Business partners discussing work.
Running a business

How to handle tough talks with your business partner

Whether it’s telling your business partner that your largest client is moving on or discussing a team member who consistently makes mistakes, difficult conversations are inevitable. Now, if you’re someone who’s never been taught how to have difficult conversations, then your first response is to avoid the conversation altogether. That’s because you view conflict as confrontational.

Low trust and poor communication are the primary reasons why 70% of business partnerships fail. Therefore, open communication with your firm’s partner helps to beat those odds. The accounting firms we work with realize the importance of navigating through difficult conversations.

The best firm partners tend to be opposites. So, who’s the peacekeeper and who’s the direct, get-to-the-point type? Regardless of your style, it’s possible to reduce tension and avoid emotions hijacking the conversation.  

Tips to handle difficult business conversations

1. Consider the root concern

Before meeting with your business partner, ask yourself:

  • What’s the purpose of this conversation?
  • What will this accomplish for our firm?
  • What can I do to make this a productive conversation?

Next, consider these three things:

  • Avoid passive aggressive, blaming, or dismissive behavior.
  • Figure out the best time and place to discuss your concerns.
  • Remain open-minded to reach a mutually agreeable outcome.

Avoid placing blame, where one person has to be wrong for the other to be right. As partners, you’re both vested in the firm.

Once you get clear about what you’d like the conversation to accomplish, decide if the conversation is worth having in the first place. If so, state the root concern. Remember to remove any hidden agenda.

2. Plan for the conversation

It’s normal to feel some anxiety prior to a difficult conversation. As you know, these talks can quickly go south. Defensive emotions will hijack the conversation, turning it from productive to totally destructive.

Planning and mindfulness reduce this possibility. Consider some possible objections and how you’d like to respond to them. Rather than simply define Plan A, consider Plan B, C, and D. You’re more likely to maintain composure when you think through the various options.

3. Avoid an accusatory tone

What if your partner is the cause? If that’s the case, then avoid an outright accusation. Aim for an open conversation instead of a confrontation.

What does it sound like to be open? Language is everything!

Say things like:

  • How can we work on this together?
  • What will turn this around?
  • This is a concern to me because .…

Avoid accusations like:

  • You need to do better.
  • You need to clean up the mess you made!
  • You’re to blame.

Avoid a communication breakdown.

When you approach anyone in an accusatory way – firm partner or not – all progress immediately stops. Words like “I” and “me” keep the conversation moving forward, whereas stating “you” leads to a defensive response. It’s impossible to have an open conversation when one person is defensive.

4. Acknowledge your partner’s perspective

Your partner may not share your point of view. That’s especially true when one person is the visionary and the other person is the voice of reason. Realize you work well together because you compliment one another.

No one wants a mandate or ultimatum. Solutions, along with new opportunities, unfold through dialogue.

A difficult conversation should be exactly that – a conversation. Be open to your partner’s perspective. This sends the message that the conversation is truly a two-way street.

5. Aim for a mutual agreement

A difficult conversation has a beginning, middle, and end.

  • Share your concern and how you feel about it. Be brief and to the point.
  • Move into the awareness part. You each gain insight into the other person’s perspective.
  • Wrap-up. End the conversation with some type of compromise or agreement. Identify the next steps before wrapping up the conversation.

If you haven’t reached an agreement yet, then end the discussion by saying, “I’ve come up with x,y, and z suggestions … do you have any thoughts? Or, how do we work together to remedy this?”

This might not work in every scenario, but you get the idea. Offer your suggestions and ask your partner for suggestions, too.

The stand-up meeting

Communicating regularly is important in every business endeavor, but even more when you co-own an accounting firm.

One firm put this recommendation in place. Each day starts with a stand-up meeting. It’s a short 15-minute conversation, where the partners touch base on what’s going on in the firm, share any concerns, and review the daily agenda.

It’s done standing up to keep the meeting short, focused, and sweet. If necessary, additional conversations can be scheduled for another time.

Bottom line: Communicate, communicate, communicate

Your partner is not a mind reader. How often do you get upset about something, never bring it up, expect your partner to know you’re upset, and when that doesn’t occur, you withdraw?

Don’t do this to your business partner! If something bothers you, don’t let it fester. Share what’s on your mind and encourage your partner to do the same with you.

Overall, effective communication (and lots of it) plays a big role in reducing tension and maintaining harmony within the firm. Your partnership strengthens because you work through difficult conversations together, not in spite of it.

Remember this: One day it could be you in the proverbial hot seat, and you’ll want your partner to treat you with respect. Establishing ground rules for difficult conversations strengthens your partnership – and reduces the odds of becoming part of the 70% statistic for breakups.

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