Lessons from the combine

September 2008

You can’t push a combine too hard or else it plugs. People are the same. You can’t push too much change on them or they will resist everything you say.

Harvest is a favorite time of year. As a combined driver, I join the excitement of bringing in the crop as efficiently as possible. I enjoy long hours of solitude on the field, with lots of time to ponder what’s happening in life. I am sometimes interrupted by loud “thunks” when the header plugs, or the frustration of catching a clump of mud, but usually things get back into the flow.

Plugging the combine is a great metaphor for resistance. You can’t push too much too fast through the powerful machine. People are like that. Farm people are going through tremendous changes again this year with new challenges, and we get frustrated when our family doesn’t want what we want.

“Why don’t you want what I want?” is the title of Rick Maurer’s practical book on working through three levels of resistance. Level 1: “I don’t get it.” Level 2: “I don’t like it.” And Level 3: “I don’t trust you.” Maurer believes we can muster support for our ideas without the hard sell, manipulation or power plays. He encourages readers to stay engaged with the person — seek understanding, favorable reactions, and develop trust.

I’ve experienced resistance to change in farm families when I’ve tried to present too many ideas for change too quickly. Things plug up fast when people aren’t given time to see the same picture we see. Maurer writes, “When people are afraid they will lose something important when their fear response kicks in…their emotional brain take over and limit their ability to stay engaged with us.”

Smooth combine operators make sure they feed the machine with a good consistent speed, checking the monitors. We need to check our understanding with our families, planting seeds of change gradually, and paying attention to emotional monitors.

Beeping in the cab alerts us to problems with the combine. With people, the signals are not so obvious. How do we know that we are listening to the other person’s viewpoints and that they understand ours? Are they reacting negatively or positively? Is there sufficient trust between us for them to support us?

Six tips to move through resistance

Maurer suggests six principles of engagement to help move through resistance:

Know your intention. Focus on issues instead of positions. The key intention of combining is to put all the grain in the tank, and not leave a trail of grain on the ground. The issue is trusting the guy who sets the sieves and checking the tank and the trail behind you. If you are intending to make changes in your farm family, have you developed the trust you need for support?

Consider the context
. At harvest, getting the crop off is the focus, other things are lower priority. Maybe you’ve been trying to make changes with people who are just too tired to think or change! Harvest is perhaps not the best time for these conversations.
Avoid knee-jerk reactions. Slamming the hydrostatic lever can put your face in the windshield of your combine. You need to know your triggers or “hot buttons” in conversations and avoid them. Your goal is to seek understanding and build commitment.

Pay attention. When a cutting knife breaks, you get a trail of heads standing — evidence that you need to stop and change the broken part. Do you listen to others? Do you care about what the other person has to say? Make time for feedback. Listen. Be willing to be influenced by what you hear.

Explore deeply. Messing around with the concaves is exploring deeply into the guts of the combine. You hope you don’t have to do this in the field, but it happens. People are afraid of the unknown, which is why farmers resist talking about a different way of working or living off the farm. Families need to find a safe way to talk and explore possibilities for common ground. Maurer says you know when you have explored enough when the person shifts from “you to us,” and it feels like a weight has just lifted. “Have I answered all of your questions?” “Is there anything I can provide for you?”

Find ways to connect. When my trucker comments that I am cutting too high, I make adjustments and don’t steam with the criticism. The real concern is to do a great job, and not leave too much straw for the cultivation guy to handle. Maurer’s process for people to connect is to identify the real fear or concern. State what is important to you. Then turn that statement of concern into a statement of what you both want.

A farm spouse may say, “I am afraid that we are not making decisions about our life off the farmyard, and that is impacting our children’s decisions. It is important to me that we have a plan for our new home, and the way we will continue to work. We both want to stay involved, and find a way to live in harmony with our working children.”

As a Farm Family Coach, I am deeply committed to helping farm families work through the hard issues and choices that face them. Check out Maurer’s website at Have a great harvest!


Elaine Froese helps families make positive changes for their life on the farm.  Elaine and her family farm in Southwestern Manitoba, and pray for rain.

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