How do people navigate the tricky boundary of mixing friendship and business? Most people say that you should never do business with your friends or your family. That mentality is captured in the old proverb, “Blood’s thicker than water, but money’s thicker than blood.” There are no magic formulas to figure out how to properly establish professional relationships with friends or family. There are, however, a few simple communication-centered steps that can help you bridge the professional and social worlds. These worlds should be bridged, because you probably know a lot of smart, dedicated professionals who can give you credible advice (and often at discounted prices).
A few months ago I was in need of some commercial real estate advice. I contacted an old friend and we communicated several times via email, text, and phone. At one point her messages took on a bit of a sharp tone. I wasn’t sure what had changed, but because I am a very vigilant communicator with a guilty conscience, I immediately started thinking what I could have said to upset her. It turns out that one of my questions had offended her, but the real issue was that she was mad at me for not keeping in close enough contact with her over the years. We used to be close friends, but as it always does, life happened and we both became busy professionals. This underlying issue came out during a phone conversation. She was embarrassed for thinking these things and I was embarrassed for having asked a question that, she felt, had called her expertise into question. By the end of the call we had solved my problem, we had both apologized, and we have communicated more frequently ever since.
Six Tips for Doing “Business with Friends”
1. Be VERY CLEAR in establishing the roles during specific conversations. Role confusion is the number one reason professional relationships with friends and family end poorly.
2. Use transparent phrases to establish and clarify the roles. These allow you to clearly communicate what you want or need from the other person. For example, “I want you to give me advice as a conflict consultant and not as my friend. Be honest with me.”
3. If there’s a chance you might not follow your friend’s professional advice, let them know this up front. This is totally acceptable in the business world. Say something like, “I am researching this topic and I want your opinion. I might not go with your advice, but I want to know what you think because you are an expert.”
4. If you plan to ask a lot of questions, let them know that is just “how you operate.” Let them know that you aren’t questioning their credibility, since you ask questions of any professional you work with. Organized people plan ahead and ask a lot of well-developed, sometimes difficult, questions.
5. Be sure you discuss one issue at a time if there are multiple things to talk about, especially if you disagree over any of the issues under discussion.
6. If things aren’t going well, be willing to forgive, forget, and move on. Ask them for a referral to another professional. If you are having trouble shifting out of the “friend” role and into the “professional” role, clearly state that you want to work with someone else to preserve the friendship.