Family meetings on farm matters

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Discussing important farm business like division of labor or farm succession among family members who are also farm partners can be stressful. With past emotional history and money involved, talking about these issues becomes more sensitive than many other topics.

Alex Chan, family and consumer sciences specialist for the University of Maryland Extension, recently presented “Helpful Skills for Healthy Family Relationships” as a webinar. He advocates active listening to promote real understanding. “It’s not taking at face value what you hear; it’s checking to make sure you understand,” he said.

Active listening means giving full attention to the speaker. “Be open and non-defensive,” Chan added. “Make sure that you’re not interrupting. It’s a commonplace suggestion, but a lot of people have a problem with interrupting. When people start interrupting, it’s a snowball effect. People think that because someone’s interrupting, I need to speak faster and louder.”

Paraphrasing what you hear can help make sure you’ve heard correctly. One way to do this is to say “So what I hear you saying is…”

Assuming what the other person means can lead to misunderstandings. Instead, Chan encourages participants in farm family meetings to seek to understand and to ask questions. “Internally, think about this: Am I doing what I know contributes to a healthy conversation?” Chan said. “Do I ask family members about their life, thoughts and feelings? Am I sensitive to my family members’ worries and needs? Do I reveal my thoughts and feelings? Do we openly discuss what we expect?”

Managing conflict represents another facet of family meetings. “Our conflict as biological groups changes the way our hearts and minds are functioning,” Chan said. “The heart rate increases and that changes how the brain functions. As the heart rate goes up, that’s a signal to your brain that maybe this is a dangerous situation. It gets fooled that this is not a time to problem solve. If we don’t feel safe or that we’re not heard, anger builds.”

Meetings don’t have to continue until all loose ends are tied. Sometimes, a break may be necessary.

“If you’re super agitated, you cannot have a family meeting,” Chan said. “Or you cannot participate at that time. Take a time out. Don’t dwell on what made you angry. We have to do specific work to acknowledge that so we can stay on track with our business. This skill is called emotion coaching. It allows you to keep people on the ground floor of emotion so people have access to the capabilities that make us human.”

Chan encourages participants in farm family meetings to use emotional coaching as a core skill. He listed as key outcomes an increase in cooperation, avoidance of escalation, de-escalation and regulation. In the long run, emotional coaching can help foster internalization of self-regulation capacities, meaning that participants can better control their own emotional responses.

The first step is to validate – and not dismiss – the other person’s perspective. “Validation is one of the most difficult pieces, especially in a situation where you mix business, which is unemotional, with family, which is emotional,” Chan said.

Validation should convey understanding of the other person’s experience to prove that you “get it.” Validation is not reassurance, problem-solving or an emotional go-to to smooth over the disagreement. It’s also not saying something like “I can understand why you might feel/think/want, but…” Chan said, “‘But’ totally negates what you said. This will put people’s defenses up and raise the emotional level and help people not participate.”

He advised eliminating “but” and replacing it with “because.” “This is very significant,” Chan said. “You want to give the person multiple ‘becauses.’ This is a very formal way of stating this. You can find a way of providing that validation without using the word ‘but.’ As long as you can show them you’re taking their perspective.”

The next step is showing support, both emotional and practical. “If you’re dealing with a repetitive conversation, it’s because they believe you don’t get it,” Chan said. “You have to take the time to show you ‘get it’ before trying to persuade someone else. If someone else is upsetting you, that’s where the boundary needs to be. If you’re the one getting upset, give people that feedback: ‘The way you’re saying this is really challenging for me. It made me think that you don’t care and don’t respect me and I hope I’m wrong.’ Give them a chance to correct it.”

This strategy can prevent escalation of and de-escalate a tense conversation. “Most of the time if they’re being super aggressive, they’re dealing with some kind of pain too,” Chan said. “You’re the only one you can control. This tool does work, but can you keep your cool long enough to show you’re really listening?”

Farmers are problem solvers for all sorts of issues that threaten their livelihood. For this reason, many would rather skip emotional support and head right to practical support. This is a mistake.

“A business meeting is focused on the practical side,” Chan said. “People aren’t going to be open to practical support until they show they know you get it. After you validate, you have to say something that shows togetherness. Sometimes, you have to sit there and let that emotional support sink in before you go ahead to problem solving.”

Emotional support can include comfort, reassurance, togetherness and hope. The practical support – distraction, redirection, exposure, problem-solving, setting limits and taking over – comes next.

“Each time you supply that evidence you understand their perspective, the emotions do come down,” Chan said. “They’re not going to be able to hear about your pain if you are also hurt. It takes some additional personal fortitude to do this while you’re also hurting.”

During business meetings, when someone in your family is totally not open to negotiations, it’s like being in castle with a moat round it. The only way you have the potential of influencing them is by showing you understand their feelings and the reasons behind their stance about something. In business, that often has to do with risk. If you can show you get that, it lowers defenses.

And remember, the family does not have to make a big decision in just one meeting.

How the family conducts its meetings matters. Chan encouraged permitting time for each participant to share their day or week’s highlight, low point and praise for everyone in the group. “A lot of sources of conflict come from lack of acknowledgement,” he noted.

Reconnecting can include finding common ground after conflict and apologizing for disagreements.

“If you find yourself talking and there’s a defensive, resistant reaction, that might cue you that something is going on for them,” Chan said. “You might have to ask ‘Did something I say rub you the wrong way?’ That can open things up for them to share.”

Another clue that problems are brewing is when meeting participants become unexpressive and stare.

“Anytime someone becomes more restricted is a sign that they’re becoming overwhelmed emotionally,” Chan said.

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