My friend and business partner

My business partner is very good at computer programming, and pretty bad at speaking in English. When he writes, he is clear. But real-time natural English is a problem. How can we run a business together, avoid conflicts in our friendship, and persuade each other of things?

Let me give you an example to make this concrete. Yesterday he came to me and said "we're not working hard enough on this software." But he is interning over the summer to fulfill his student visa status; so really he is the one not working hard enough. He wants me to work at night, which is when he is off his internship. But I work best in the morning, and also generally alone. We're both learning to work together, so I don't fault him for this.

I was not offended when asked to "work harder," but I think he overstepped his request a bit in the sense that so far, I've written most of the software and fleshed out the business ideas

In general, he has a hard time assessing how he comes off in English (Hindi is his first language) and he has a lot of trouble being clear and concise. It doesn't help that he's a very good programmer, which has made him somewhat arrogant so he doesn't really listen either. I've always thought a good talker has to be a good listener to speak clearly and concisely

How can I help him with basic proficiency so our business doesn't fail? I know many startups have a hard time

Any other input from: A) ESL people or B) people with lots of ESL friends is appreciated.


My mother was born in China, so I am familiar with the situation, but often even with her after knowing her for over 20 years, it can be hard to understand why she does things, and it's hard for her to understand my American customs, although she's lived here longer than I have

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    From the example you describe, this sounds like your problems don´t / not only lie in the language-barrier. Do you have a clear, written and signed agreement of how responsibilities and and results of your business are shared?
    – user6109
    Jun 25, 2018 at 10:03
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    As written I'm not sure the title matches the issue described in the question. Are you confident that the problem is related to English proficiency? If so, an example would improve the question-- as Daniel suggested, the listed example doesn't seem to have anything to do with your friend's English ability.
    – Upper_Case
    Jun 25, 2018 at 12:47
  • @Daniel We don't. But we've decided I'm the "CEO" and he's the "CTO," whatever the hell that means. Kind of ironic as right now there's no code so I'm the one writing most of the code. I was thinking of lighting a fire under him by proposing I get 60% equity or something; last we agreed 50-50. I'm not sure how committed he is, so it's hard to predict what I should do Jun 25, 2018 at 16:23

2 Answers 2


It's easy to communicate with people who are good communicators. It's harder when they're not. In that situation you make up for their ineptness with your adeptness.

You're a leader of a business. You need /amazing/ communication skills. Improving your communication skills for this employee will benefit you in the future.

we're not working hard enough on this software

Is that all he said? That's ambiguous to me. Did you ask for clarification? Maybe he didn't mean what you interpreted. Also, maybe he's thinking of something you're not. You could have a blind spot, for example.

I work best...alone

Did I understand that correctly? I'll assume you're highly accomplished. Perhaps you found others to be unreliable. So you relied on yourself. ("If you want something done right, do it yourself.") You're a leader, now. If you've relied on yourself in the past, you need to change. You will lead a team of people to be highly accomplished. Relying on others is completely different than relying on yourself. You will need to get better at relying on others.

It doesn't help that he's a very good programmer, which has made him somewhat arrogant so he doesn't really listen either.

If people feel misunderstood they are less likely to listen to you. What if he understands all sorts of things you don't? And maybe he gets frustrated that you don't listen to him? So he doesn't listen to you. You have to make the first move. Listen to him. Try to understand him. Keep changing your approach until you understand him. You'll grow. Once you get better at understanding him, you will relay your ideas to him in a way he can understand. Then he'll "listen" more. (Really you were the one who changed.)

he has a hard time assessing how he comes off in English...How can I help him with basic proficiency so our business doesn't fail?

Give him opportunities to practice. For example, have conversations with him. Ask questions until you are certain you understand. Even if you're pretty sure you know what he means, ask. Currently he relies on people inferring what he means. Asking questions will force him to be clear. He will likely get frustrated at having to explain himself. So he will improve his explanations. (Initially, he'll probably rely on verbosity to be clear. He'll get frustrated at the time it takes to be verbose. He'll want to save time. So he'll get more concise after he gets clear.) By focusing on your understanding, he will naturally assess how he comes off better. Similarly, put him in situations where he has to talk to other people. Don't communicate for him. Then he will have to learn how to adapt to other people. If he's not in a situation where he has to get better, he probably won't. Especially if he has no desire. (Putting him in the situation will give him the desire.)

Also, don't blame the business failing on his communication. Accept responsibility for your contributions. You're not in control of him. You're in control of you. Focus more on how you can change. Moving forward as a leader, you're going to be mostly changing yourself, not others. Good luck!!

  • When I first read this answer, I agreed with a lot of what you said, except for one thing. "Don't blame someone else for your problems" is generally good advice, except here we are literally business PARTNERS. Sometimes it's pretty hard for me to get my friend to actually do work. I understand he's currently interning so he's busier than I am with those duties. But if I need to partner with someone else or radically change his behavior, I need to know that as soon as possible, right? I don't want to waste my time chasing someone who won't turn out to contribute to the business Jun 25, 2018 at 16:25
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    @frank I don't really like the concept of (equal) partners. There's no clear person to blame. Also if there's disagreements who wins? I'm assuming he's the technical person (since he has trouble communicating) and you're the people/idea person (although you can code, too). Therefore you should be the one in charge. Therefore you should be the one to blame. Also your last 2 sentences sound to me like you view yourself in charge.
    – user16858
    Jun 25, 2018 at 16:54
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    @frank I don't think you need a new partner, necessarily. People are very capable of changing when they want to. You may just need to give him the right motivation. I would recommend first, clarifying your relationship with him to yourself. Are you equals? If so he's sovereign over himself. And you should let go forcing him to do anything. Disadvantage here is you two may have a tendency to blame each other. Then the business can't move forward.
    – user16858
    Jun 25, 2018 at 16:57
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    @frank Alternatively, are you over him? If so, while he continues this business relationship with you, you are in authority over him. You are ultimately to blame for success and failure. Once you've decided in your mind, you need to talk it over with him. Just be careful - what I'm talking about is just decision-making, it doesn't make your decisions right. You need to be the most open-minded person and the most changing person in the organization. Otherwise other people will know better than you, and you will be bringing your own organization down.
    – user16858
    Jun 25, 2018 at 16:59
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    Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – user16858
    Jun 25, 2018 at 17:59

How can I help him with basic proficiency so our business doesn't fail?

As ESL myself: Practice and give feedback regularly. It´s the only way to improve up from a certain point.

You should inform him that he as a problem with tone and precision in his language. Agree that you will correct him whenever you notice something. This will set an framework in which you can criticize him easily without having to explain every time.

Also: Watching English Films and participating in English forum such as here will help.

OT edit as per comments: I think you really need to work at some other issues, as your problems, in part seem to arise out of a different understanding of your partnership rather than the English language. Having bee to 3 startup-situations: Please get a clear written memorandum of understanding (at least) where you list what everyone does and what everyone gets.

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