Crucial Conversations QA

Mixing Family and Business

Dear Crucial Skills,

Before partnering with my brother in a small business, I knew that it would be difficult to get along. I insisted on defining responsibilities, and tried at the beginning to manage huge differences. We ended up disagreeing and clashing; the business went down, we lost our savings, and I decided not to talk about our differences anymore. Now I just do what needs to be done and let the chips fall where they may.

I am convinced that certain situations cannot be resolved within a given time frame, and a decision needs to be made about what is more important—our working relationship or business success—in order not to lose both. Is it a far fetched justification to our situation?


Family Feud

Dear Feud,

You’re correct about the fact that it can take time to solve some problems and that certain business choices may not fit neatly in the required timeframe. I’m reminded of a couple of occasions in my own experience where a person who worked for me and I were still talking about a certain decision, hadn’t resolved it to both our satisfaction, and the clock then decided for us. That is, it became too late to execute one of the choices so the choice was made for us. From this experience I learned that on particularly tough decisions I should set a time for the decision (before the drop-dead date) and then suggest that if we hadn’t come to an agreement by that time, I’d make the decision.

These are the circumstances under which you step away from dialogue and act because of time demands. You let people know what you’re doing up front, do your best to come to a shared resolution, and if necessary, make the choice on your own (or turn it over to a higher power)—rather than let the clock decide for you.

On the other hand, deciding to systematically cut off your business partner because you don’t have time to work through the issues may be too extreme. Not everything is so time sensitive that you can’t involve others in some way—including getting their best ideas. When you choose to implement a unilateral leadership style in the name of time constraints, you not only harm the relationship, you also harm the business. Surely every idea your brother has can’t be wrong. Involving him provides his perspective and expertise, and as a general rule your decisions will benefit. But then again, you argue so much, you probably won’t ever come to a shared decision anyway—right?

Talk with your brother about how you make choices and the methods you’d like to follow in the future. Point out that you’ve often argued about key issues, putting you in the tough position of having to make a decision at the last minute rather than let the opportunity pass. This has led to you adopting a rather one-sided style—which isn’t working for you.

Explain that you’d like more of his involvement, but in order for that to happen you’ll need to move away from debating and more toward dialogue. That means that both of you will need to break away from your habit of trying to convince each other, and become better at sharing your ideas in a way that doesn’t lead to defensiveness or an unhealthy battle. Both of you will have to become better at listening, doing your best to understand one another rather than attacking each other’s views on the spot. Try discussing relevant skills from Crucial Conversations and ways in which you can help each other implement them in your interactions.

In summary, start by suggesting that you want to improve both your relationship and your business outcomes. Let your brother know that you want to work with him in a collaborative fashion, that you haven’t always been able to do so, and that you’re interested in improving both the quality of your decisions and the quality of your work life. Acknowledge that all hasn’t gone well to this point, that over the long haul your relationship is far more important than any specific business issue, and that your goal is to turn your little enterprise into a company that is not only well run, but also a place you’re both proud to work.

Best wishes,