Being Adult In A Relationship

I was with my close friend Jerry Colonna for dinner last week. We sat outside at the Boulder Teahouse, our favorite place to eat together, and shared a meal, some heavy conversation, and some love.

I love Jerry. I learn something every time I’m with him. He’s one of the first VCs I ever worked with and is my favorite other than my Foundry Group partners. We both struggled openly with depression. I think we have helped each other, and many others, through our openness. I consider him one of my closest friends.

We talked about a couple of heavy, conflict filled situations we were each involved in. He said something profound to me that I’ve been carrying around since we had dinner.

To be adult in a relationship is not to be conflict free. It is to resolve conflicts mindfully.

– David Richo – How to Be an Adult: A Handbook on Psychological And Spiritual Integration

Most of the conflicts in my life are in business. Sure – Amy and I have them occasionally, but I grew up in a pretty conflict free home. My parents disagreed on things but talked through them. When I disagreed with my parents, they listened to me and we tried to work things out. Sometimes I ended up being disappointed or unhappy in the moment, but they taught me to move on to the next thing.

My first marriage has lots of conflict in it, which I’d put it in the passive aggressive category. I think that’s why I find passive aggressive behavior so distasteful – it reminds me of the failure of my first marriage. Of course, we are surrounded by this throughout of lives, even when people have the best of intensions, so I try to bash through it when I see it happening, turning passive aggressive dynamics to conflict, which has to get resolved.

In business, I’ve worked with a wide range of people. I’ve experienced the full spectrum of conflict many different times. When I see conflict emerging, I try to confront it directly, calmly, and thoughtfully. “Mindfully.” I rarely lose my temper. I try to listen carefully. I try to incorporate a wide view of what is going on, rather than just jump into a particular position. I try express my position clearly without excess emotion. I listen and incorporate more feedback. When the conflict is intense, I put myself in the position of driving a resolution, especially in ever-present sub-optimal situations where the “perfect” answer is elusive.

I really love the notion of mindfulness. Wikipedia’s buddhist definition is the one I understand the best.

Mindfulness is “the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment”, which can be trained by meditational practices

My experience this year with meditation has surrounded me with this word. At least half of the stuff I’ve been reading on meditation talked more about mindfulness than meditation. The practice I’m getting from Headspace is opening up a whole new dimension for me of how to think about work, life, and relationships. And when Amy says, “Brad – be present” she is reminding me to be my best, mindful self.

I don’t enjoy conflict, nor do I seek it out, but I’ve never been afraid of it. I just confront it and deal with it the best I can. And now I have a word for how I do it, which is “mindfully.”

  • Headspace is possibly one of the most useful things I have ever used online. 20 minutes a day on my daily train into NYC, so many new layers being exposed.

  • DaveJ

    As I think about it, conflict is when you (Brad) are most mindful and present; perhaps it is focusing. When there is no conflict you start floating out into the Brad-spacetime-continuum (thus Amy’s request for you to be present).

    • Well said and well observed. And you know me better than almost everyone on this planet.

  • Dave Linhardt

    Hey Brad, this post resonates. My marriage has suffered from some of the same characteristics you’ve mentioned and it’s finally ending. I’ve always tried to face these issues head on. But, it takes two to engage and resolve conflict. One person can’t do it alone. I think the pattern that is difficult to deal with, in business and in personal relationships, is when you try to address the issue and your partner can’t or won’t. Sometimes, partners avoid, dismiss, and distort the facts so the real issue is swept under the rug. Instead of being resolved, the problem festers and grows like a cancer. When you find yourself in a relationship like this, I think it’s important to notice this pattern. These types of relationships don’t get better over time. They get worse.

    I came across a saying when I was young that really stuck with me. “Don’t ever be afraid of the truth.” I have no idea where I first heard this, but it’s a philosophy that has served me well. Stay open minded, collect facts and continually search for truth in every area of your life. It’s cliche that the truth will set you free, but it really does. Face the truth head on and you will be better off in the end. No where is this more true than in personal relationships, love, and with startups.

    I’ve engaged deeply in meditation from time to time. I find it difficult to sustain every day, but I will go for stretches of 3 or 4 months where I’m meditating twice a day. There is no question of the benefits for me – a calmer mind, heightened awareness, improved ability to see creative solutions, less reactive, more responsive and a slower path to anger. Meditation is not a panacea. You still have problems, but it seems like I’m better able to deal with them when I’m in the right state of mind.

  • I’m another Headspace fan. Helped me out of a mini-panic attack just a few days ago. Just breathing and letting go helps me so much — also the reminder to be present throughout the day.

    Just remember to breathe deeply a few more times before any more scorpion posts, and maybe go for a 100-miler first 😉

    Hope to see you next week in Austin!

    • Will definitely see you next week!

  • ‘mindful’ = an important word/idea/practice

  • +100 “I find passive aggressive behavior so distasteful … ”

    What I find so confusing is how people go through life in a continual passive-aggressive mode or way of dealing with things in life. Especially in the professional world. I have tried so many times to “put my head in their head” to try to understand this style – but it really is boggling to me, and a very hard thing “to get” how others exist day to day in this way (while also knowing that you are experiencing perhaps only one instance of such, among maybe many)

    • JamesHRH

      I find passive aggressive behaviour comes from a desire to have you realize that I am unhappy. Most passive aggressive behaviour is one person blaming the other for not caring enough about the first person’s unhappiness. Its a lot simpler to just say “I am unhappy with you”.

      • The reason behind it could be that – or many others. That’s the hardest part – you don’t usually know just what exactly. At a minimum it is stalling, un-collaborative, uncommunicative, can create ill-feelings / toxicity that maybe was not there before (and innocently attracted) and overall wastes time. Just being open, direct, reasonably timely, and as respectful as possible is not only faster, it even results in better outcomes between the parties in my opinion.

  • JamesHRH

    Mindfulness seems like a thinking based person’s word for caring.

    • Good call…

      • JamesHRH

        It would seem that you would use a personality typing system of some kind, but I have never seem you blog about it.

        Do you?

        • I don’t.

          • JamesHRH


            I never went in for Meyers Briggs. Too grid like to seem a useful tool for humanity.

            I use the Enneagram. Very simple, powerful, more
            Narrative approach (which, given what we have learned about human thought in the last 10-20 years, really adds up).

            Having a framework of what you and others care about, for reference, might lower your frustration & make you more mindful.

  • Elizabeth Kraus

    I think learning to deal with conflict mindfully is perhaps one of the most important qualities of great leaders. I’ve been really working on this, because I realized my aversion to conflict and my need for everyone to “like me” was suffocating me as a leader. I was struggling to close deals because as soon as someone disagreed with the terms or showed a lack of enthusiasm, I backed down. I tried so hard to find solutions to make everyone happy, that I just ran in circles and almost collapsed from exhaustion in the process. Once I finally figured out that it was impossible to make everyone happy and that as a leader, my job was to listen, then make a decision and stand by my decision with confidence, it completely changed my world. But learning to say no with grace and dealing with conflict mindfully is really hard and its nice to have a reminder of how important it is. TY

    • Great learning on your part. A long time ago I accepted that I can’t make everyone happy. That helped on one dimension, but then I also lost track of the importance of making sure that what I was doing was making me happy. These two constructs have a weird tension that is part of this mix.

  • Re: handling conflict, I would add, sometimes just ignore it. It might go away.

    But if you have to deal with it, don’t let it affect you negatively, because if you do, you reduce your capacity to deal with it. What I always say to myself is if I’m not 100%, I can’t deal with it. So, I’m not going to let it affect my mind, so I can deal with it better.

    • Rick

      Except if you’re in a leadership position. Then it is your responsibility to ensure relationships between *all* team members are good and are supporting the goals of the team.

      • Rick

        Oops… That’s in response to your comments about “just ignore it.”

  • It’s amazing what lengths people will go to avoid honest communication. But truly, communication is the cornerstone of conflict resolution, as it preempts most conflicts. The next stone is all about not taking things personally…

    • jerrycolonna

      So true. One of my teachers would have also added, “Oh, and by the way, it’s not as big a deal as you think.” The NBD (“No Big Deal”) rule is really helpful here.

      • Perfect comments @Peter and @Jerry. It seems that 9 times out of 10, the evolved anxiety and worry people build up on their head and hearts procrastinating and avoiding – regardless of the stakes – becomes a much bigger deal thanjust communicating and sorting out together, and then moving beyond and forward – often better than when un-addressed.

        That’s the ultimate irony of it all.

      • Although, sometimes it’s worse than you think. That’s why we fear to do it. In many ways our life is ruled by a minority as opposed to the majority of outcomes.

  • Rick

    Good stuff. I know people who, instead of bringing the conflict out, will hide the aggression inside for years. Then it turns into some kind of mental illness where they are trying to win a battle that doesn’t actually exist. They spend years seeking various forms of revenge until their actions start to affect many people, including their self, in terrible ways.
    In business this can cause various problems. I’ve witnessed people, in positions of leadership, lash out at subordinates, even very young impressionable people, because the leader was having problems with other people not the ones they lashed out at.

    • Anonymous

      Rick, this is often called narcissistic personality disorder. The majority of people that surround this type of individual will not know they suffer from this very abusive disease, but those in the immediate circle know all too well. A lack of emotional intelligence coupled with deep insecurity manifests itself in a variety of ways that can be very stealth and damaging. They are only aware of being mindful as they mirror others, but they will never truly understand what it means. Scary stuff professionally and personally.

      • Rick

        Thanks for explaining it well. I’ve just recently come to realize these things even exist. I was evaluating my approach to everything! My processes and procedures, interactions, etc. All to improve my efficiency and effectiveness. Little did I know there is a world of complex problems people face everyday with mental struggles. Many times they don’t even know it.
        The example I use that is most friendly is telling a story of a person who wants to save money and then spends $10 in gas to use a $5 coupon. In the end they didn’t save any money they actually spent an extra $5. It sounds corny but if someone thinks about it for a while they sometimes start to realize that it’s important to analyze their behaviors.

        • JamesHRH

          Also known as lack of
          Confidence, Control or Persepctive.

  • Pierre Powell

    Brad, As always, I enjoy your posts. Your vulnerability tees ups real meaningful dialog, dialog that we like to repress.

    Regarding conflict, I accept there is conflict/drama going on all around me all of the time, most of which I am unaware. However, I also beleive the conflict/drama that pulls me in usually has a hook or a resonance that give me a mirror to my own issues. So, being mindful in my reaction to conflict is important, but also being mindful about what that conflict is touching within me allows me to process work; or pull the shadow into the light.

    Love your insights and your work, both personal and professional! Blessings…

    • Oooh – I love the phrase “pull the shadow into the light.” That is a great description of what happens.

  • I find that simply acknowledging it, putting it on the table, and making sure everyone understands will go very far towards resolving it

    • jerrycolonna

      I agree. It’s taken me a long time to learn (and it’ll take me an even longer time to remember) that there’s a power in just saying it.

    • That is one of your gifts and something I love about working with you!

  • jerrycolonna

    Well the real authentic truth is that I struggle to remember this every day.
    It helps to be sitting at a dinner with a good friend who reminds you of the truth of who you are, even as you struggle to make sense of it all.

    • “I struggle to remember” ~that’s basically the definition of mindfulness right there.

      • jerrycolonna

        I once heard Pema Chodron give the instruction that, if you spend 19 minutes of a 20 minute meditation session gathering wool only then to wake at the last minute, then you’ve experienced mindfulness.

  • Alex Wolf

    When I had a similar adult relationship issue and had exhausted my then resources, I asked Jerry for a recommendation and it was How To Be An Adult. By coincidence, I read it in alternation with Venture Deals. 🙂

    Have you read Crucial Conversations and the books that series? They frame issues very well. A complement to The Art of Strategy (translation RL Wing) in seeing to the solution of conflict or avoiding all together.

    • I haven’t read Crucial Conversations or The Art of Strategy but just added them to the mix!

  • bethebutterfly

    For me, the practice is to look at the thing that is triggering, offending or upsetting and realize it is my responsibility and not to blame the other person. This is not what we are taught in our culture, but it is a mindfulness practice. Being able to take responsibility for one’s state and emotions are the only way to have the ability to access the next band of possibility beyond one’s own patterns.

  • Jason Waite

    Brad, first off, I want to say thanks to you for writing this blog post, and for your book I hope to meet you in Austin this coming up week, and look forward to learning how to build my awesome team with FarmNFund, but know there are lot’s of challenges and opportunities ahead.

    Concerning your post here, this reminds me a lot about how Gary Chapman approaches the concept of ‘love’. (Not love as the emotional gushy feeling of ‘love’, but the emotion of commitment to giving of the emotion, vs. the need and necessity of having to receive love, before giving love.

    Gary goes on in many of his work to talk about love, emotions, and the power of forgiveness. Although this article is more of mindfulness it reminds me of the concepts of love, or rather that of giving out of commitment, vs. that of honeymoon based relationships, and or that of not being mindful.

    I don’t know, your article here really made me thing a lot about this.

    I want to say thank you again, and I REALLY hope to meet you this coming week in Austin, and maybe you can share with me some of your experience.

    Talk soon,

    Jason Waite

    “Love is NOT AN EMOTION that comes over us or an elusive goal dependent on the actions of others. Authentic love is something within our capabilities, originating in our attitude and culminating in our actions. IF WE THINK OF LOVE AS A FEELING, WE SHALL BE FRUSTRATED WHEN WE CAN’T ALWAYS WORK UP THAT FEELING. When we realize love is primarily action, we are ready to use the tools we have to love better.”
    ~Gary Chapman in Love: As Way of Life

    • Gary Chapman definitely just impacted my thinking – I finally read The 5 Love Languages about 10 days ago! See you in Austin.

  • Very nice.

    Integrity to the other can resolve conflicts (part of being an adult in relationships).

    Integrity to self often avoids conflict in the first place.

  • This is powerful stuff. Coming off a wedding weekend (woohoo! I owe a lot of updates Brad) in which emotions and intensity were often high, as family gatherings can be, I found myself constantly practicing mindfulness. It was the only way to rise above the petty power struggles and ego conflicts that threatened to set off my own emotional triggers. I just felt them the frustrations arise and run through my body, and them instead of being them I was able to be a force that could make everybody feel heard: “this is how you feel, and regardless of whether objectively speaking what you are doing is completely insane I will recognize and acknowledge your emotion.” And then I can firmly, as an adult, explain my why I’m still not going to give into your demands to do a Motown routine during the speeches section with all the cousins.

    You would be surprised at how docile the most difficult individuals get after feeling like they’ve been heard

    • Well done and congrats on the wedding, especially if it was yours!

      • Thank you so much – it was! Although actually my wife probably deserves all of the credit (for the wedding and for making me an adult :).

      • It was. I’m a very lucky guy!

  • I just had the aha moment last night[1], that withholding an honest opinion is a form a passive-aggressiveness.


  • Ernesto Izquierdo

    Brad, thanks for this post. As with your other posts about depression, I really enjoy learning from the way you deal with difficult situations. I will apply your path: just confront it and deal with it the best I can. Wish you a great day.

  • Mindfulness is a strong yet subtle tool that intersects personal and spiritual worlds. Many of us entrepreneurs have shaped our lives through our work, in essence granting work an almost spiritual presence. In this sense mindfulness (begat from meditation, begat from Buddhism, begat from Siddhartha Gautama 🙂 ) is a fantastic means of putting value into our work, and thus our lives.

    There are other tools that spring from this… Fred Wilson’s note on simple acknowledgement is a good example. For me the best part is that this is a well documented space and is totally open to personal discovery and enlightenment (yes that kind.)

  • After reading your post when it came out I ordered How to Be An Adult, and it’s been a great aid/reminder of how to behave better in situations that can provoke me to respond in unhelpful, and sometimes ‘unadult’ ways. Thanks Brad. I’ll be referring back to this, and his other books for refreshers for years to come.