Megan McKenzie has observed elections in Congo, she has documented human rights issues in Columbia and the Middle East, she has worked at a reconciliation centre in Ireland, and along the way she has earned a doctorate in conflict resolution and international peace studies, along with mediation training.
All this despite growing up on a farm near Portage la Prairie, just west of Winnipeg.
Or maybe it hasn’t been such a jump after all.
These days, McKenzie calls Boissevain, Man., home, and she recently co-authored a book, Farming’s In-Law Factor, with farm family coach Elaine Froese.
It turns out that there can be conflict in Canada’s farming families too, and that there are simmering issues that have the potential to boil up into paralyzing disputes.
Your dad may not loosen his grip on the reins, for example, which means you can’t make the management decisions that will help position the farm where you think it needs to be when you take over in the future. Or maybe your husband and your in-laws don’t respect you enough to involve you in financial decisions. Or perhaps you don’t have the energy to take care of yourself and your family, let alone a multi-generational farm.
Whatever the issue, one thing is clear — you don’t want to talk about it, and if your farm is like a lot of farms, no one else wants to talk about it either.
But it’s better to deal with problems as soon as they appear, instead of waiting until they become “an explosive mess,” McKenzie says.
“I’ve talked to many people where they just haven’t had these important conversations,” says McKenzie, now working as a conflict and mediation specialist. “Then someone dies without a will and the whole family fights for the next 20 years because they weren’t brave enough to have that conversation when the time would have been right.”
At the opposite side of the Prairies, Reg Shandro, like McKenzie, was also a farm kid. After leaving the family farm in northeastern Alberta, he earned a bachelor of science in agriculture, became a professional agrologist, and held several agricultural lending positions around Alberta. He’s also certified in conflict management and negotiation with the Alternate Dispute Resolution Institute of Canada.
These days Shandro helps farm families with succession planning through his company, Farmacist Advisory Services. When it comes to communication, he says, “the general theme is that they don’t like to talk about anything except for operations and production.”
McKenzie agrees succession is one of the big topics people like to avoid. Other hot topics include management decisions, or when “one or two people are doing something terribly wrong.”
When it comes to conflict and communications, Shandro and McKenzie have seen it all, so Country Guide asked them to share their insights into why these conversations are so tough, how families can broach sensitive topics, and when families need outside help.
A fight is a fight, even on a farm
Whatever continent you’re on, farm conflicts look much the same, McKenzie says.
Farmers’ identities revolve around being farmers, how they farm and what they’ve accomplished with their farm, she explains. “And so any time the pieces of that identity are challenged, you see the same type of patterns playing out as you do in Ireland.”
Shandro also finds that many issues and situations are virtually universal among farms. But, he says, “the 10 to 20 per cent that’s unique to your farm makes all the difference.”
Sometimes communication breakdowns result from bad habits as much as anything else.
Families can fall into negative patterns, McKenzie says. “They’re just used to interrupting each other. Or they’re used to not listening to one particular person — like that person’s never had anything to say anyhow.”
Some fall into the trap of thinking the loudest person must be right, Shandro says. “We’re primal in our communication and it has worked for us over the generations. But when you tie family and business together, it implodes.”
People who struggle with communication tend to panic and let their emotions run high during tense conversations, Shandro says, “and then we default to our old system.”
When non-farmers marry into an agrarian clan, they’re likely to have “little cultural clashes where things are just done a little bit different in the country than they are in cities,” says McKenzie. “But even on different farms you do things differently.”
Apparent miscommunication issues are sometimes rooted in bigger issues, such as a lack of agreement over roles and decision-making, McKenzie says. For example, a daughter-in-law may be angry that her husband and father-in-law don’t consult her about purchasing a bull even though her money goes into it, says McKenzie. On the surface, this seems like a communication blip.
“The actual root of the problem is that they don’t consider anything that she says valuable,” says McKenzie. “Or that they don’t think that she has anything to offer and she’s not included in the farm activities.”
When do we need help?
It’s worth considering bringing in a facilitator for potentially messy conversations. McKenzie finds people who tend to be “less than agreeable” can be more agreeable when an outside person is present.
“Just having another person around can sometimes just help bring out the best in people, too,” she says.
Shandro has seen church-going families ask a member of the clergy to facilitate, but he cautions families to be choosy about who they invite behind the curtain.
“It’s very awkward to invite somebody who is not arm’s-length to do this type of thing. I’d rather have somebody independent, who’s qualified, who’s following some type of code of conduct,” Shandro says. Confidentiality is a huge concern, he adds. “Some of this stuff gets extremely sensitive.”
Unskilled mediators can fall into the trap of trying to play the hero, instead of trying to get people listening to each other, he explains. “It’s very dangerous to come in and plug your filters in.”
Before mediators get to the issues, they need to gain the family’s trust and understand their culture, Shandro says. The better they are at setting the tone in the beginning, the more effective the conversation that follows.
Next, mediators need to pinpoint issues. But before jumping to solutions, the mediator needs to take time to understand the complexities beneath the surface, Shandro says. Getting a good handle on those complexities, he says, “is the Holy Grail in this whole process.”
Shandro finds spending a day with the family reveals the aptitudes of the people in the room. The best candidate for the family mediator may be “the daughter-in-law whose father is a surgeon in Edmonton, who doesn’t understand the culture of agriculture.” Shandro says he positions it “so that person would be invited into that role.”
How to talk good
Even families with the resources to tackle tough conversations on their own will need to put some thought into it.
“You just can’t round up everybody in the room between chores and dinner and say, ‘OK, we’re going to talk good now,’” says Shandro.
McKenzie says sometimes family members can set the ground rules and stick to them without an outsider’s help, although basics such as timing can make or break a family meeting. “Don’t do it in the middle of harvest. And make sure everyone’s fed and not cranky,” she says.
Regular meetings to discuss the nuts and bolts of the farm help with communication, McKenzie says. But there are also special meetings where families need to draw on people who don’t attend the day-to-day meetings.
For example, “when my grandfather was starting to get dementia, we had to get the whole family together to discuss how to get him off the farm,” she says. McKenzie adds families should let everyone know about the meeting, and seek input for the agenda.
Manners matter too. McKenzie lists several ways to show basic respect, such as turning off cell phones, making eye contact and being sincere.
People should also use kind words, she says, “and know that the relationship is as important as the outcome.”
Families tend to have their own set of unspoken rules and assume everyone has the same rules, McKenzie says. “And actually being able to bring those to the surface and talk about them is really important.”
McKenzie says having a sense of humour can help too, because different isn’t necessarily wrong. Each family has “their own bag of tricks that’s kept them alive. So they’re going to be different than what you’re used to.”
Still, some communication patterns are less than pleasant, to say the least. McKenzie says sometimes individuals can make a difference by changing their own behaviour.
“When people yell, I’m going to not yell, and I’m going to say, ‘I will talk to you after you’re done yelling. I’m not going to talk to you while you’re yelling at me. I don’t accept people screaming in my face anymore,’” she says.
Whether or not families work with a facilitator, it’s worth making sure everyone in the farm meeting throws in their two cents. Both McKenzie and Shandro mention the token system as one possible method.
Everyone gets three pennies, or whatever tokens are practical. Each penny is worth a set amount of time, such as two minutes. To speak during the meeting, a person needs to spend a penny. Once a person spends all three pennies, they are done talking.
Shandro says the family members who normally dominate the conversation spend their pennies right away, giving the last word to the people who tend to hold their tongues.
The next meeting is more effective, Shandro says, because “before they spend their penny and invest it, they think about what they’re going to say.”
Should you walk away?
Empathy is in order when someone in the family is struggling with mental illness.
“Yelling at or getting frustrated with somebody with mental illness or a disorder is the equivalent of yelling at somebody with a severe disease that’s out of their control,” says Shandro. “Depression’s not voluntary.”
Mental health issues and addictions make resolving conflict “very, very difficult,” says Shandro. When mediators or family members identify those issues, they need to call in experts in that field, since mediation will stall.
And, unfortunately, mental health isn’t the only difficult problem farm families struggle with. Research from both Statistics Canada and the Department of Justice indicates that rural people are more likely to suffer from police-reported family and spousal violence than urbanites.
McKenzie says while talking to farm families for the book, there were a couple of times she cringed through entire interviews. Red flags for violence kept popping up, she says. “And nobody was talking about it.”
“A couple times during interviews, I just flat out asked people and they would say, ‘Yes, Dad is really terrible to Mom,’” she adds.
McKenzie says when people are being abusive, it’s important that family members acknowledge it and seek help.
Shandro says he’s really sensitive when he sees young children in families suffering from violence. “You know when they get caught in this type of environment, there’s hurt that’s going to perpetuate into their adult years.”
McKenzie points to several signs that individuals might need to walk away from a partnership. Abusive or destructive behaviours within the farming family are flags. Complaining about the same problems for over a year is another, she says. Lacking sleep, bursting into tears for unknown reasons and health problems or headaches from stress are warning signs too.
While working on farm succession with families, Shandro looks for overlapping or eclipsing values among individuals, which indicate a common interest.
“If you don’t have a common interest, it’s not a resolvable situation,” says Shandro. If a conflict can’t be resolved, he adds, people need an exit strategy.
While leaving even tough situations can be hard, McKenzie says she’s talked to many people who’ve done well “striking out on their own” or forming partnerships with non-relatives. And Shandro quotes a woman who survived an abusive relationship: “Sometimes the worst thing that could happen is nothing changes at all.”
An opportunity to thrive
It’s no wonder rural families are so hesitant to dig into tough topics. People tend to think it’s a dangerous thing to do, says McKenzie.
“But they don’t realize that they’re missing opportunities by not having these conversations,” says McKenzie. “Because these conversations are also the opportunities to have a farm that really thrives and that’s really wonderful to work in.”
Shandro says that once he wraps up the succession planning work, it’s common for people to say they’ve been begging for such meetings for years.
McKenzie advises people to make an effort to communicate with their families and understand what’s going on with them.
“And just be really kind and loving to them, because that relationship is important,” McKenzie says. “It costs you big money if you don’t invest in these relationships with each other.”
This article was originally published as, “What good would talking do?” in the January 2015 issue of Country Guide