Co-founder conscious uncoupling

Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin termed the phase ‘conscious uncoupling.’ My immediate reaction is to roll my eyes, yet I suspect they are onto something. For co-founders, the statistics tell us that over half of them are going to face a separation and yet we rarely talk about how to consciously uncouple.

Endings can create grief, a sense of failure, and scars. In truth, it is a natural part of life, and so how to acknowledge that and navigate the uncoupling in a conscious way? What does a good ending look like for co-founders?

Start with the end in mind

Given the statistics about co-founder partnerships, a co-founder I spoke to advocated a proactive approach. They dealt with uncoupling upfront, they agreed what would happen in the event of a split. They described the benefits as, “we knew that we would have to row about this stuff when things were emotional, so we decide to agree it whilst we were calm, for the sake of our friendship and wallets.”

Head in the sand

In my coaching, I mostly see co-founders when trust is waning, and they haven’t been proactive. They are bottling up frustration, increased antagonism, and avoiding each other socially. Their bodies are offering clues: heart rates rising when they meet, churning stomachs, losing sleep.

Given the implications, it feels “big” to admit even to yourself that the partnership isn’t working. You might even ignore the voice in your head that says, “do you really want to keep doing this?”. You convince yourself that if you surface this idea, you won’t be able to get the genie back into the bottle. You are probably knackered and so you tell yourself it’s OK because talking about it will slow you down and that would be fatal for the business. You hope that it will pass without you having to do anything.

In recent customer discovery interviews, I heard from co-founders about the devastating impacts of exploded partnerships; racking up legal bills, losing a mate, angry investors, and poor mental health. The risks of putting your head in the sand are significant and, so, below is some advice about how to consciously uncouple, by engaging with it.

Turning to face the reality

We react to interpersonal threats the same way we deal with physical ones. So, we have a habit of dealing with the discombobulation this “not working” creates. For some there is a need to flee conflict, they withdraw and quietly start creating a new future. For others they fight, conversations get personal, accusations start flying: jaws and fists are clenched.

To disrupt these habits, it starts with you. There is a need to take a deep breath and face reality. Start by saying out loud, to yourself or your partner at home, “this isn’t working” and then pause to allow that reality to settle. Notice what mood saying this sentence out loud creates in you (i.e. discomfort, anger, desire to flee) and allow yourself to really feel it, sit with it, not escape it.

Grab a pen and paper (remember that stuff we used before technology) and explore the following self-coaching questions:

  • What isn’t working?
  • What don’t you want?
  • What do you really want?

Many use some free-flowing writing to do this. Which simply means putting your pen on the page and keep writing what comes into your head for a set time (minimum 15 minutes for these three questions). This allows your raw and innermost thoughts to come to the surface, to be expressed on the page. Sit back and read what you have written and what it is really telling you.

Consider the real issue these insights offer you; what are you not facing?

Do you still have common ground? Are you aligned on your core purpose? Do you have the right platform to enable your purpose? Is this just situational? Are the problems more fundamental, i.e. differing values and expectations? Is it irreconcilable?

Having done this, if the writing is still on the wall, ask yourself, “what would a good ending look like?” And write down what comes up when you ask this question. By doing all of this, you are preparing yourself for the possible ending.

Conscious closure

For many co-founders, a good ending means maintaining relationships. So think about the conditions you would need to surface this reality with your co-founder (on a walk, over lunch). You can’t control their behaviour, but by being conscious of how you do this, you are creating the best possible chance of a meaningful conversation.

Then rehearse (ideally in the mirror) how you can start the conversation, because when we are nervous, we tend to rush and that can feel like a tsunami for your partner.

Start by paying attention to your inner state; accessing a state of curiosity (rather than dread or anger) can be helpful, remembering that your experience is different from theirs. This helps you explore what is going on together (not just dumping your load on them). Which means describing what is going on for you, how you are experiencing work. Being both truthful and respectful. Then pause, breathe and ask them where they are; “How about you?”. Listen to the answer, do not interrupt (more deep breaths needed).

Once you have said enough, give yourselves some space. For some clients having this crucial conversation has enabled strengthened their relationship. The conflict has been a generative space. For others, it has started the process of ending.

I can’t sugar coat it; this will be emotionally draining and distracting. We need to remember that life is not a one act play. Whilst you may have given blood, sweat, and (probably) tears to this startup, you have also learnt and grown a lot, and so you will be able to go again (if you want to).

Reflect on what you have learnt and even if the partnership is ending, get clear about and appreciative of the other person and what the partnership has enabled for you.