Minding Ag's Business

Do-It-Yourself Conflict Resolution

We're entering what economists warn could be the fourth consecutive year of subpar farm incomes, one potentially tougher than the year before for grain producers. That strain is fraying relations with family members, landowners and lenders, beyond the normal inter-personal conflicts inherent in any family organization. So DTN- Progressive Farmer Columnist Lance Woodbury, a Garden City, Kansas, family business adviser, has devoted several of his recent articles to tips on how to resolve conflicts within your operation. Woodbury is a professional mediator who has grappled with many of his clients' personal crisis over his long career--divorces, addictions, sibling rivalries and succession qualms, just to name a few.

In my monthly installment of a Q and A with Lance, we discuss some approaches even amateurs can implement that can help resolve conflicts before they necessitate professional intervention.

Taylor, DTN: Lance, in your recent articles on resolving conflict, you offer tips from the world of “conflict resolution” professionals. How practical is it to suggest that families can manage conflict without the help of a professional mediator?

Woodbury, Ag Progress: Marcia, families have been managing conflict in one way or another for generations, often without a formal mediator. (Just a side note that Mom is usually the informal mediator in the family.)

Almost every family I know can look back to a split in the business that occurred because people didn’t get along and the conflict became acute. The issue now is that the capital, equipment, land and labor it takes to create two separate operations, when there was once one, may not be feasible.

My goal is to help any family member who feels that their conflict can be addressed, so making mediation techniques more accessible, even when a mediator isn’t present, may help. Adopting some of the tools helps people communicate better, which is half the battle.

Taylor, DTN: Lance, I’ve heard from many family members who see conflict but can’t get their family business partners to seriously commit to working on the situation. How do you get people to the table?

Woodbury, Ag Progress: Marcia, sometimes the conflict isn’t “ripe” for resolution, meaning that all the parties don’t think the issues are severe enough. In that case, I suggest trying to help other family members see the consequences of their current path. I can point to many families who were too late in trying to resolve their conflicts, and the result was a split operation, the end of family dinners and communication, no time with the grandkids, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. If family members spend some time thinking about the cost of conflict in their operation, it can make the mediation process a bit easier to adopt. Anecdotally I can tell you that most families, after working on difficult family business issues, say they wish they had started earlier.

Taylor, DTN: Lance, you suggest that a good mediation session is one in which the parties leave “equally unhappy” with the result. What do you mean by that?

Woodbury, Ag Progress: The “middle ground” in most situations is a compromise, requiring both parties to give up some of what they wanted or hoped for. In my mind, the real question is whether we solve problem in a way that people can “live with” the solution, and in a way that the parties will continue communicating. I often say that if people will keep talking, we’ll find some way to keep moving forward, but it probably won’t be with the solution that each party came into the room wanting.

Taylor, DTN: Lance, you also mention tips like meeting in a neutral location and giving each side equal time to tell their story. Are there other techniques that are helpful to the process?

Woodbury, Ag Progress: Marcia, a few other strategies include using a flipchart so that people put or write the problem and solutions “up in front” of them, and then they are less likely to see the conflict as a person and can focus more on the situation.

Another strategy in this vein is to have people sit on the same side of the table, or to even remove a table from the room. The table creates distance and sitting on opposite sides reinforces the idea of “sides” instead of a common goal or solution. Many mediators will say that if there is a table at all, it should be round. Finally, writing down the agreement helps to clarify how the parties are moving forward together. A written statement outlining what the parties agree to do helps to make sure that each party’s responsibilities are clear. These are, as I suggested in one column, some of the “silver BB’s” (instead of “silver bullets”) that move families toward a better family business outcome.

To read Woodbury's recent articles, go to www.dtnpf.com under Perspectives or:

"Keeping Peace in the Family"


"Key Ingredients in Resolving Family Conflicts"


Follow Marcia Taylor on Twitter@MarciaZTaylor


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