Conscious Contracts Workshop Recap: No Shortcuts to Business Relationship Success

By Jaime

As the co-founders of True Connect, we started this business because we saw the same problem recurring from two very different perspectives. Chuck, a business advisor and mentor, saw business partners and founding teams spending time and attention on their business plans and product development, but rarely expending energy on building or maintaining their core relationships. In my experience as an attorney, I saw co-workers and co-founders whose relationships had strained to the point where they found themselves in court, finally airing long-simmering grievances and resentments that could have been repaired or avoided if the matter had been dealt with earlier. Both of us saw a need for a greater focus on the soft skills of relationship building and troubleshooting. Building your product and your business are important, but we’ve seen too many examples where ignoring the universal human needs to feel seen, heard and respected have resulted in avoidable failures and struggle. In our experience as advisors and also as humans who have bumped along in relationships in our own lives, learning hard lessons along the way, we separately came to the conclusion that yes, relationships take work, and this is no less true in business than in private life.

The need for relationship building and troubleshooting has come into sharp focus as we all feel the effects of dysfunction in Washington and across the globe. Constructive dialogue and diplomacy have taken a backseat to displays of power and control, and these tools don’t seem to be serving us. Observers and pundits, in their election post-mortems, repeatedly noted the effects of “echo chambers” and the breakdown or non-existence of real dialogue among people with different perspectives.

In my own personal effort to make sense of where we are in this historical moment, and to explore how I can best use my skills and abilities to bring about more dialogue and understanding, I found two books that gave me hope, inspiration, and direction. They were “Lawyers as Peacemakers: Practicing Holistic, Problem-Solving Law” and “Lawyers as Changemakers: The Global, Integrative Law Movement,” both by J. Kim Wright. The books really resonated with me because I have long known that the typical approach to lawyering, in which each side lawyers up and goes to battle, often causes more harm than good. It’s the reason I sought out training and experience in alternative forms of conflict resolution and co-founded this business in the first place. I wanted to see what more I could do to help.

I reached out to Kim through social media, and over the course of a few conversations, we hatched a plan for her to come to Boulder and teach a workshop. We chose “Conscious Contracts” because contracts are the practical roadmap for business relationships. Contracts are legally-binding documents, yet they enable the parties to be creative, to state their goals in their own language, and to commit their promises to writing. Contracts are everywhere. We enter into them all the time in our businesses, and as private individuals too, for things like home purchases or leases, cell and wifi services, and gym memberships. Contracts are usually seen, at best, as a necessary evil to spell out what each person in a business relationship is expected to do or provide, in a given time frame, for a given price, “or else.” Contracts usually devote a lot of ink toward spelling out the consequences of either side not living up to its promise, and we accept those consequences, hoping they will never come to pass. We all sign contracts all the time, including those pop-up “click to agree” terms of service, which are so ridiculous there’s even a South Park episode devoted to the absurdity of expecting anyone to actually read those things. (Yes, it involves agreeing to be part of a “human centipede” and yes, it’s hilarious and gross, but I digress).

The “Conscious Contracts” model is an alternative to the traditional model of confusing legalese and unclear expectations. It emphasizes communication between the parties, thoughtful drafting in plain English, and a commitment to using the contracting process to create a workable relationship that empowers the parties to resolve conflicts as they arise, especially in the face of unforeseen complications. Legally speaking, to be considered valid, a contract must contain an offer, acceptance of the offer, “consideration” - or something of value exchanged, and finally, mutuality, which basically means the parties understood and agreed to the basic substance and terms of the contract, sometimes referred to as a “a meeting of the minds.”

This last piece is the one that’s most glossed over in many agreements, creating problems down the road when it becomes clear that each party to the contract had a different understanding of what was required of them. With a Conscious Contract, the basic elements of a contract are still present, but the parties place a greater focus on “(a) what it is they are planning to do together and why, (b) what are their respective goals and how those will be met, and (c) the core benefits they are each seeking to generate and harvest by joining forces or by making their bargain.” See https://www.discoveringagreement.com/practical-application/ for an in-depth discussion of the principles of Conscious Contracting. They also include terms that encourage the parties to deal with disagreement in a new way. Rather than lawyering up at the first sign of disagreement, the contract will specify a commitment to discuss problems with an eye toward resolution, and perhaps a next step of engaging a mediator to assist in resolving conflict, recognizing that litigation and other means of “outsourcing” the conflict are expensive and less effective than engaging directly, in a way that reflects the values and purpose expressed right in the agreement.

The Conscious Contracts Workshop, which we hosted on August 10 & 11th, was attended by lawyers, conflict resolution professionals, and entrepreneurs, and involved hands-on practice negotiating contracts with a conscious, solutions-oriented approach. The workshop included an overview of the evolution of contracts and the law, especially in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, which are far ahead of the U.S. in innovating new models for resolving conflict. We also learned about developments in neuroscience and design thinking that apply to negotiation and creation of contractual relationships, which drove home the notion that there’s no substitute for good communication.

One challenge we discussed as a group was that we all see a need to create relationships that work better for all involved, and we all see the value in the Conscious Contracts model, but how do we implement it? Won’t we always be facing resistance among people content to do things in the established way? How will courts interpret these agreements? Can we realistically expect people to do the work required to clearly state their expectations and understandings, rather than just fill in the blanks on pre-printed forms? Can we trust people to invest the time and energy to repair a situation before it goes hopelessly sideways?

Kim encouraged all of us to simply start. With the foundation we learned over the two days, we can start entering into revolutionary new contracts, or we can add incrementally conscious elements to our business interactions over time. Revolutions don’t happen in a day, and we can start by looking at the contracts we use in our businesses to see if we can switch out some of the legalese for plain language. Who would object to that? No one will miss those “wherefores” and other relics of a forgotten language.

Moving beyond just the language, another way to start incorporating conscious principles is to draft a statement where each party recites why they are entering the contract with the other, what they hope to achieve together, and what the other person is bringing to the table that they appreciate. The standard boilerplate clauses don’t necessarily need to be thrown out the window, but with the inclusion of these more people-oriented statements, the parties to the contract can be reminded of where they started out and what they agreed upon before complications set in. These statements give more recognition to those human needs of feeling seen, heard and respected, and may set the stage for more productive partnerships even in the face of challenges.

These approaches may make the most sense in cases where the relationship is deeper and intended to last longer than a simple one-off transaction. For example, at True Connect, we help business partners at the formation stage design partnership agreements, which are by their nature designed to last, yet be flexible in the face of uncertainty. They are a perfect opportunity for the Conscious Contracts model, and we’ve already incorporated some of what we’ve learned into improving our work with our clients.

Another conference participant works frequently with landlords, and she saw an opportunity to incorporate some conscious elements into leases, especially leases in owner-occupied properties where the parties were essentially becoming neighbors. The conference prompted some thought about incorporating a section about the type of neighbor each side committed to be to the other.

Do these contracts take more work than the typical boilerplate agreements we’re used to? Probably. But when so much of the status quo isn’t working, what do we have to lose? More and more, it seems clear that to create a better future, we have to start working together more productively. Where better to start than with our contracts?

 

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