(Dr. Ron Hanson of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, specializes in dealing with the positives and negatives of families who farm together. Often he gets called upon when farm families are having difficulties. This information is from an article Dr. Hanson wrote for Minnesota Farm Business Management education programs a few years ago. More of Dr. Hanson's information will be used in future articles.)
Farm family disagreements are normal and often times inevitable in any type of farming operation. Disputes between family members farming together are sometimes unavoidable. Disagreements are part of life itself but they do not have to ruin relationships within a family. Conflict itself can be damaging to the trust between farm family members if the family environment itself is not supportive and understand-ing. Learning how to have disagreements within any family relationship without being disagreeable with each other is the real secret to the long term success of any family business operation from one generation to the next.
Every farm family or farm marriage has its "mom-ents." Show me a farm family or a farm couple that has not had an argument or two in their relationship, and I will show you some people who are not "normal." Learning to keep things in perspective is important to the overall success of the farming operation and the well being of the family members involved. It is never the disagreement itself that destroys family relationships, but how the family went about working through the disagreement that determined whether the family relationships held together during troubled times. In all the family farming failures that I have encountered, it was never the financial problems or production losses that caused this family loss. But rather the personal conflicts that arose between these family members and their inability to communicate with each and to resolve these issues in a positive manner.
A factor that complicates this situation is that farm families are very private. No one else needs to know about their personal or family problems. Their very own personal pride and even foolish stubbornness prevents them from sharing this stress and their inner personal feelings with others who want to understand the situation and offer help. In one of my seminar presentations, I challenge the audience with the statement "farm people are so private that it actually hurts." The fear of actually admitting a personal problem or even asking for help can be overwhelming to many. Feelings and emotions get locked inside and hidden from others. This then creates a barrier to happiness and personal well being in the family.
Fairness is the key issue in resolving any conflict situation between individuals. Learning to deal with conflict in a positive manner can actually lead to personal growth as an individual. Always look for win-win situations. Everyone needs to save face. Make a concession (or two) as a friendly gesture of good will to show the other person that you really want to work things and get along. Resist having "the last word," "or else," or taking a final "parting shot" after things have already been settled. This only turns a positive situation back to the negative and nothing is accomplished. Knowing when to stop talking and just listen to the other person is a very effective communication strategy that builds stronger relationships between family members farming together.
Avoid using those standard conversation killers (i.e. "How dumb can you be?" "Why do you always do that?" "I know exactly what you are thinking.") that often times will either curtail or even stop the communication process entirely. Be careful of these negative behavioral tactics in trying to win an argument. They can have a very damaging effect on the relationship with the other person.
Family relationships in any type of business arrangement are important. It takes a real commitment for family members who farm together to get along with each other. Family members can draw strength from each other and provide the needed support that helps one deal with the stress of the farm operation itself. Knowing that you do not face a problem alone and that you have the support of other members is the binding tie that helps hold families together during times of stress or family disagreements.
Keeping a sense of humor in any stressful situation can make a positive difference in any relationship. Never lose the ability to smile and enjoy life itself. Sharing that positive focus with other family members will build a stronger and more trusting relationship that will endure the stress and conflicts that families often face in any situation when working together.