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The Breaking Point: What to do when business partners can’t get along

Updated: Aug 27, 2018


Many businesses have two or more partners to set a company’s strategic direction and manage day-to-day operations. While there are advantages of having differing opinions to chart the right path for a company or raise capital to grow, there’s also a big risk.

What if the partners can’t agree?

It doesn’t matter how important the issue. Whether it’s due to differences in philosophy, strategy or even corporate policy, partners who are not aligned can create silos, pit employees against each other or let emotions get in the way of important decisions. These harmful scenarios undermine progress and may even jeopardize the future of the business.

Let’s say two partners are stymied. It could be over a small, seemingly inconsequential matter. But how do you start to bridge the gap to get the principals back on the same page?

Enter the power of negotiation. When executed properly, negotiation can solve most problems, providing two or more parties are willing to suspend their spat to understand each other’s position.

Creating the optimal conditions to negotiate One: De-escalate the conflict

It doesn’t take much to drive a wedge between partners. For example, a client’s two principals, both successful business people, were diametrically opposed over a simple but divisive corporate policy. Unable to address the issue head on, they allowed the gap to become a canyon. They weren’t talking, and no decisions were being made.

In any conflict, the first step is to de-escalate. The goal is to calm things down, create the optimal conditions for negotiation, and get everyone to a safe spot. (For more on getting to safety in negotiations, see the following blog).

Remember decisions are emotional

All decisions are emotional and justified rationally. Ultimately, our past, our experiences, our culture, and our beliefs affect us and our decisions. For this reason, negotiators should avoid appealing to logic or implying someone is not being rational or logical.

Slow things down

In a stressful conflict, most people want a quick resolution. No one wants to drag out a bad situation. The reality is, the more you rush the negotiation process, the more likely a stressful but manageable situation will escalate into an undesirable outcome. Instead, slow things down. This doesn’t mean extending the conflict unnecessarily. It means taking the needed time to create a plan and working the plan.

Create space

To slow and calm things down, you need to create space. Creating space is not passive avoidance or storming out mid conversation. It is walking away and letting the other person know you need physical distance and/or time to think. If possible, ask for permission to leave and come back at a later time. However, if it is not possible, as a last resort, you may walk away for an appropriate length of time.

Give them the sense of control

Let the other side feel like they are in control. It will give them a sense of security, so barriers or walls they have put up can slowly come down. Employ deference. Ask questions that let them feel in control such as, “What would you like me to do?” or “How can we make this work?”.

Do research

The best way to throw water on the fire of disagreement is to do research. Let’s say the conflict is over a policy of allowing weapons in the workplace. For many, this is an emotional issue. By putting aside emotions and researching existing policy solutions, the partners will better position themselves to find a solution that works for them. Additionally, by setting a future date to share the research, the partners will have a chance to cool down and use reason to develop and customize the policy for their company. At that point, they’ll also be in a position to talk together in a place of safety and security, because research engages the reasoning part of the brain, setting the stage for healthy dialogue.

Make no mistake, the research period is not an opportunity to gather evidence to support your own position so you can argue with or debate your partner. The goal of research is to gain insight into the problem, see things from different perspectives, and formulate an agreement with which both sides can feel comfortable. The information and data you discover may or may not be part of the proposed agreement.

Two: Listen... See… Write


Listen like your life depends on it

For business partners who can’t agree, negotiation is the ideal solution, as long as they’re motivated to communicate. However, they will achieve little without being good listeners. Usually in an argument, neither side is truly listening to understand the other. If negotiators do not allow the other party to speak, or do not try to uncover the other side’s concerns, they cannot solve anything. Effective listening, on the other hand, shows respect, helps the other side feel safe, prevents problems from festering, and gives a negotiator the opportunity to gain insight into the real problem.

To ensure an environment in which effective listening is possible, a negotiator should first consider the setting of the negotiation. Sitting down together in person is the best environment for resolving conflict. It is more effective than speaking on the phone and certainly preferred over email, both of which prevent you from accurately reading emotions.

See from the other side’s viewpoint

In addition, a negotiator should try to see things from the other party’s perspective. To do so, one should focus on asking good questions, actively listening, paying attention to body language and maintaining good eye contact. Of these activities, asking good questions is key to uncovering what the other party may initially feel uncomfortable sharing and to discovering what you do not see (check out this blog to learn how to help the other side feel safe sharing). Be sure to ask open-ended questions, instead of leading ones. The point is to gather as much info as possible. (To learn more about deep listening and the different stages of listening that are critical to negotiating agreements that do not fall apart, look for a future blog.)

It is important to note that seeing things from the other side’s viewpoint is seeing things as they see them, not seeing what they see from your perspective. This skill, known as ratiocination, is getting into the other party’s mind. It is a high-level negotiation skill that can be learned through practice.

Write to gain clarity

Although it may not seem necessary to mention, taking notes during a negotiation is critical. The simple activity of writing engages the reasoning part of our brain and has a calming effect, which enables us to think more clearly. As a result, actively writing things down can help you assess and identify the root problem of a conflict. During a negotiation, a successful negotiator should determine to complete the following two tasks:

  • Write down the problem as you see it.

  • Take notes during dialog. Do not depend on memory. Although most of us have a pretty good memory, accurately recalling our memories becomes tricky. Often, by re-reading notes, we discover nuggets we might otherwise miss if we try to depend on memory alone.

Three: Reframe, Create, and Propose


Reframe

Just as your ability to listen deeply builds rapport, your ability to reframe what the other side sees and feels builds respect. They feel heard. They feel safe. You will see people physically relax when you show that you have listened by accurately retelling what they said back to them. To test that you’ve heard, reframe with, “It sounds like…”, “It seems like…”, “What I heard you say is…”. Then let them affirm that.

Create, co-create, and propose

Now your job is to take what you’ve heard, look over your notes, and come up with a solution. This is the deal design stage. It’s best if you can co-create that solution together.

This is a cyclical process. During the deal design stage, as you collaborate with the other party, you’ll employ all of the above steps - asking questions, listening, giving them a sense of control, helping them feel safe, creating an environment for optimal negotiation. The resulting proposal may be to resolve the current problem and continue business as usual, or to make some changes and adapt, or to end the relationship. The goal is to create a strong agreement that lasts.

Allan Tsang, owner of 88 Owls, is an accredited business adviser, analyst and executive coach.Born in Hong Kong, raised in Africa and educated in the United States, where he currently lives,Allan has helped hundreds of companies around the world use negotiation to achieve success. He can be reached at allan@88owls.com and www.linkedin.com/in/allantsang.

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