What’s your communication fitness level?

What kind of meeting athlete are you? Check out this new take for meetings your family will be proud of

Are you a couch potato when it comes to talking to your family about critical farm decisions?

The comparison isn’t so far fetched. In a way, family communication is a lot like physical fitness. Even the best of us have areas that need a little toning, while many more of us need to spend serious time just learning how to make communication a more routine part of our lives.

It’s similar in this way too. Communication skills are like muscle groups. The “use it or lose it” rule definitely applies.

So let’s begin right there… at the beginning. What’s your communication fitness level? What kind of communication athlete are you?

Because the goals are worth it — a healthier family, and tighter family decisions.

If you’re a couch potato

Yes, your family sits down to talk about farm business, if it’s Christmas, someone’s birthday, or some other family dinner.

Shauna Feth, executive director of the Alberta Family Business Institute says if this is you, then you’re not getting the most out of the exercise of having family meetings.

Instead, Feth says farm meetings will be a lot more effective if they’re conducted with a more formal structure. She likes to promote the idea of working on building up your meeting skills the same way you would build a muscle.

Start with the equivalent of the stretching you’re supposed to do before you work out. In a meeting context, Feth says this means agreeing ahead of time on an agenda. This is a basic starting point because it allows everyone the chance to come into the meeting with well-thought-out ideas.

It’s also an easy first step for establishing a new routine, and although it will take a bit of effort the first few times you do it, practice will soon make perfect, Feth says.

Remember, you don’t have to go for the big agenda items right at the start. Instead of discussing succession, why not get together for an hour or two to discuss how you will work together as a family to get the field work done this spring, and who will be responsible for what.

“Like a muscle, once you start, exercise it all the time,” Feth recommends. “Then everybody starts falling into the process and it gets so much easier.”

Morgan Knezacek, a human resources and communications professional based in Manitou Beach, Sask., recommends that families start by focusing directly on the purpose of each meeting, with clarity about what you are trying to achieve.

Knezacek says this makes the meeting targeted, and as a farm partner herself, she knows that no one has time to waste on a pointless meeting. “Because otherwise you can meet for hours,” Knezacek sighs, “and you don’t have time to meet for hours!”

A simple way to control the time dedicated to meetings is to divide them into daily, weekly, and monthly discussions. Knezacek recommends a daily check-in to share schedules and activities planned for the day; a weekly review with all farm stakeholders to assess the week’s key activities, determine expected outcomes, and resolve obstacles; and then a monthly meeting for strategic discussions on those critical issues that require analysis, brainstorming, and decision-making.

“Once you’re having the meeting, be clear about what’s at stake, and what could happen if bad decisions are made,” Knezacek recommends. Like a good exercise routine, she says deciding which combination of issues belongs to which meetings can take some time at first. Her training advice is to set up a whiteboard in a common area so anyone can add to the working agendas for weekly and strategic meetings.

Betty Hansen, a family business facilitator based in Mossley, Ont., agrees completely that separating issues into different types of meetings is crucial. She also believes it’s important to name meetings with care, considering what types of meeting your family needs as you are defining what each meeting’s purpose is. “Let’s categorize them appropriately so that people don’t get their nose out of joint because they’re not at the table when they think they should be,” says Hansen.

For instance, Hansen explains, having a “family meeting” without inviting the brother who works off the farm could easily cause friction, but a “stakeholder meeting” or “operational meeting” is a different story. Choose your words wisely, she suggests.

If you’re a weekend athlete

You refer to your family discussions as meetings. You can even produce some financial statements or other written evidence afterward. But you only meet “as needed” and not on a schedule.

An important element of successful meetings is keeping them focused. Family business facilitator Betty Hansen points out that having strict time limits will make everyone more likely to commit. For daily meetings, aim for a maximum five-minute discussion. Weekly meetings can stretch into 30 or 45 minutes. Monthly meetings should allow for one to two hours of conversation.

Each family’s needs are different, but whatever is agreed upon, Hansen says it is absolutely imperative that the meeting end on time. “If we haven’t come to a resolution, we schedule another meeting,” Hansen says. “I’d rather have a meeting that’s scheduled for an hour and finishes in 45 minutes with a couple of good decisions made.”

Creating a neutral tone for meetings will help in keeping the meeting focused, but Shauna Feth of the Alberta Family Business Institute confesses this can be especially difficult when the people involved are family. A lot of baggage easily finds its way to the table.

“If you want to professionalize the business, you really have to separate the conversations that would happen as a family versus as a business,” Feth says. Deciding on a code of conduct for your meetings and making sure that everyone follows it is one way to achieve this. For example, everyone can agree not to interrupt someone who is speaking. A calm, professional atmosphere will help everyone feel comfortable expressing their ideas, even if those ideas lead to conflict at the table.

For people who don’t want any conflict in their meetings, HR consultant Morgan Knezacek says there’s no gain without some pain. But just as there is good muscle pain and bad muscle pain, there is good and bad conflict in meetings.

“Sometimes in these meetings we can drift off into that bad conflict, so I encourage people to stay on track and shift to good conflict,” Knezacek says. It’s important to remember that good conflict is never personal. Taking a curious approach to discussing an issue often builds trust and respect among the group.

“Seeking opposing views is good problem solving and good leadership. You’re gaining perspectives for decision-making,” Knezacek says.

Always separate the people from the problem so that the focus is on “the betterment of our farm” from every perspective.

If your family has developed bad habits in the conflict department of your meetings, one thing to reconsider may be your seating arrangement. Research from UBC’s Sauder School of Business shows that seating arrangements can have a major impact on the way people think. If the farm family is sitting in a circular formation, everyone will be more likely to want to belong to the group and less prone to antagonistic behaviour. In contrast, researchers found that people are more likely to look out for No. 1 if they are seated in an angular arrangement, as they would be at a traditional boardroom table.

For extreme bodybuilders

You meet regularly, produce agendas and keep minutes, and your farming family is always looking for new ways to make sure they’re having the best meetings ever.

A body can become accustomed to routine exercise, so experts advise dedicated athletes to make frequent changes. The same principle needs to be applied to your meeting muscles.

“Make sure everyone takes turns with recording notes at the meeting, so it’s not just one person,” advises HR consultant Morgan Knezacek. This fosters appreciation, which she believes can be hard for farm families to express.

“I think we’re often really hard on ourselves as farmers, and we’re pretty humble people, so we don’t really give ourselves kudos when we deserve it,” Knezacek says. Appreciation is a layered thing, she explains, and it’s learned too. Practising appreciation is just inherent on some farms, but others are more accustomed to tough love.

“Just saying to somebody, ‘I don’t say it very often, but I know how hard you worked to get this farm to where it is today, and we really appreciate it,’… those are the kind of things that can make all the difference in the world,” family facilitator Betty Hansen says. “The odd little bouquet of flowers wouldn’t hurt either.”

Showing appreciation and being respectful are the most important elements in setting the tone of your farm meetings. Hansen says setting the right tone is largely impacted by the type of language that’s used in meetings. When she is leading workshops, she likes to demonstrate this point by asking the group what kind of time frame they’re thinking of when she says, ‘we’re doing it soon.’ “I’ll go around the room and I’ll have anything from ‘in two hours,’ to, ‘in 10 years,’” she says.

Of course, even if you’ve addressed these pitfalls in the past, time has a way of impacting the urgency different farm family members feel. Shauna Feth of the Alberta Family Business Institute says more farms involve two or even three generations who bring different goals and skills to the table, none of which remain static.

The world of agriculture is constantly changing, and Feth has observed how young people connect easily to new ideas, while older generations offer valuable experience and knowledge of what’s been tried before.

Feth cautions even the most skilled families to remember that each generation has important insights to contribute to the business as time passes.

“You’re not going to perform surgery on yourself just because you think you know how from the Internet,” Feth says. “There’s a lot of experience and a lot of intelligence around what’s happened in the previous generations that can’t be lost.”

This article was originally published as ‘Get in shape for family meetings’ in the March 31, 2015 issue of Country Guide

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Amy Petherick is a Contributing Editor for Country Guide.

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