How can I tackle disputes with my business partner?

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My business partner and I are having disagreements about a range of things. We never seem to resolve things fully, ending up with a semi-solution. It doesn’t help that he gets emotional. But perhaps I do too. I don’t really see the road ahead to work on our disputes.

No matter how well-aligned business partners may be, there will inevitably be times when you don’t see eye to eye. However, when larger issues arise and you are no longer on the same page, it’s critical for both parties to get back on track to resolve the conflict. Otherwise, you risk making decisions (or making no decisions at all) that could ultimately harm the business and its culture.

Remember that you’re working toward the same goal: the good of the practice. Take the time to step back and identify the real issues at hand. Common trouble spots include: unequal division of work; different visions and priorities; incompatible management styles; and unequal financial investment and profit-sharing.

If you have a formal legal agreement with the other party, such as a partnership agreement or shareholders agreement, review it carefully. In particular, check any dispute resolution procedures and terms or clauses that deal with the issue at hand. Relying on the agreement and your original intentions on an issue may help to reach a resolution.

Try to keep emotion out of the discussion and be prepared to listen and negotiate

If you do not have a formal written agreement, there may be other evidence of the informal agreement when it began. This may include emails, notes, or even WhatsApp messages. Search for any information on how you both intended to handle any disputes.

Think about what you want out of the dispute and compare that with a realistic outcome.

Once you have identified the key issues in the dispute, set up a meeting with your partner to discuss the problems. Communication is key. Try to keep emotion out of the discussion and be prepared to listen and negotiate. Importantly, keep a written record of the items discussed and any additional issues raised or outcomes proposed.

If you cannot resolve the dispute through a meeting, consider putting your position in writing. A formal letter to your business partner will let you thoughtfully set out the issues and your suggestions for a potential resolution. Also, set out a deadline for a response and the following steps if you cannot reach an agreement. Any correspondence will be of assistance at a later stage if you need to take the dispute further.

If things escalate, just as a marriage counsellor can save floundering relationships, a neutral third party can help warring business partners resolve their disputes. This could be a trusted adviser who has helped at an earlier stage of the business.

If you have undertaken all these steps and still cannot resolve the particular dispute, perhaps it is the end of the road. If both parties feel the partnership or business relationship should be dissolved, you will of course need to reach an agreement on how that will work.

AJ Coach Matthew Turner is an architect and careers consultant who runs the Building on Architecture consultancy. Email him in confidence at hello@buildingonarchitecture.com

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