The one certainty with a business partnership, as with any close relationship, is that conflicts will arise. But when you’re working very closely with another person or group, it can be easy to get emotional and lose sight of the larger picture, particularly when the stakes are high and money is on the line.
A conflict with your partner doesn’t have to throw your business into a tailspin. There are steps you can take to contain disagreements, manage them so each party feels heard, and find a resolution that leaves your partnership, and your business, safely intact.
Here are four tactics that will help you handle conflicts:
1. Plan Ahead When Possible, and Stop Fights Before They Start
If there are topics you know will likely prompt a disagreement down the road, see if you can cut them off before they start. For example, one of the most common fights among partners is that one partner feels she’s doing an unfair amount of the work. If you’re heading into a new expansion phase, or holiday season, or any other unusually busy time, lay out specific responsibilities in advance, so there can be no questions about the division of labor.
2. Don’t Rush to Judgment
For the owners and operators of a small business, every decision can seem large, and often deeply personal. When your partner disagrees with you on an issue that’s important to you, it can be very easy to shut down and shift into battle mode. But finding the patience to stop, take a breath, and consider your partner’s position will be a huge determinant in whether the argument gets resolved quickly and painlessly, or not. Remember the bigger picture: you entered into this partnership because you both shared a vision for the business, and you each brought strengths to the table. If you value your partner as a whole, you must value her viewpoint on this issue, even if you don’t agree with it.
3. Have an “Active Listening” Session
This is a common dispute-resolution tactic in which each person agrees to sit and listen to the other’s position and opinion, without speaking or reacting, for a set period of time — usually around 3 to 5 minutes. It’s a remarkably useful tool for cooling tempers and giving each side new insight into the other’s position. In a business partnership, it matters less who wins than how each partner feels once the conflict is resolved — if one side feels marginalized and resentful, that result can poison the partnership, and the business, over time. Practicing active listening and other exercises like it can ease any ongoing tensions and make each side feel heard.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask for outside help.
Sometimes, a neutral third party is what’s needed in order to resolve a dispute. The entire field of mediation exists for this reason. Mediators are trained to handle disputes of all kinds, and using one could lead to a cleaner dispute, a faster resolution, and an outcome that is more favorable to both parties. If the outcome is a compromise, a mediator can ensure that each side is giving up a fair amount, and that no one leaves the negotiating table feeling ripped off.
If a professional mediator doesn’t sound appealing, you could consider using a friend or colleague, though the person you choose should be fully neutral, and trained in handling disputes. Otherwise you could wind up with a mediator who does more harm than good.
Conflicts are a given, but you can’t lose sight of the larger goal: to resolve the disagreement as effectively and amicably as possible, so that you and your partner can continue running a healthy and growing business.