Two young business partners came to me for help resolving a conflict that had arisen as a result of a small charitable contribution that one of the parties wanted to make, a contribution that was vehemently opposed by the other partner.
Both partners were very disturbed by how this small matter had quickly escalated into a major dynamic between the two of them. They arrived to our meeting edgy and irritable.
When questioned about his concerns, the partner that opposed the contribution, approximately $250, had a hard time figuring out what it was about the gesture that irked him so much. His best guess about what prompted these feelings was that the decision had been made unilaterally. He wasn’t sure he wanted to remain in the partnership.
This was surprising news. These two individuals had worked hard for several years to build a viable business.
They had started from scratch and overcome many obstacles to become profitable. They had been like brothers.
It just didn't add up. Neither gentleman was unreasonable, uncharitable, or immature. And the money wasn't the issue.
I could understand how a unilateral decision might be annoying. But split up a friendship and a lucrative business? Intuitively, I felt some piece of information was missing. I started to dig.
I asked the partner who opposed the donation what it was about his lack of involvement in the decision that was so disturbing?
He thought about the question for some time and then offered that it contravened an agreement that they had made about charitable contributions. He reminded his partner that they had agreed that they would decide on such matters together.
On the surface this seemed to be a reasonable request. But to ignite such high emotion there had to be more to it than that. "What had led to such an agreement," I wondered aloud. "We aren't talking about a major cash outlay here," I pointed out.
They were both silent.
Finally, the partner who opposed the donation volunteered that another small donation was a root cause of the agreement and the disagreement.
He explained that he had made a similar donation at the beginning of the partnership. "I felt 'taken to task' for it at the time," he said. "Then you demanded that charitable donations required agreement from both of us," he said to his partner.
This caught the other man by surprise. He had completely forgotten the incident, which occurred several years ago. "Were you trying to get even," he asked, amazed and disturbed at the same time?
"Not consciously," said the first man. "But, in retrospect, I felt like a child requiring permission from a parent. I guess I have felt like a 'junior partner' ever since."
"Did you two talk this through at the time," I asked? They were both silent, and staring straight ahead.
"We talked about the actions... but not about the impact," said the partner who had refused the latest donation.
"I was just trying to manage our cash flow, which was precarious at the time. We both knew that. I felt that charitable donations were beyond our means. We were barely drawing enough salary to support our families," he explained. "But things were never quite the same between us after that and I didn't understand why."
I explained to them that hurt feelings, not attended to, will eventually surface as conflict. Most often, the root cause of the conflict is never identified because it happened in the past and is not rectified.
Over time, resentment builds that begins a pattern of action-reaction. Often that pattern can spiral into extreme behaviors. When things get bad enough, there is usually a crisis. Unfortunately, even in crisis, symptoms, not root causes, are what get addressed. Seldom is this approach to conflict resolution successful.
Chastened, the partners resolved to do the difficult work of talking about their feelings rather than ignoring them or pretending that they are irrelevant.
If I have an issue with someone, raise the issue directly with the person involved; ideally within 24 hours, preferably within three days, no longer than one week. This is a practice of responsible relationship — to check-in with the individual involved.
Checking-in allows us to stay current, and deal with issues, injuries or negative impacts in a timely way. When we are unwilling to talk about issues, problems and hurt feelings, relationships breakdown.
You can apply this protocol to work or home. It is an effective way to ensure that conflict does not undermine progress.