is the starting point of all good growth conversations. It unleashes tremendous power, clarity and creates a climate of trust—as long as you take the time to listen to the answer.
- Shift the focus of these questions from the individual to the collective: “How can we …” This prompts everyone to think about ways to make it work together.
Build Trust Through Small Commitments
When it’s time to commit to the next steps, every team member needs to commit individually and with a deadline. Actions with more than one owner have no owner, therefore; never resolved.
For our fighting friends in Hamburg, it took some time to diffuse their harmful individual narratives. But slowly, they had opened up to each other again by committing to tiny steps over several weeks and then walking the talk — which helped them regain trust again.
The next steps became the holy grail of their healing process.
Bring An Outsider To Facilitate
Working with a coach or mediator will only enforce clarity. But be prepared: this can and often will be uncomfortable. It's like what the COVID lockdowns did to many romantic relationships: they either quickly separated or got married straight away.
If you decide to work with a coach, make sure both parties have a say in who they work with. I have worked with teams where one or more cofounders were not actually committed to the coaching process. It was a waste of time, emotion, and energy for everyone.
Good facilitation, mediation, and coaching come from outside your own system. Do not pick a colleague, a friend, or a board member. They will feel the urge to step in, defend one of you, and ultimately take sides. A good coach will help you walk this path on your own.
Know When To Take a Walk, Or Walk Away
Sometimes jumping into conflict is not the right thing to do. No matter how much you meditate and breathe, you’re still wrapped up in emotions. At this point, the best thing to do is to remove yourself from the emotional situation. I am not talking about a walk around the block. I’m talking about a three-week vacation with your emails off, visiting your grandparents, and grounding yourself.
Conflicts evolve in stages: If you find yourself deep down in a conflict that has already manifested, then separation is also a real option. A friend and experienced coach of mine always says: “Separation is also conflict resolution.” I am not saying every fight has a point of no return, but you have to consider this balance: How much energy will the separation and its eventual aftermath take? In comparison, how much energy will it take to come back to a productive, inspiring, and energizing partnership?
Take, for example, our Hamburg founders. They are still working together. Their relationship does not at all look like it did a year ago. But it is more honest, transparent, and—in that—full of love and respect for each other.
If you want to read more about conflict and conflict resolution, check out the sources below.
- Diane Musho Hamilton, Calming Your Brain During Conflict, 2015
- Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication, 2015
- Ellie Lisitsa, The Research: Behavior Exchange Theory and Marital Decision Making, 2013
- Esther Perel, How to Fix the Co-Founder Fights You’re Sick of Having — Lessons from Couples Therapist, 2020
- Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma, 2015