My Business Partner Wants to Quit. What Can I Do?
© 2023 Richard Chandler, MA, LPC, Business Partners’ Counselor, and Sam Rosenberg, BA, Business Writer
How do you navigate the shock of your business partner’s announcement that they want to quit? What can you practically do to start having the hard conversations that lead to insight and perhaps reconciliation?
Managing the Shock of Your Partner’s Announcement to End the Business Partnership
Learning about a life-altering event can impact your decision-making ability. The decision to end a business partnership is a meaningful change that requires careful consideration. Taking time to process your partner’s announcement can help build a strong foundation for everything that follows.
Encountering a monumental shift in your work life can, in many ways, cause shock. According to the American Psychological Association, shock is “a sudden and often intense disturbance of your emotional state that may leave you feeling stunned or dazed.”
Shock of your business partnership ending can lead to:
- Irritability and sudden changes in mood
- Depression or anxiety
- Difficulty concentrating or making sound decisions
- Disruptive sleeping and eating patterns
- “Recurring emotional reactions” triggered by the trauma
- Strained interpersonal relationships (American Psychological Association, 2004)
Although responses to shock will vary from person to person, understand that what you are experiencing is quite typical under these circumstances. Dedicate time to processing your thoughts and feelings.
There are some helpful steps you can take to ease the burden of the potential loss of your business partner:
- Be patient with yourself. Tell your business partner you hear them, but need time to process this news.
- Lean on your emotional support system. Friends, romantic partners, family, or trusted professional relationships could be an essential source of support, empathy, and advice in difficult times.
- Practicing self-care through healthy eating and exercise habits and devoting time to things that bring you joy can lessen the impact of shocking news.
- Seek professional business consulting for your organizational concerns
- Seek personal counseling if the emotional burden has not diminished.
Strategizing How to Discuss Critical Relationship Issues with Your Business Partner
Once you know your business partner desires to make a monumental change, approach subsequent conversations with a clear plan and strategy in mind. Being intentional about your method and approach to communication can significantly impact the success of the path you and your business partner decide to pursue.
Understand that you can count on having difficult conversations, leading to frustration and disappointment, especially if not handled well. And even well-handled conversations are no guarantee that your business partner will be willing to entertain alternatives to ending the business partnership.
How to Have Difficult Conversations
Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, in their influential work Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, argue “fear of the consequences” makes these conversations difficult (xxviii). When discussing the future of your business, and your financial stability, the stakes are high.
Crucial conversations about the fundamental structure of a business owned by partners may trigger fears of failure because the consequences of dissolving your business partnership could be severe. Difficult conversations between business partners could include:
- Differences in perceptions regarding what went wrong with the business partner working relationship
- Unfounded assumptions about the intentions of your business partner or their beliefs about you
- Heightened emotions when recalling the actual discord and communication breakdowns that occurred between you and your co-owner
- Blame for what went wrong projected upon your partner inaccurately and unfairly
Navigating Difficult Conversations Can Help Your Communication
When planning for a difficult conversation, such as whether to end your business partnership, it is best to let go of assumptions about your business partner’s intentions. Guessing about the feelings and real purposes of your business partner is the most common pitfall: “Typically, instead of exploring what information the other person might have that we don’t, we assume we know all we need to know to understand and explain things” (Stone et al, 8). Stone, Patton, and Heen further explain this concept:
“We assume we know the intentions of others when we don’t. Worse still, when we are unsure about someone’s intentions, we too often decide they are bad. The truth is, intentions are invisible... Leaping to unfounded assumptions can be a disaster” (11).
A Framework for Navigating Difficult Conversations
This framework is suggested by Stone, Patton and Heen, and can help lead to better outcomes in difficult conversations.
Create a safe environment for conversation.
- Please make sure both parties feel comfortable expressing their perspective on the business and your business relationship.
- Start from a place of mutual respect.
- Speak from a desire to do what is best for the company.
- Candidly discuss what could be best for each of you personally.
Use “I” Statements.
- Beginning a statement with “you” can sound accusatory and shift blame to your business partner.
- Frame your comments on your own experiences and help demonstrate your responsibility in the disagreement.
Adopt a “Yes, and…” stance.
- Even though you seek to understand your partner, you do not need to invalidate your experience.
- You are working to reconcile your differences of opinion and perspective, not choose one perspective as “correct.”
Learn to separate impact and intent.
- Understand that although something your business partner harmed you, that may not have been their intent.
- Intent vs. impact is an important distinction, and while the effect is valid, it is best not to ascribe intent even when your strong feelings urge you to do so.
Listen to each other.
- Keep the phrase “seek first to understand and then to be understood” in mind.
- You already understand your perspective on the relationship - endeavor to understand your business partner’s perspective.
Identify contribution, not blame.
- Identify how each person contributed to the current situation rather than blaming each other.
- A contribution framework shows multiple sides to most disagreements leading to real solutions rather than staying stuck in blame.
Getting Your Business Partner to Agree to a Crucial Conversation About Your Company’s Future
Our most critical conversations also contain the most complications. Addressing the thorny, emotionally-charged complexities is required to navigate the divisive issues between you and your business partner.
Convincing your fellow business owner to discuss your company’s future candidly may not be easy; after all, your mutual lack of crucial, open conversations likely led to their announcement that they wanted to quit.
Have a Conversation With Your Business Partner
Engage your partner in a preliminary conversation to convince them to schedule enough time to discuss your difficulties and all options available for remedying your business and relationship contention.
- Recognize that the urge to avoid difficult conversations is natural because the risk of emotional pain and an uncertain outcome is genuine.
- Recognize that delaying this crucial meeting with your business partner will only exacerbate the potential risks.
- Frame the need for your meeting around your shared interests, as that will lead to better outcomes.
Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler, in their impactful book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High identify these conversations as discussions where:
- "Stakes are high
- Opinions vary
- Emotions run strong” (Patterson et al, 3)
The Role Played by Fear of Failure
Fearing the failure of a crucial conversation with your business partner leads to avoidance; we may not attempt to have a difficult discussion because complicating factors remind us of how easily something can go wrong.
- You could say something that inadvertently hurts your business partner or vice versa.
- You could be misunderstood.
- You might fail to agree because your opinion and that of your business partner are too far apart.
Recognize that those potential possibilities underscore the importance of having this crucial conversation; if you let this tension linger, the resulting discussion will likely be even more volatile than if you’d addressed your differences earlier.
The Rules of Engagement
When approaching your business partner about scheduling a difficult conversation, such as the potential for ending your business partnership, create conditions - agreed-upon rules of engagement - where both of you feel safe to speak your minds.
These conversations “often go awry not because of the content of the conversation, but because others believe that the painful and pointed content means that you have a malicious intent.” (Patterson et al, 68-69).
To avoid this misunderstanding, make sure your business partner knows that you share:
- Mutual Purpose: You are both working towards a common goal and care about each other’s interests and values in reaching that goal (69).
- Mutual Respect: Does your business partner believe that you respect them? If not, rather than addressing the critical issues, the conversation may veer into an exercise in defending dignity (71).
Project a feeling of goodwill, safety, and shared interests when approaching your business partner about scheduling a critical conversation. You both need to be able to speak your mind on a subject where the truth could be hurtful or at least challenging to hear.
Confidence, Humility and Skill
Patterson et al. demonstrate that it is easier for both partners to feel safe in the conversation when you approach it with confidence, humility and skill (Patterson et al., 121-122).
Begin the crucial conversation itself by agreeing to these guidelines:
- Embody confidence and humility in how you approach this crucial conversation.
- Be firm in your belief that this conversation must address the most thorny issues for you and your business partner.
- Acknowledge that both you and your business partner have important things to contribute.
- Do not let your desire to be “right” or any urge to come out on top get in the way of finding common ground and shared understanding.
- Speak from a place of humility.
- To keep tension lower, acknowledge that your business partner brings a different and valuable perspective.
- Please recognize that the more you have difficult conversations, the easier the process feels and the less daunting they become.
Show You Respect Your Business Partner's Feelings
If your business partner knows you respect their feelings and opinions regarding your partnership, approaching the conversation will be much easier.
At the very least, you can start from the mutual interest you have in making the best decisions for the future of your business.
Finding shared points of interest can help build a meaningful foundation on which to have difficult conversations, particularly if the trust or respect between you has frayed.
Facilitating Risky Discussions with a Business Partners Counselor
Enlisting an experienced Business Partners Counselor to facilitate risky discussions between you and your business partner can make it easier to work through critical decisions about the future of your business.
The problematic dynamics associated with high-stakes conversations - including volatile emotions, possible misunderstanding, and a tendency to blame each other - take neutrality, skill, and care to navigate successfully.
Find the Right Professional for You and Your Business Partner
Employing the expertise of a professional with extensive couples counseling and business consulting experience can leverage those skills to bring clarity to the thorny issues that led to the current crisis as business partners and co-owners.
A marriage counselor has a high comfort level facilitating difficult conversations between partners. In this profession, relationship experts help couples face crisis-level discussions - even monumental ones, such as deciding whether or not to end their relationship.
They help couples to communicate with each other by removing the barriers that get in the way of meaningful exchange. Through their training and experience, marriage counselors can help partners find their purpose and mutual respect for one another with greater certainty than they could on their own.
The same holds for experienced business consultants - these professionals can draw on their myriad experiences in various business settings navigating differences of opinion to find the best course for the business.
Experience Navigating Relationships Can Lead to Better Outcomes
The experience and expertise that comes from helping others navigate their relationship difficulties can be invaluable when approaching challenging, high-stakes discussions.
In their analysis of crucial conversations and their various outcomes, Patterson et al. found that “helping couples learn to hold crucial conversations more effectively reduced the chance of unhappiness or breakup by more than half” and that this was true in both business and non-business relationships (Patterson et al., 15).
The Role of a Business Partners Counselor
Business Partners’ Counselors work at the intersection of these two diverse fields, able to navigate both interpersonal conflict and the challenges associated with running a business. With an experienced, skilled, impartial mediator facilitating discussions between you and your business partner, you are far more likely to arrive at an outcome that balances both your interests and those of the business.
For more on how Business Partners’ Counseling helps facilitate healthy conversation between business partners, read advice from Richard Chandler, MA, LPC, an experienced Business Partners’ Counselor, on how to communicate frustration to your business partner without an argument.
Pause Decisions to End the Business Partnership to Consider Alternative Options
Difficult conversations often come up without warning. The shock of hearing that your business partner wants to quit could lead to impulsive decisions. And overly emotional responses that cloud your judgment. Other than for egregiously unethical or illegal actions, your business can benefit from looking for alternative options to ending the business partnership.
Remember that at this moment, when you learn of shocking news like threats of quitting, it can be challenging to make the best decisions. Take a moment to pause, let emotions settle, and consider your options. You may know how your business partner feels, but consider how you think and feel. Contrast your preferences with those of your partner.
Consider all available paths before parting ways with your business partner
Recall the motivation that led you and your partner to form this business relationship and pursue this business idea. Because that motivation was strong enough for the two of you to become business partners, it is worth creatively exploring all the avenues available to you to determine the best path forward.
Once in motion, the decision to end your business partnership will be difficult to reverse. Before ending the business as you know it, consider all paths available to you. Consider enlisting a professional experienced in helping business partners through difficult, crucial conversations.
Scheduling with a Business Partners Counselor demonstrates that you are devoting the care to this decision that your business deserves. Take this step to pause, consider all your options, and consult with an experienced professional. Consider this option before pursuing a potentially irreversible termination of your business partnership.
For more information about Business Partners Counseling, please visit this page or contact me, Richard Chandler.
The American Psychological Association. (2004). "Managing Traumatic Stress: Tips for Recovering from Disasters and Other Traumatic Events." Accessed online 2022.
Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S. (2011). Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most. Portfolio/Penguin.
Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., Switzler, A., & Gregory, E. (2021). Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High (3rd ed.). McGraw Hill.