I hope this finds you living a whole-hearted life on your farm, not living with broken hearts. The deep emotions we carry as “stoic or stubborn” farmers need to come to the surface and let the healing begin. The emotional factors in your farm dynamic are keeping you stuck, and now is the time to grab the bull by the horns and say “Enough!”
As a coach with training in conflict resolution and mediation, I have gleaned some skills to pass on to you to change the nature of conflict or fighting on your farm.
Conflict is not bad. Unresolved conflict is hurtful and frustrating and diverts good management energy toward drama. Just because there is drama on your farm, you don’t have to attend the performance. It’s time for new tools.
If I could wave a magic wand over your head and give you superpowers to navigate tough conversations in your kitchen, here’s what I would show you.
- Love does not read minds. You might think holding your “cards close to your chest” is prudent, but it is stupid. I have no idea what you are thinking, feeling, needing, or wanting unless you tell me. People need to talk. Everyone needs to listen. Families are meant to be a source of nurture and love, a place to provide roots and wings.
- Talk with a tone of grace and kindness, not abrasive swearing or yelling. Honey is going to get you much further than a voice filled with vinegar. Listen to yourself. Do you like how you sound? Abrasiveness and profanity are not getting you the results you want.
- Share your intent. Intentions are hidden in our brains and come out when we share why we want certain things. Many of you have heard my cookie story where I talk about my nasty interfering mother-in-law who puts baking in my freezer for her son while I am away speaking. Or do you remember the nice mother-in-law who blesses me by putting baking in the freezer to support me when I am away and cannot bake for her son, my husband. The intention of my MIL was not to be interfering, it was to be helpful. The same action, putting baking in the freezer, but the intents can be read two different ways. How about starting a sentence with “It is not my intent Mom and Dad to sound greedy or entitled, I just need to know the plan for us as a younger couple to find a way to build equity on this farm. I need to decrease the anxiety over the uncertainty of my future and my family’s future!”
- What does everyone want? This is called the common interest. I suspect you all want a harmonious working relationship and a profitable farm. You also want people to have roles that give them meaning and purpose as they age in place on the ranch. You likely don’t want to be in business with non-farm heirs. People usually pull together in the same direction when they are clear about what they want and why. Do you know what you want? For income streams? For housing? For fairness? When the spouses don’t want the same things, you are likely going to get stuck with no plan. One spouse is tired and wants a new life away from the hustle of the farm while the other is not ready to move or let go of decision making.
- Pinches are tensions that build and are not resolved. In facilitated family meetings we have surprise announcements when folks start opening up to talk about what they truly want and why some things, e.g. Grandfather’s quarter are so important to them. You may not know anger is simmering in your spouse or your heir when hurt has been caused without your knowledge. There may also be fear of failure when founders assume the next generation will not be able to manage debt or risk on the farm. Can you identify what is causing you to feel pinched or tense?
- That was then and this is now. Sometimes conflict is born from unrealistic expectations. In the 80s and 90s, many folks struggled to keep their farms, and they remember the pain of selling land to settle debt. Fast forward 40 years and we now have non-farm kids coming back to farm parents asking for large gifts of land. Fighting about expectations over land inheritance is a conflict issue to be addressed, not passed on to the next generation without an explanation of why you want to keep the farmland intact for the farming successors. Where is written it is your job as parents and founders to keep all your children economically equal? This is not workable. Lawyers can use “poison pill” tools says lawyer Mona Brown, to make sure land is used for agriculture and not flipped a few short years after the land transfer.
- Can you be a reconciler? Every conflict resolution story involves someone being willing to acknowledge wrongs done and then work towards creating a solution. When I ask families about their models of forgiveness they are dumbfounded. “We don’t go to church, Elaine.” That is not what I asked. How do you make things right when there is an offense caused, harm done, or things broken? Author Gary Chapman writes about saying sorry in The 5 Apology Languages: The Secret to Healthier Relationships (co-authored with Jennifer Thomas), but an apology may not be enough. What are you willing to do to make things right? Do you need to change your actions and behaviour? Is restitution necessary? I am deeply disturbed by the sad stories of entire sibling groups not speaking due to fights over land and inheritance. An entire branch of a family tree is severed due to greed, harsh words, and lack of forgiveness, along with no wills being read before the benefactor dies. Do you want to be rich in a relationship? What are you going to do to learn the skills of reconciliation?
- Would you invest in outside help to create clear communication? Many farmers are independent types who love to fix things on their own. This may work on your favourite old baler, but it is not a great formula to do yourself when emotions are running high. The job of a facilitator/coach is to keep the family conversation safe and respectful.
Elaine Froese now celebrates 20 years as a certified Hudson Institute Coach and 42 years of marriage. Fill in the form on this page to sign up for her insights.
Did you enjoy Tools to get better at fixing farm fights…conflict resolution 101? You might want to check these articles out too: