Minding Ag's Business

Rules of Engagement for Family Fights

With the holiday season upon us, expect more dinnertable business talk--and the possibility of some heated words.

It's worth remembering that farms are a blend of both family and business relationships. Conflict between parent-child, siblings or in-laws is an inevitable, so there's all the more reason to reflect on rules of engagement to keep disagreements from becoming rifts, says professional mediator and family business adviser Lance Woodbury. A columnist for both DTN and our sister publication, "The Progressive Farmer," Woodbury is a Garden City, Kansas consultant with more than 20 years experience specializing in succession and transition planning for agriculture and closely-held businesses. I'm continuing my regular Q+A with him here, and invite readers to join in.

DTN subscribers can find Woodbury's column, "The Right Fight in the Family Business" on the Farm Business page or by searching news archives.

Taylor, DTN: Lance, your recent column focused on picking the right issues to fight over in a family business, and some ground rules for interacting. The most obvious is to ban business talk at purely family events. But what are some additional tips for helping people get through conflicts with one another?

Woodbury, AgProgress: Marcia, I like to say there are some inward, reflection-oriented activities and outward, communication-focused strategies that help family members manage conflict. One strategy that begins with reflection is to realize that family members seldom intend to hurt one another. Being able to separate the outcome of one’s actual behavior from their intent is critical. For example, family members requesting a formal land lease arrangement from other family members could be seen as not trusting of family (the outcome). But many times the family member requesting a formal lease is trying to assure some certainty for their future business (the intent).

Another example is that family members sometimes withhold communication from other family members because they don’t know how to communicate difficult issues (the intent). But that gets interpreted as a lack of care, or a lack of desire to interact with, those family members (the outcome).

In short, if you are experiencing conflict, reflect on what the intent might be and then turn outward and engage in some discussion about what the other party intended with their behavior. Help them understand that their intent was misunderstood in the action that took place.

Another closely related inward activity is to try to see the situation from the other person’s shoes. Being able to put yourself in the place of the other person can help soften your perspective, and also help you see places where you might have made assumptions.

Taylor, DTN: Lance, those are good examples but primarily rely on personal reflection and analysis. What can family members do to actively manage the interaction with others?

Woodbury, AgProgress: An outward activity I recommend is to err on the side of inclusion when in discussions with family members about significant issues. For example, when the parents have a conversation with their son or daughter about future ownership of the business, they should include spouses. Major changes in the direction of the operation, significant developments in hiring, shifts in the financial position of the business – these are all important issues that will need to be “re-discussed” with a spouse, so you should have them in from the beginning.

Another outward activity I recommend when in conflict is to verbally acknowledge how others feel. Trying to describe the emotion that underlies someone else’s behavior can show that you understand them. It doesn’t mean you agree with their behavior, but you can comprehend why they felt upset.

Similarly, if you could have handled an issue differently, or were in the wrong, or contributed to the problem, consider an apology. A sincere expression of regret – while not excusing the reasons you are frustrated – can help build a bridge to the person with whom you are in conflict.

As I mentioned in the column published last week, family business and conflict seem to go together, so being able to manage yourself and practice good dispute management are critical skills. Analyzing the situation (inward activities) and being willing to communicate with others (outward activities) are two of the most important skills to develop.

Follow Marcia Taylor on Twitter@MarciaZTaylor


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12/6/2015 | 7:08 PM CST
Re Lance Nice idea, but you don't know my sisters! Show me da $, Bro
Lance Woodbury
12/5/2015 | 10:22 AM CST
Both of the first two comments hit on an important issue - that of educating off-farm family members about the economics of farming. Having a discussion with them about the best ways - the process - to keep them aware of a changing business of which they are owners or beneficiaries is important. A deeper opportunity or issue are the expectations that go with joint ownership of assets: An underlying �expectation of ownership� in this case might be: If they are going to be owners of something with on-farm partners, it is important for them to pay attention. (Discussing such ownership expectations is one of the best practices of family businesses.)
andrew mohlman
12/1/2015 | 6:17 PM CST
Ask them if they would like half of a paycheck for there work
11/30/2015 | 9:01 PM CST
For the last 10 years I've been everyone's favorite brother. not so popular w/city folk after lowering cash rent. farmer's lives matter!