9 tips for better communication when your business partner is your life partner
There’s no doubt that professional and personal relationships are the most challenging and rewarding human connections of our lives. Each comes with unique difficulties and also opens doors to our happiest and most fulfilling moments.
When it comes to business partnerships and romantic partnerships — the question is: should you mix the two?
In recent years, more people are saying yes. Approximately 1.4 million businesses in the US are now run by couples – and this number is growing.
Why? Despite negative clichés like “don’t mix business with pleasure,” starting a business with your spouse can have massive personal and professional benefits. Where else do you have such a rich opportunity to share your passion, experience professional fulfillment, and deepen your relationship over time?
We know that successfully mixing business with our personal lives isn’t easy. Beyond being an expert in your trade, you need to become adept at everything from managing finances to interpersonal communication — all with the person you care most about.
To give you fresh perspectives to help your business, we recently sat down with Andrew Kushnick, a Marriage and Family Therapist based in Northern California. He has extensive experience helping couples who run businesses together. As such, he offers a valuable perspective on challenges that come from working closely with your life partner.
Here are 8 communication tips based on our recent chat with Andrew. Learn how to talk to your business partner and life partner – to better balance working hard and playing hard with the one you love. Let’s dive in:
1. Set a foundation of excellent communication
In committed relationships, you make some of your most significant life decisions as a pair. The added layer of being business partners means making even more crucial choices together. Disagreements are inevitable.
Therefore, quality communication is essential to your success and fulfillment. Andrew shares a few foundational tips for better communication:
In discussing conflicts, let your partner speak their mind and listen without interrupting. Your partner will feel more at ease, more likely to share what’s on their mind.
It’s helpful to listen to both words and the underlying emotion behind them. You might then paraphrase what you’ve heard so that you’re capturing the feelings your partner has expressed. This shows you’re really getting it.
Validate that what they’re feeling is understandable, and empathize with their experience. These basic skills help to defuse stressful situations.
In sharing your own feelings, avoid “You” characterizations and use observational “I” statements instead. That means steering away from saying things like, “You’re so messy and disorganized!” Instead, casually say, “I noticed the office is really messy and cluttered. It’s making me uncomfortable. Do you mind tidying it up?”
Small changes to your tone of voice and wording will help you avoid tense moments and increase the chances the other person will really hear what you have to say.
Important note: These tips go beyond talking with your partner. You can use the same strategies when talking to others in your personal and professional life.
For further reading on improving your communication with your partner and others, check out this book.
2. Discuss how to support each other during challenging times
Running your own business is a test of the human spirit. Ups and downs will happen.
Even if you have unshakable confidence when it comes to your trade, chances are you’ll face uncertainty. This may bring up vulnerability or insecurities you may never otherwise experience in your partnership.
Andrew illustrates this point with events currently taking place in 2020. Many small businesses are struggling and relying on loans. People may feel worried, down, and uncertain. This can lead to general anxiety and sleepless nights.
To navigate these moments as a team, Andrew suggests discussing emotional struggles with your partner and talking about how you want to be supported.
For example, if revenue is down and your partner is anxious, how can you give morale as a business partner and soothe as a romantic partner? Does your partner want space during these times, or do they want to feel closer?
Upfront conversations put more tools in your toolbox when times get tough. You’ll maintain closeness and reduce conflict even when you don’t feel your best emotionally.
3. Set up regular check-ins
Just like businesses have regular meetings, it’s important to intentionally schedule time to check in with your partner.
However, Andrew explains that these check-ins go beyond recent business progress. Take time to also touch on how your partner is doing that day. Then check on how the two of you are doing with each other. Regularly give your partner space to vent and make time to share a laugh together.
To make them a habit, and to ensure they don’t get preempted by being busy, it might help to schedule these check-ins at the same time each workday.
4. Understand and address different home and work dynamics
Andrew points out the importance of recognizing the different power dynamics you may have at work and at home.
While you and your partner may consider yourselves equals domestically, do you have equal stakes in the company? Does one of you primarily support the other? Discuss openly how your work and home dynamics may differ.
Also, even if you and your partner consider yourselves total equals at home and in business, communication will sometimes change when on the job. You’re in effect giving each other permission to “sound more businesslike” when on the job. It doesn’t mean that you love each other any less.
For example, a simple question like, “Hey, could you run the books?” could be awkward if it sounds different from how you typically speak to each other. It’s useful to recognize and discuss in advance that you will sometimes talk differently at work.
Also, even when busy and stressed, sharing awareness of your bond with a simple smile, please or thank you, can go a long way. Andrew explains, “It’s a way to say, ‘Hey, even though I’m asking you to do this thing, I still care about you. We’re still the same people.'”
5. Know how your brain works under stress
Andrew points out the importance of understanding how your brain and nervous system operate under stress. He shares, “The amygdala is the part of the brain that detects threats. It’s always scanning the environment to detect if anything is threatening out there.”
He continues that the amygdala detects threats beyond immediate physical danger. In everyday communication, it scans words, facial expressions, and tones of voice. If it picks up anything as a threat, it can send you into a fight, flight, or freeze response.
For example, if you feel your partner is criticizing or blaming you, your nervous system can quickly ramp up. Your heart starts racing, and your breathing becomes more rapid. These are times when people can shut down or say things that they don’t mean.
Andrew notes that couples need to be especially aware of their partner’s stress levels. Because your partner is an attachment figure, your words and actions have a much more significant impact than if they came from a regular colleague.
6. Handle situations with care when things get tough
If a situation has gotten too stressful or if you’ve hurt your partner, Andrew talks about making repairs. He explains that if there’s an emotional injury, it’s incumbent upon the person who caused it to address it.
How do you accomplish this? Andrew discusses three key steps: attunement, responsiveness, and empathy.
First, it takes awareness of how your partner is doing. Once you recognize the other person is dysregulated – or overly stressed – you need to signal friendliness. You can accomplish this with your voice, facial expressions, or something to indicate that you’re not on the attack.
Then, you want to figure out the source of your partner’s distress and give them the chance to feel heard. Asking openly and curiously is essential. Saying something like, “Hey, something’s up. I can tell.” or “You look upset. What’s wrong?” are great places to start.
Finally, you can begin to try to alleviate some of the stress that your partner is in. You can acknowledge their experience and state the effect it has on you. Something like, “I can see that you’re really frustrated. It makes me sad to see you this way.”
Andrew explains how repair often requires time and patience. Your partner may also need space to feel comfortable to have a conversation. You may also be in the middle of a busy day and not have time to talk until later.
7. Intentionally discuss boundaries between work and home life
Over the past few years, we’ve become more tethered to our devices. When it comes to traditional 9-to-5s, it’s easy to feel responsible and available to our colleagues and managers from the time we wake up until the time we go to sleep.
Andrew points out that partners running a business together have even more access to each other. If your boss at the office emails you at 8 pm, you can potentially wait to respond. With your partner, it’s not that easy.
This could blur the lines between work and relaxation. If it’s dinner time or later, a lack of boundaries might get in the way of connecting and unwinding. If there are kids around, it could disrupt quality time with them.
Andrew discusses the importance of intentionally talking about how you want to draw lines between work and play. Have a purposeful discussion about boundaries around what’s work and what’s home. It may take some trial and error, but creating a general plan is worth it.
For example, sometimes unwinding by discussing what went through that day is useful. You can vent and share compliments – like how your partner is a great problem solver or has excellent people skills.
Andrew just advises some caution: these discussions can sometimes be a double-edged sword. It can feel great to talk about the day’s stressors, but it also might get in the way of relaxing by becoming a full-blown business discussion.
8. Be aware of how your type of work affects you
One of the final essential points Andrew touched on is to be aware of how your environment and type of work affect you.
If you spend the day out on a job. If you’ve been out in the sun or cold using your hands, chances are you’ll be physically exhausted at the end of the day.
Keep in mind that how you feel physically affects your patience and communication. If you’re exhausted at night, it may be better to postpone big discussions or decisions until the next morning.
If you spend the day together working from home. Be careful to create different areas where you work and relax. Andrew explains that the brain makes powerful associations with your environment. For example, if you work on the computer all day on the couch, it can be challenging to rest and watch Netflix in that same place at night.
If you start feeling cooped up, it may also be useful to simulate a commute to signal to the brain that it’s time to shift from work life to home life. Changing the scenery at the end of the day can boost your mood. Go for a walk, take a drive, or do an activity you enjoy that puts you in a different location.
Also, don’t be afraid to take space during the day. If you need time alone, even if it’s just in a different room, that should be accepted and encouraged.
9. Support your partner’s path as a professional
Andrew highlights the importance of learning who your partner is as a professional and show you’re there to support their journey.
Whether it’s when you’re first forming your business or later on, he suggests a dialogue around:
- How they see themselves within the work world (their “professional identity”).
- What inspires them about the business.
- What frustrates them about the business.
- Where they feel more confident.
- Where they feel they have room to grow.
- How you can best support them in their growth.
While these questions are typical in many workplaces, they can get glossed over with couples. By showing your partner that you’re invested in their professional journey, you’re leveraging your emotional bond.
Living and working with the one you love can be one of the most rewarding life experiences. By improving your communications skills, you’ll have more fun and facilitate your company’s growth and success. We hope these tips will help you better navigate communication challenges so that you can focus more on the joys of your business and relationship.
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