This is the the first part of a Founder Communication talk I give to YC founders during the batch to strengthen the cofounder relationship from (ideally) day 1. The second part can be found here.
Everybody fights. Your challenge is to learn to fight well.
Feeling tension rise between you and your cofounder is normal, healthy, and expected. You should expect to fight with your cofounder as you inevitably bump into each others' perspectives and particularities while building your startup. At any given moment, founders may be fighting about equity allocation, roles and responsibilities, who to hire when, the "right" product strategy, or each others' performance - or all of these at once!
There's a good way and a bad way to fight, and no one is born knowing how to fight well. Not having a healthy roadmap for conflict means that we either tend to avoid it altogether, or we repeat the same problematic behaviors without realizing there's another way to engage that would feel better for both us and our partner. Communicating productively, respectfully, and honestly about difficult topics is a skill that is built through practice and experience. Your challenge as a startup founder is that you to learn to fight well.
My first piece of advice for founders learning to fight well is that you become aware of how you currently fight (what I call here your "attachment style"), and you use that knowledge to shift your behavior to balance out the dynamic in your founding team. Doing so alleviates the emotional intensity inherent in founding teams, and allows for healthy conflict to take place.
Tip #1: Know Thyself (and thy attachment style)
Many of us already know that when we're stressed, our sleep suffers, we eat like crap, and/or our exercise routine takes a nosedive. But do you know how your behaviors, thoughts, and emotions toward your cofounder change when things are going less than smoothly?
Startups are messy, confusing, chaotic, hopeful, lonely, depressing, inspiring, and challenging, sometimes all within the same 5 minute span. As a founder, you'll be operating under stressful circumstances that will pull your behavior away from how you "normally" act 99% of the time. The more you know about you relate to those closest to you in times of stress, the better you can manage yourself when those inevitable conflicts erupt, and the faster you can get back to building your company.
Luckily, psychological researchers have made this task easy for you in the past few decades, and have found that most people behave in predictable and consistent ways in times of stress (called "attachment styles")(1).
To simplify even further, most cofounders act out one of only two (2!) attachment styles repeatedly in times of stress: anxious and avoidant.
Before I describe founders' anxious and avoidant attachment styles in more detail, know that neither type is right or wrong. These two categories are simply descriptive of most founders' behavior in relationship in times of stress. What's more, these two styles exist on opposite ends of a continuum so you (and your cofounder) may be perfectly described by the anxious or the avoidant type, or you may exhibit some behaviors belonging to one type and a few of the other. You may be anxious in relationship with your cofounder but avoidant in relationship with your romantic partner, or vice versa (for example). Each style is described as if it's quite distinct in this blog post, but attachment styles tend to be more dynamic and fluid IRL because they're heavily informed by the attachment style of our partner and what they tend to pull from us in relationship.
The 'Anxious'-style Cofounder
The anxious-style cofounder tends to balloon their energy and emotion outward in times of stress. Their nervous system is on overdrive. The anxious style is the relational equivalent to the physiological 'fight' response, as if the entire body is being mobilized cell-by-cell to wage war from behind a screen. Importantly, anxious cofounders seek others' help in feeling soothed, although that underlying search for soothing is often cloaked in outward criticism, micromanaging, and/or frustration.
The 'Avoidant'-style Cofounder
The avoidant-style cofounder is on the opposite end of the spectrum and exhibits inverse behaviors and little emotion. Whereas anxious cofounders tend to balloon their energy outward in times of stress, avoidant cofounders retreat inward, their nervous systems seemingly deactivated. The avoidant style is the relational equivalent to the physiological 'flight/freeze' response. In moments of stress or conflict, avoidant cofounders burrow inside themselves, looking to themselves to feel soothed. This underlying need for self-soothing is often perceived as disengagement, coldness, or a lack of caring.
Anxious and avoidant founders have an almost magnetic attraction to one another in relationship. The pressure-cooker like atmosphere of a YC batch also tends to create this dynamic even in founding teams where it may not have previously existed. In founding teams of three, it's typical for two founders to be stuck in the anxious+avoidant dynamic while the third mediates.
The anxious+attachment dynamic is a perfect storm that brews unending conflict if not addressed because it's a never-ending cycle of one founder leaning in and needing something from their partner (connection, soothing, reassurance), and the other founder continuing to lean further and further away rather than provide it (because that lean-in likely overwhelms them and pushes them even further away as they attempt to self-soothe).
More and more bad feelings are created with this dynamic as needs continue to go unmet and tension rises. As bad feelings grow and fester, attention, time, and energy are increasingly pulled away from the startup and onto the relationship, and the more likely it is for the founding team (and therefore the company) to die.
Being stuck in the anxious+avoidant dynamic is a death spiral for early-stage founding teams because so much of the startup's potential relies on the founding team members themselves.
To achieve balance within the founding team, each person must take actions to counteract the extremes of their natural style. This allows for their cofounder to relax out of their own style as well. The ultimate goal is for both founders to meet in the middle of the anxious/avoidant continuum, finding balance and alignment in order to have healthy, clear conversations instead of unhealthy, energy-intensive, and never-ending fights.
To find this balance, anxious cofounders should practice independence. This can look like:
And for their part in finding balance, avoidant cofounders should practice engaging. This can look like:
The goal is to find balance.
When the anxious founder chooses independence and takes a step back from needing their cofounder to soothe them, it allows the avoidant founder to more easily choose engagement. (Counterintuitively, the anxious cofounders' needs are actually more likely to be met if they choose independence as I indicate here.) Moving out of opposition to one another on the anxious/avoidant continuum alleviates much of the highly intense emotion that typically bleeds founders' energy out. Finding balance opens up space in the dynamic for healthy and productive conversation to take place about the actual business of building a business.
The more you know about your own attachment style - and that of your cofounder - the more easily you'll be able to pinpoint your unproductive, default behaviors in the moment and choose another way.
Finding this balance is a dance that takes time to learn. A great next step is for you to share this post with your cofounder and talk about your attachment styles. What situations in the past may have exacerbated each others' style? What do you appreciate about the others' style, and what single thing drives you insane? Can you use this blog post to strategize a different (better) way of handling conflict when it comes up in the future (knowing that it will)? What would a "perfect" fight look like for each of you? Can you gently hold each other accountable for trying a new, attachment-driven behavior the next time you fight?
The second part of my YC Founder Communication talk can be found here.
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