Couples Therapy for Colleagues

What happens when you have conflict with a co-worker and it hits too close…way too close…to home?

Ilan Zechory and Tom Lehman, two of the remaining founders of Genius, formerly known as Rap Genius, are in couples therapy. The two have known each each since freshman year at Yale in 2002. According to this article in The New York Times, they not only work together, but they go to yoga in tandem and even take shared vacations. The need for therapy was sparked by a fight in a taxi on the way to Penn Station last year. Zechory feared they’d miss their train, and Lehman needled him about how late they were. Couples therapy might seem like an extreme solution for founders with interpersonal issues, but if the relationship hits the skids, so might the company.

As a person who runs a company with my actual husband, I have a few thoughts to contribute on interpersonal harmony when two lives are completely enmeshed personally and professionally. People ask me all the time whether I think they could or even should go into business with their spouse. The key, at least in our case, is that we shared a passion for the same vision before we ever met. We love contributing to building the future and making ideas real. We keep our gaze steady on that mission and have fun along the way.

Know Your Partner

The two formed a fraternal bond after their time at Yale. “What I remember liking about Ilan when I first started hanging out with him was here is this, like, you know, tall, handsome, alpha guy,” Mr. Lehman said. “But when you talk to him, he says, ‘I’m insecure like you.’ ”

Yeah, that is NOT something that happened with me and my husband, who is actually the opposite: unflappable. Sure, he has his moments (don’t we all?) like if he doesn’t get enough sleep. But I know he needs a lot of sleep, and I know that if he doesn’t get it, he’ll be a lot less unflappable, and then I will miss the unflappability that stuns me on the regular. There are some things that are what they are, and there’s no sense trying to change them, because you can’t.

Know Thyself

Like others in therapy, they find that their old tendencies remain even after a period of progress. Mr. Zechory described a recent Monday when he strolled in five minutes late for a meeting arranged by Mr. Lehman. Making it all the worse, in Mr. Lehman’s view, was that Mr. Zechory arrived carrying a bag from the Strand bookstore loaded with books.

It’s so much easier to spot flaws in someone else than to see your own, isn’t it? So much easier to react when your buttons have been pushed than to understand yourself and modify your own bad habits. My husband and I have spent more time together in the last four years than most couples do in decades, and it’s been a great opportunity to take a long, hard look at my own tendencies.

The main business of Science House is visualizing company culture so it can be managed and strategically transformed. We often joke in workshops that since he’s from Palo Alto and I’m from Brooklyn (not hipster Brooklyn…old school Brooklyn), we have our own culture clash. When I get excited, he thinks I’m screaming at him, and the fact that he rarely gets animated unless something exciting happens in the world of chess doesn’t mean he isn’t interested. But above those differences, there’s a much stronger common bond. We also like to tell our clients and collaborators that I make complicated things fun and he makes fun things complicated. Sometimes, as serious as our projects are, with high-stakes problems being worked out in complex environments, working together can feel like a standup comedy routine.

Communicate

Although Mr. Zechory and Mr. Lehman may never stop having disagreements, they say they have learned three lessons: Never let an opportunity pass to say something positive; walking away from a heated conversation doesn’t signal abandonment; and it is better to discuss a problem, because it will surface anyway.

It all boils down to communication. When you live and work with someone, you can’t afford to let problems escalate. The great thing about it is that you have the chance to really tackle your own bad habits, learn to let go and see how much you can accomplish together. Allow yourselves to work on issues while they are still small.

Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously

This is probably the most important thing other than communication. Lighten up. A shared life with so many areas of overlap is a marathon, even if it often contains sprints. Running a business can be incredibly stressful for different reasons at different times. If it isn’t enjoyable, the relationship probably won’t last forever.

Rita King
About the author: 

Based in New York, Rita King is Director and Executive Vice President at Science House, a strategic consultancy that specializes in aligning business goals with collaborative strategies. She is also a futurist at the Science and Entertainment Exchange of the National Academy of Sciences, and also served as futurist at NASA Langley’s think tank, the National Institute for Aerospace, focusing on the future of work and education. Her features have appeared in/on The New York Times, Psychology Today, Al Jazeera, TIME, CNN, Fox News, NPR and the BBC.  Follow her on Twitter.