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My husband and I have run businesses together since we were in law school. We sold our first business to Intuit in 2005. Still feeling the entrepreneurial bug, we built a second business we’re still running today. Together, we’ve raised four kids and a multimillion-dollar business — a success story, yes, but not without its challenges at home and in the office.
While not everyone welcomes the idea of getting professional counseling, from my viewpoint — and personal experience — counseling can help in ways you didn’t think possible. For example, in a recent American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) study, almost 90% of marriage therapy clients reported an improvement in their emotional health, and most noted an improvement at work and in the couple’s relationship.
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Here are a few takeaways from my experience with professional counseling:
Build strength: Counseling not only strengthened our marriage but also made our business relationship stronger by showing us how to communicate more effectively and focus on each other’s feelings rather than the facts. If you’re not sure you’re communicating enough, over-communicate just to be sure.
Learn the owner’s manual: Just as you need an owner’s manual to operate a washing machine, you must learn your partner’s personal “owner’s manual” (i.e. what makes them tick, what makes them happy or sad, what causes frustration, etc.).
Don’t assume you know your partner better than anyone else because you’re married or in a relationship. Instead, do some homework and have each partner create a personal user manual. Write an outline of how you like to work, share responsibilities, collaborate, communicate and receive feedback. It may sound like a trigger for a fight, but getting to know yourself and your partner better can be a fun exercise. (A personal user’s manual is also an excellent way to learn about new employees in your business!)
Learn to listen: Most people listen to what’s being said while preparing an answer in their heads, which means they’re not really listening. Counseling taught us to use “mirroring techniques,” which means putting yourself in the other person’s shoes to try and understand what they’re feeling and how they communicate their feelings. Everyone wants to feel acknowledged and validated; empathy is the best way to show you are listening.
The three Fs: Another effective technique we learned in counseling, the “three Fs,” comes in handy especially when you need to bring up a touchy subject. Although most know we should tread carefully when approaching a sensitive topic, emotions often get out of hand and a constructive discussion becomes a huge argument. The tendency to place blame can wreak havoc in work and personal relationships.
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You can be assertive, make sure you’re heard and produce a healthy confrontation using the three Fs: 1) fact, 2) feeling and 3) fair request.
- Fact: Start by considering what can be agreed on. Point out the issue objectively and without judgment. Whether a report deadline was missed or a kid was left unpicked up from a soccer game, state the fact of the problem without using the words “you forgot” or “you didn’t do this.”
- Feeling: Next, assertively state the mistake’s impact. Because this part expresses a feeling, you should use the word “I” but without placing blame. For example, “Now, I need to work late to file the document,” or “I need to go pick up Jane from soccer.”
- Fair request: Finally, it’s time to communicate the need — a specific, reasonable, fair request. “Can we set up a system to remind us of deadlines?” or “Can we have set days to pick up kids from games?”
Find the right counselor
All counselors are not created equal, and you may not immediately mesh with the first one you meet. To find a good fit, approach finding a counselor as you would hiring a new employee.
First, make sure the counselor holds the same values as you and your partner — the same basic belief system. Also, look for a counselor with experience helping couples with marital issues and running a business. After meeting with the counselor, talk to your spouse about how they feel about the person. You may feel the person is a good match, but counseling will most likely fail if your spouse doesn’t.
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The biggest mistake many couples make is to view counseling as a way to show your partner you’re right and that the counselor will convince your partner to agree with you. Instead, counseling aims to help couples understand and resolve conflicts to improve their business and home relationships. And it offers couples the right tools to communicate and deal with conflict healthily.
Working couples need to agree that their relationship comes first and learn to value and prioritize their marriage. Being in business with a spouse should be a unifying experience, where a strong understanding of each other’s work allows both to provide valuable advice and support. And when — inevitably — reunification tactics are needed, counseling can get you back on track.