Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How To Resolve Conflict In A Farm Family Business

August 16, 2010

Some people have the good fortune - some would say misfortune - to be in a multifamily or inter-generational farming business. Each family and family member has opinions, concerns, needs, ideas and wishes of their own. These people have social and family interactions that go far beyond the work setting.

The ideal is a harmonious and committed family that works for common goals, has mutual trust and respect, attends to each others needs for growth and involvement, communicates well, and understands and appreciates each others talents, contributions and roles. The blend of talents, energy and long term commitment in a family business is a powerful force that insures the competitive success of the enterprise.

What is less than ideal is a family business tied together by land, machinery and a love for farming but with harmful, destructive interactions. How do you mention a fault or weakness of a family member? How do you work through differences without hurting feelings? How do you make your point without detracting from the love between you? How do you maximize trust while encouraging open discussion and conflict about business decisions?

Families need harmony, mutual support and love. The secret to successful family life is positive, consistent communication in which conflict is reduced. True, problems need to be solved and differences negotiated. However, not every difference is aired. Some problems are best lived with and overlooked. Family togetherness works because of a judicious blend of tact, acceptance and gentle confrontation of differences. People put their best foot forward and try to get along.

A dynamic business needs conflict, new ideas and critical evaluation. In good business communication, the best idea wins. That requires a willingness to express opinions, disagree, listen, be persuaded and challenged. The owners/managers have to give up significant control to the group process and share management responsibility.

Dealing with business conflict. How do you mesh harmony needed by the family and conflict needed by the business? Here are some simple ideas that pull these seemingly conflicting goals together.

1. Hold a family business meeting regularly. The meeting should have a written agenda, minutes and agreed on rules for discussion and decision-making. Minutes are taken to record agreements, assignments or disposition of agenda items. The minutes are a useful management tool for reminders, understandings, accountability and follow up.

All key people must be present. A good meeting will start and stop on time and not allow for intrusions and interruptions except for true emergencies. A good meeting just doesn't happen. It takes work, preparation and follow through.

2. The success of a family business meeting depends on a strong but highly considerate moderator.

The moderator manages the time, keeps the discussion on track, moves the agenda along, insures fairness, draws everyone into the discussion, keeps emotions and conflict within moderate levels, and facilitates efficient decision-making.

The moderator shouldn’t aggressively promote his or her own opinions but defer until all others have had an opportunity to contribute. The moderator shouldn’t use the moderator role to promote personal power or manipulate decisions. The role of moderator is to facilitate discussion and elicit honest opinions and concerns from each family member.

The challenge of managing a group is to draw opinions from each member without violating their sense of importance, competence or acceptance. Recesses may be necessary to allow individuals to compose themselves, cool off and regain emotional control.

3. Family members need to govern their own behavior to have a good meeting. They need to stick to the agenda, follow the rules, be constructive, show respect and be open-minded to others’ opinions. Blame, attacks on personalities and harsh criticism are harmful. They need to respect the moderator’s control of the meeting.

4. Family business decisions are made best by consensus. Family unity is too important to have dissenting votes. Time needs to be taken to allow people to voice objections, gather and assimilate information, work through emotions and be persuaded by each other. Big decisions regarding land and equipment may take months or even years before everyone can agree.

Consensus decision-making eliminates the "I told you so’s." Everyone is committed and supports the decision. The time it takes is worth the unity it creates. Short-sighted decisions that favor particular families or individuals should not be made at the expense of the business. What is best for the business overcomes the pitfalls of vested interest, competition, privilege, authority or status within the family.

5. The ability to communicate effectively is a key to successful conflict resolution. Communication depends on attentive listening, paying attention to feelings, paraphrasing, using indirect persuasion, asking questions and requesting feedback. It means thoughtfully considering others’s ideas and being willing to negotiate mutually satisfying solutions instead of reacting defensively or stubbornly. Here are some guidelines for dealing with disagreements:

- Be descriptive, not evaluative.

- Direct comments toward behavior the other person can change.

- Describe your point of view but don't impose it.

- Be specific, not general.

- Be sensitive to timing.

- Consider the needs of the other person as well as your own.

- Check to be sure your messages are understood.

Channeling business conflict into a meeting and handling it constructively sets the stage for loving, peaceful family interactions apart from the business.