In recent years, I’ve been asked to coach senior leadership teams and business partners on how to do a better job of working effectively together. In addition, a number of individuals have asked me to support their work on partnerships in their personal lives. It’s been a privilege to help change-makers, enterprise builders and couples deal with painful issues or impasses as they strive for happier and more productive alliances. There are a couple of things I’ve learned and counseled that are pretty close to universal, and can be applied to a range of partnerships. If you find you are struggling, I hope they help!
1. It’s much better to be heard than to be right.
Focusing on being right kind of misses the point. The truth of a situation, as many of us have learned, often lives somewhere in the middle of two points of view (I’m distinguishing here between truth and facts, which should be verifiable). Speaking your truth and being heard is way more important than being right in most circumstances. And, it’s a much better path to finding the way forward. Together. You’re in a partnership to succeed, not to win!
2. Listen to learn, not to respond.
You know the type – the person who has a comment or retort ready before you’ve even stopped talking? Don’t be that person! A sure sign that someone is not listening to learn is the speed of their response and its lack of reflection about what was just said. Ditto for fun or illustrative stories. It’s great to have a bit to share in a conversation about anything ranging from managerial missteps to love gone wrong, but don’t be so eager to share yours that you haven’t deeply heard someone else’s narrative.
3. Describe what you want from the partnership.
In work and in personal relationships, it’s important to be super clear about how you see the partnership developing. What do you really want from the other person? And, what are you willing to give? This includes things like time, resources, attention, access to networks, equity, unconditional love (!), stability, security, growth, opportunity, a thinking partner and/or the opportunity to build community.
4. Name your fears.
By naming your fears or concerns about partnering, you not only make yourself vulnerable, you begin to speak your deepest truths. Are you afraid of losing control? Of being hurt? Of being overshadowed? Of falling into an old and unproductive pattern? Of uncertainty? Doing this hard work will bring you closer to each other, and to succeeding as a team.
5. Rehashing old grievances gets you exactly nowhere.
It’s the old “I took out the garbage” or “You didn’t give me adequate credit” conversation. And it sucks. I’ve rarely seen a mediated conversation where old grievances were rehashed – again – result in any significant progress. Setting the record straight rarely does. It goes back to what I said about being right in the first bullet. The issue is not making sure that your version of what happened is the one that rules the day, it’s about strengthening a commitment to each other to do well or better going forward.
6. Origin stories play an important role in both strife and success.
I love getting clients to tell their origin stories – about how a venture began, about how they came together, about their early dream and vision about the alliance. It gets at some important sets of motivations and desires, and is a powerful reminder of a shared purpose. And, it unearths any misaligned expectations of why we’re here in the first place. In personal relationships, there is the added benefit of remembering how you felt at the beginning, and can reconnect you to that sense of excitement and possibility. If there’s still a frisson, there’s more than a glimmer of hope.
7. To grow, it’s better to have clear roles and areas of “sovereignty”.
As a couple or business partners, it’s helpful to have clear roles and responsibilities, and areas over which each one of you have the final say. There can be matters where there is shared responsibility, but I highly recommend keeping these to a minimum. Especially as leaders, it’s critical to know that you have the authority that aligns with your key responsibilities. As a partner in a relationship, it’s also great to have your domains. Maybe you’re in charge of finances, or furnishings, or fun. Getting this clear early on avoids resentment (trust me, I’ve lived this!) and builds appreciation and connection.
8. A sense of humor is key.
Pretty much speaks for itself. Be willing and able to laugh at situations and yourself. Try not to laugh at – but with – your partner…..
9. Gossip kills.
If you want to be in integrity with your partner (or with anyone else for that matter) make sure you talk to them, not about them. Gossip is a sure-fire way to erode trust, communion, and progress. Just don’t do it. If you feel the burning need to blow off steam about someone, write it all down for your eyes only. Upon rereading it, you may actually learn as much about yourself and your issues as you do about theirs.
10. Be all in.
This mantra makes a huge difference. It’s hard to make a relationship succeed if you have one proverbial foot out of the door, or are holding back to wait and see. You have to commit. Fully. This doesn’t mean that you may not be assessing how things are going (especially in a professional setting) but it does mean that you are doing your best to succeed. Being honest when things aren’t working well is key to being all in, too, as it shows your partner that you are willing to do the hard work of addressing conflict. Which leads me to the final and most important element……
11. Trust is essential.
There is no successful partnership that is not built on trust. Period. Full stop. You can’t be all in, be honest, be vulnerable, or bring your whole self if trust isn’t present. Trust is earned, through repeated acts and over time. It rests on a body of language and behavior that shines with integrity. In many ways, trust is its own reward. Why? Because when we act as trustworthy people we are at our best. It includes – but goes beyond – doing what you say you will do. Partnerships grounded in trust weather storms, and create beautiful things, be they families, companies, communities or movements.