“Communication is key to a successful relationship”. I think this might be the most true, and the absolutely least helpful advice ever given. Who would ever disagree with it? And yet, has this advice on its own ever helped anyone avert a relationship or communication failure? I suspect most people, if they think their relationship is doing fine, also believe their communication is just fine. It’s not until problems happen that we realize, maybe, we had some blind spots in the what and how of our communication.
Here’s another perspective.
Communication isn’t in itself the key to a successful relationship. It’s a necessary but insufficient element. Communication is your toolbox full of tools. You can be really great at knowing the tools and how to use them, but if you want to build a house you also need to know what materials to use and how it all fits together.
The real key to a successful relationship, the foundation and structure of your house, as it were, is, wait for it…relating. Ok, it sounds redundant to say it like that, and on the face of it probably not more helpful than saying “communicate”, but it’s true, so let’s dig into it! What I mean by “relate” here is: how we know the other person, what we think of them, how we interpret their words and actions and respond to them, what we seek from them and what we offer to them in the context of the relationship. (And also all of these things but for ourselves, and our companies).
There’s no one right way to be in a relationship, and there are many communication styles, but when it comes down to it, if people don’t have some common ground in how they relate to each other and what they are seeking from their relationship, the relationship won’t last. (Or, it will last, but one or more of the people in it will be lonely and miserable)
Where to start? Here are some ways to practice connecting and being more intentional in relating to your cofounders:
Reflect on it.
How do you relate to your cofounder? How do you relate to your partners, friends, employees? What do you give to and seek from these relationships? These questions are deceptively simple, and this is pretty deep and ongoing emotional work, really. But intention starts with awareness, so if you don’t normally think of your relationships from this perspective, give it a little try.
Make time and space for it.
This one is easy! Schedule a recurring time when you can check in with each other and talk about things beyond the work logistics. Maybe it’s weekly dinner. Maybe it’s coffee. Maybe it’s a regular mini-golf session or a hike in the woods. You don’t have to attach expectations to it, just block it out on your calendar and commit to the routine. It’s time to talk, and it’s also a reminder that your cofounder relationship is important, that you all are more than just your business, and you deserve time to connect and be human and not just be nose down in the work all the time.
Talk about yourselves.
Really! What I don’t mean though, is the “pitch” version of yourself that projects how you think or want others to see you. Nor just the small-talk and logistics of what you’ve done when. Those things are fine and have their place, but won’t do much for real connection. Do talk about: your thoughts, your opinions, your feelings, your needs. What you’ve done and what you thought about it. Your past, your future, and how you see yourself in it.
We all crave more meaningful conversation even when we avoid or are uncomfortable talking about ourselves. But the only way to it is through it, and you can’t relate to someone in a meaningful way if you don’t know them. Plus, without this input, we each will make assumptions about the other person that over time can lead to disconnect and misunderstandings. Until one day, something happens that makes you wonder who the heck this stranger is that you are bound to in a complex legal relationship. Sharing with each other from the start seems a little less disruptive, yeah?
It’s not only about the other person, though. We can get stuck in assumptions about ourselves and how we think we are supposed to be, and it’s easy to get our sense of self wrapped up in the success or failure of our business. Making time to connect and talk about who and how we are beyond the business, about our past and future selves, can help us stay grounded and feel more in control of our own story.
Reciprocity is essential. Making space to talk and share means equally making space to listen to what the other person is sharing with you. It’s also being mindful in your listening, seeking to understand and being willing to update your assumptions of the other person. It’s also listening to ourselves! We all have stories about how and what we should be doing, and judgments about how and what we are doing. These stories are a kind of noise that get in the way of seeing, hearing and relating to ourselves as much as others.
There are a lot of ways that we learn and are taught in our lives how to be good at the mechanics of communication, and how to use it to achieve our goals at work and in life, but we aren’t given the same level of attention or role models for understanding how we can relate to ourselves and others in ways that will build strong and positive relationships. If it’s something we want, we have to choose to learn and practice it, even if it feels awkward and vulnerable sometimes. But this is the real work that’s going to build your cofounder relationship, and in turn, your company.