Can Mediation Help Partnership Communication Problems?

Dear Ms. Allison: I am so frustrated with my business partner. He got the business as part of a divorce settlement, so I think there’s “baggage” that enters the picture. Every time we disagree, he immediately gets defensive. His approach to communication about problems is to get louder and louder. He talks over me so I can’t complete a sentence. My only choices are yelling back (so no one gets heard), giving in to whatever he wants (why have a partner), or never bringing an idea or topic to the table (so there’s never any real agreement on business issues). He refuses to go to any communication training. My wife said I should think about getting a marriage counselor or permanent mediator. She was laughing, but is that a possibility or do mediators train people how to communicate like professionals? John B., Tulsa Metro Area.

Dear John:

Poor communication is a common struggle for business partners. But that’s where a good business mediator is useful. A skilled business mediator can do a variety of things to make sure both parties are heard.

Managing Communication through Mediation

If necessary, parties can be separated and only one allowed to speak at a time. This can happen in separate rooms where the mediator goes from room to room to listen and relay what is said. It is especially possible when business mediation happens online, such as in a Zoom conference with breakout rooms.

On certain occasions, it helps for others to be in the room. People don’t want to “act out” in front of them. Advisors and other professionals can participate, such as attorneys, financial advisors, even communications experts. They do not take part in making decisions, but they can provide legal and financial perspectives, help people understand the issues, and even help craft a written agreement.

Some people think a business mediator’s role is that of a referee, just putting a stop to conflict by making a decision she believes is fair to both parties. That is absolutely not the case.

Business Partnership Mediation Process

My approach is to put the conflict on the table from all the different perspectives on it and clarify it so all parties agree on what we are addressing. With that clarity, I can then keep all parties focused on their mutual interests. In a partnership conflict, mutual interest will be some version of the “success of their business.”

I guide communication to avoid emotional outbursts so that everyone can talk about the conflict cause(s) and resolution options. Also, I work to keep the conversation focused on moving forward, always toward resolution. I review documents from all “sides” and have private conversations with each partner so each can speak freely. Mediation sessions (in person or via video conference) then give everyone a chance to talk through the problems. I continually offer possible solutions that further the business goals and restore balance to the relationship.

In Short

Often, being really heard calms communication. Key questions can be asked in private that allow the root of defensiveness (or hurt) to be addressed. The important thing is to restore communication which means listening as well as speaking.

Through mediation, people often experience how they can communicate better and address their disagreements productively. When partners find success with the mediation approach to problem solving, a business mediator can be engaged for more than one disagreement or controversial business decision, separately, or regularly, if desired.

That’s your Question, Asked and Answered,
Gale Allison, Mediator

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