Co-founder conflict is the #1 killer of early-stage startups. How can you plan for it so when it does happen – and it will – you can navigate it productively? 

By the numbers: Psychologist and professor Dr. John Gottman uses four behaviors to predict the end of romantic relationships with 90% accuracy. And let’s be honest – co-founder relationships are basically romantic relationships without the romance. 

Here are the Gottman Institute’s Four Horsemen of the (Relationship) Apocalypse

  • Criticism — Attacking character instead of addressing specific behaviors or actions
  • Contempt — Expressing superiority, sarcasm, cynicism, or disrespect
  • Defensiveness — Refusing to take responsibility or shifting blame
  • Stonewalling — Withdrawing from communication and shutting down emotionally

Fortunately, there is an antidote to help address each of these behaviors. The principles of Clean Communication will help you implement them in a way that leads to productive conflict as opposed to a snowball from hell. 

Pro tip: Deliver Clean Communication responses from a nonreactive state. 


Scenario: You and your co-founder are doing a retro on the demo they gave the day before. You know it didn’t go as well as it could have, so you say, "Wow, that presentation was terrible."

Antidote: Talk about feelings with “I” statements, and express positive needs. 

Clean Communication: Use the Action/Impact Framework to own your experience of the situation and avoid making your cofounder play defense. 

Here’s what that might sound like: "During your presentation, I noticed everyone was on their phones. When can we explore some strategies to improve the delivery so it’s more engaging?”


Scenario: A disagreement around how to prioritize product features causes tensions to arise. You want to focus on customer demand and impact on user experience, but your co-founder thinks technical feasibility should be the driver. You get into a heated argument that ends with you saying, "Your suggestion is ridiculous and would never work."

Antidote: Appreciate your partner’s perspective, find the positives, and show gratitude.

Clean Communication: Use the Observations vs Judgments framework to express your perspective, show your curiosity about theirs, and avoid inviting debate. Then show appreciation for their perspective.

You could start with something like, "I see you have a different perspective. Can you help me understand your reasoning?”  Don't forget to work in some version of a “thank you”. Although your users are important, there could be a technical component you wouldn’t have considered without input from your co-founder.


Scenario: A customer gets upset because they received incorrect information about a product offering. Your co-founder asks you what happened, and you respond with, "It's not my fault, you didn't give me enough information."

Antidote: Accept responsibility, validate your partner's perspective, and apologize for any wrongdoing

Clean Communication: Use the How to Receive Feedback framework to be mindful that they’re giving feedback because they care about you and/or the business. Use the Give A Gold Standard Apology framework to help you repair your connection.

Note: You don’t have to agree with the feedback, but openness to hearing it goes a long way.

Here’s what it might look like: "You’re right, I don’t like how I handled that. I’m sorry I jumped the gun and replied to the customer before having all the information. I want to take a different approach next time.”


Scenario: At some point or another, everyone has found themselves in a situation where they feel like there’s no way to continue a conversation productively. If you feel yourself getting overwhelmed, try to avoid exploding and saying something like, “Don’t talk to me. Ever.”

Antidote: Take a break and some time to self-soothe

Clean Communication: Respond with something simple like, “I need a moment.” And then take that moment. Gottman recommends taking a 20-minute break after an argument to cool down.

Then use the Stages of Awareness framework to connect your feelings to your needs. Ask yourself, “What’s going on with me?” You might also use the Charge Clearing Process to reset and get rid of any negative energy you’re holding onto. 

A few closing thoughts:

  • Even if these behavior patterns don’t sound the alarms right away, they might eventually. Take care to resolve conflicts quickly — speed is critical in startup land, so don’t leave days or weeks in between self-realizations or apologies. 
  • Clean Communication is only as helpful as the follow-up. Talking about problems that have occurred is as essential as actually resolving them.
  • Not every relationship is meant to be saved. If repairing the relationship comes at the cost of your business’s mission, it may be time to part ways.