In the fast-paced world of startups, co-founder conflict is often cited as a primary reason for failure.

Watch: Co-Founder Conflict & Why I Quit my Startup | How to Fix a Dying Company

Yet, it remains one of the least addressed issues in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Our recent FounderCulture (FC) event at the SVB Experience Center delved into this critical topic, providing founders with the tools to navigate these treacherous waters through the framework of Clean Communication — developed by CCO Erika Anderson .

Co-Founder conflict within the Three Levels of Conversation

The event unfolded with a role-play scenario that dramatized a common conflict between a CEO and CTO. It showcased how conflict happens within the The Three Levels of Conversation that happen within the workplace.

Level one: data and logic

At this level, conversations revolve around facts and figures. The role-play vividly illustrated how sticking to data alone can lead to a loop of unproductive discussions. One attendee remarked, "It's like we're talking, but we're not communicating. We're just exchanging information without really understanding each other."

Level Two: emotions and focus on the other

As the role-play escalated, the characters moved into the emotional realm, expressing frustration and annoyance with each other’s performance in their respective roles. This shift from logic to emotion is where many co-founder conversations really start to unravel. "It felt like watching a live demonstration of what not to do," an attendee shared, highlighting the discomfort that arises when emotions are not managed properly.

Level three: vulnerability and personal needs

The turning point of the conversation was the introduction of the level three conversation, bringing vulnerability into play. Here, the co-founders expressed their fears and unmet needs, leading to a profound shift in the conversation. Suddenly, the focus was no longer on who was right or wrong, but on understanding and addressing each other's core needs.

The impact of this change really hit home. One founder shared, "When they started talking about their needs and fears, it was like a light bulb went off. That's when real communication happens."

Commitments to putting Clean Communication into practice

Attendees learned the importance of paraphrasing to ensure understanding, the value of pausing when emotions run high, and the need for establishing clear roles and responsibilities. "I'm walking away with a commitment to myself to apply this framework and not expect reciprocation," said one participant, emphasizing the personal responsibility in communication.

Another key takeaway was the role of trust in co-founder relationships. As one founder noted,

"The moment they began to share their vulnerabilities, the trust seemed to rebuild itself."

The SVB FC event not only highlighted the challenges of co-founder conflict but also offered a beacon of hope. Through Clean Communication, founders can 

Attendees were left with a sense of empowerment to navigate conflict and emerge with stronger, more resilient partnerships. The realization that they possessed the tools to transform conflict into an opportunity for growth and connection was a game-changer. "This isn't just about resolving conflict," an attendee reflected, "it's about building the foundation for a successful partnership."

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In the end, the message was clear: Clean Communication is more than a framework; it's a pathway to building startups that are not only successful but also sustainable. It's about recognizing each other's humanity and working together towards a shared vision. As founders continue on their entrepreneurial journey, the lessons from the SVB FC event will undoubtedly serve as a guiding light for navigating the complexities of co-founder relationships.