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Farming families and communication skills on the farm

There are times when it’s best to treat each other like business associates instead of family

While everyone seems to agree that good communication is essential for success on today’s multi-generational farms, many of us don’t seem to be making much progress. That’s not surprising to Reg Shandro, a Lacombe, Alta. mediator who specializes in helping farm families. After all, we get very little education on how to become good communicators, Shandro says. “Many people don’t know what good communication looks like.”

Communication breakdown is the No. 1 reason farm families seek out her coaching services, says Elaine Froese, a farm family coach in Boissevain, Man. Sometimes families don’t know how to start the conversation, or they are overwhelmed, says Froese. Other times fear of conflict or fear of losing control are the problems, she says.

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Poor communication comes with a high price tag. It leads to divorce and to loss of opportunity, and it can also lead to skilled people leaving the farm, says Froese.

But communication is an extra challenge on the farm, in part because when family members work together, they often relate to each other as family members instead of business associates, says Pam Paquet, a psychologist and business coach in Port Coquitlam, B.C.

That gets you started on the wrong foot, although it’s not hard to understand why it happens. It can be difficult to differentiate when a brother is being a brother, and when he is being a colleague, Paquet agrees. “Business etiquette doesn’t always trump family habits.”

Her advice is to hold regular formal meetings where business is discussed. This helps to keep your personal life separate from business issues. “It’s powerful,” says Paquet. “It centralizes where you talk about things and it avoids inappropriate conversations at other times.”

There’s a tendency to say you don’t need a meeting because, after all, family members already talk at dinner or at the hockey game, points out Paquet. Unfortunately those get-togethers may not involve all the players who need to be there. By holding regular meetings you avoid the “you talk to him but not me” scenario and accusations of favouritism.

It also helps maintain boundaries around business issues. When a family member approaches you outside of work about a tough situation, you can tell them to put it on the agenda, says Paquet.

Paquet says these meetings need to be held at least once a month at a regularly scheduled time so everyone can keep the time open. And you must make room for meetings year round if you want them to be an effective communications tool. “Only holding meetings in the winter won’t work,” Paquet emphasizes. “You’ll have an unhappy team if you don’t meet during the crisis times.”

It can be a challenge for families to keep the farm talk out of the Sunday supper. Paquet recommends limiting business talk to just 10 minutes during dinner. Come prepared with topics to discuss that don’t involve the farm, she advises. For example, ask how your brother’s kitchen renovation is coming along.

Paquet says it’s essential to separate family and business relationships. This means that you need to present a balanced view when sharing details about your work with your spouse. “Don’t just talk about the bad,” she says. And you may need to filter what you say when reporting back to a spouse about other family members, she adds.

Also consider identifying communication as a skill that the entire team can get better at, Paquet recommends.

Paquet says we often have a lot of unconscious bad habits and may not be aware of how we are treating our family and business colleagues. This makes it a good idea to tackle the issue as a form of professional development.

One option is to search Chapters or Amazon for a book on “good communication for family businesses.” Look for one that speaks to your situation, Paquet says. Then get a copy for everyone. After everyone has had a chance to read it, discuss it at a meeting and determine three take-away messages from the book.

Another option for professional development is to watch a webinar together at a staff meeting.

It’s also important to understand that conflict is a naturally occurring part of any relationship, adds Shandro. Conflict can be both positive and negative. On the positive side, it helps us identify concerns and issues, create new opportunities and bring about change. It’s how we manage conflict that’s critical.

Shandro says we all have a conflict style based on genetic and environmental influences. There are varying degrees of assertiveness and co-operativeness that define our dominant styles, so ask yourself if your conflict style is working for you.

Most of us would also benefit from improving our listening skills, adds Shandro. “There’s a difference between hearing and listening.

“Slow down to understand. Don’t interrupt! Don’t assume you know what they are going to say,” Shandro advises.

Shandro says we may need a trained third party, such as a mediator, to help us identify and change bad habits. “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

Chris Perry who farms with his brother Harold in southern Alberta, brought in a communications consultant a few years ago to help their staff of 10 full-time employees get along better.

While they initiated several strategies for better communication, such as weekly Monday morning meetings with the main crew and spring planting and fall harvest orientation sessions, one simple thing that has really made a big difference is saying “good morning” and finding out how the other person is doing before launching into discussing a problem. “It’s not rocket science but it works,” he says.

“Having a happy crew is important,” says Perry. “If we’re going to live, breathe and eat together, we might as well have fun while we’re doing it.”

This article was originally published as, “Family first, or colleagues?” in the January 2015 issue of Country Guide

Five tips for better communication

From Elaine Froese, farm family coach, Boissevain, Man.

  1. Speak in a calm and respectful tone. Look each other in the eye.
  2. Ask permission if now is a good time to talk or when would work better.
  3. Paraphrase what you heard the other person say to check that you got the correct intention of the message.
  4. Make requests. Request that items that are hot issues be dealt with in a formalized meeting session, at a certain date and time, so that folks can process their responses and do research on the issue before the meeting.
  5. Ask better questions. What would you like me to do differently in order to communicate better? What assumptions am I making? What am I responsible for? What can I learn about this situation?

Helpful books

  • Change your Questions, Change your Life by Marilee Adams
  • Do the Tough Things Right by Elaine Froese
  • Farming’s In-Law Factor by Elaine Froese
  • Crucial Conversations by Kelly Peterson
  • Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott

About the author


Helen Lammers-Helps

Freelance Writer

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