Advice to Copreneurs:
Don't Avoid Conflict...Just Keep it Simple*
by Jane Hilburt-Davis
Copreneurial businesses, in which couples work together,
are like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her
forehead: when they are good they are very, very good and
when they are bad they are horrid. First there's "very,
very good": sharing work and play can enhance both the
marriage and the business; both partners can be free of corporate
pressures and limitations; the bonds grow stronger. But then
there's "horrid": everyday tensions and frictions
build up into tangled and bitter discord, discord that can
destroy both the business and the family.
Experience suggests that couples in business find themselves
in horrid situations not because they came into conflict-conflict
itself is perfectly normal and healthy. Conflict turns horrid
only when a couple does not know how to deal with that conflict.
There are two different kinds of conflict: simple and complex.
It's the complex ones that are really destructive, and these
conflicts grow out of simple ones. Too often a couple in business
will first ignore a conflict while it is simple. Then, when
the conflict becomes too big and complex to ignore, the couple
treats it as though it were simple-they use bandaids on a
wound that needs surgery. What copreneurs need to learn is
not how to avoid conflicts, but how to resolve them while
they're still simple.
Two Kinds of Conflict
Complex conflicts are those in which the emotional issues
obstruct the resolution of critical business decisions. The
family issues and business issues are entangled in a non-productive
way. (As the following example describes, Sam and Shirley
could not separate the unresolved tensions in their own families
in order to make sound business decisions about hiring Lillian.)
Simple conflicts are those in which the family issues, although
ever-present, do not get in the way of business decisions,
and business dilemmas are kept out of family relations. Keep
in mind that unresolved simple conflicts evolve into complex
conflicts over time.
The Usefulness of Conflict
Conflict is a normal, healthy reaction to change and stress.
The copreneurial relationship, which builds closeness, is
also a breeding ground for conflict. Paradoxically, the closer
the couple becomes through work and play, the more each partner
may feel a pull for autonomy or independence. This is not
rejecting of the partner, but a normal, human reaction to
increased closeness. Every couple who works and lives together
has felt this occasionally. "How many hours in a day
can you be with the same person?" Shirley asked?
This natural pull for independence is usually expressed as
differences of opinion. In this way, resolved conflict is
useful in the life of a couple by:
- serving to regulate an acceptable distance / closeness
keeping a check on values and goals
- building self-confidence as a couple
- increasing intimacy in work and family
From Conflict to Crisis
Sam speaks: My wife and I started Eatery, Inc., a food service
business, about eight years ago. We didn't have much money
but we both had the same dream for the company. We were excited.
Everything seemed to go well during the first few years; our
company was growing. Working together was great for two newlyweds
who loved to spend all their time with each other. Then, when
the business was about two and a half years old, my dad died
suddenly of a heart attack. My mom had lost not only her husband
and best friend but her "boss," as she called him.
She had worked for dad in his legal practice since he started,
some 35 years ago. Mom and I decided that it was a perfect
idea for her to come and "do our books" since Eatery,
Inc. was growing and we needed help.
Prior to this, Shirley and Mom (Lillian) had gotten along
fine although Shirley thought that I (an only child) was too
attached to my mom, and that Mom was already too involved
with our lives. Shirley and I had a terrible fight over this.
She said that I'd never get out of the role of being too dependent
on my mom. especially with my dad gone. Shirley and her three
brothers grew up in a boisterous family that fought all the
time. She always thought her brothers got all the attention,
especially from her dad. I thought she was just stirring up
trouble for the rest of the family and she was jealous of
the close relationship that I had with my parents. We had
to make a decision. We were overworked and stressed out and
could really use Mom's assistance. But we couldn't even talk
about it because it always led to a fight.
Simple and Complex Conflicts: Clues to Tell the Difference
Sam's and Shirley's arguments invariably led to a heated
discussion of the past, in there-and-then: how Lillian had
never let Sam be independent and how Shirley's family always
caused trouble. Each accused the other of past crimes: "You've
always been tied to your mother" and "You've always
been jealous of me like you were with your brothers."
(When you hear words like "always" and "never,"
you're inside a complex conflict.) Simple conflicts focus
on the here and now. For example, in a simple conflict Sam
and Shirley could get away from the past and attend to solving
the present problem: hiring a business manager.
They concentrated on the problems; this argument reminds
them of other conflicts they never solved. Hopelessly, they
could only think of their failures. As Sam said, every time
they start a discussion, each only remembers the other times
that they have felt helpless and unable to make decisions.
"It always leads to a fight." (When all you can
think is "this isn't going to work," you're inside
a complex conflict.) By contrast, simple conflicts focus on
solutions: "How can we get help with our work and have
Mother feel and be useful?"
Sam and Shirley were defensive. We raise defenses when we
perceive danger, discomfort or difficulties. When complex
conflicts become embedded in a couple's relationship, unresolved
topics trigger off the defense mechanisms which then prevent
a real, honest exchange. At this point, the defense mechanisms,
such as avoiding, denying, attacking, sarcasm, "hitting
below the belt", get in the way of solving the problem
and making a sound decision. Sam and Shirley put on their
armor and refused to listen to each other; they would fire
accusations and then retreat. (When the anger is escalating
and the silence is relentless, you're inside a complex problem.)
In simple conflicts, each side takes into consideration what
the other is saying and the decision-making process moves
forward to a conclusion.
Conflict is a normal reaction to the changes and stresses
of daily work and life. The goal for each couple in business
together is not to eliminate conflict, but to learn techniques
for solving and resolving it as it emerges in everyday experiences.
Family businesses are fertile ground for complex conflicts,
the kinds that begin in the relationship, grow, and impede
sound business decisions and practices. By learning how to
resolve conflicts early, the couple working together can become
more productive and spend less time arguing and more time
enjoying each other and the business.
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* This article is reproduced with the permission of Family
Business Relationships, a publication of Family Business Publications.