Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How Leaders In Rural Communities Keep The Peace

June 17, 2002

I interviewed three leaders in a small community. They each shared their thoughts on how to keep the peace while getting things done. Here are some of their ideas.

On not making enemies.

"You never lose your enemies. They accumulate the longer you are in office. You already have enough enemies without making enemies."

"I try to be tolerant. I continue to talk to the people. I keep my cool. We try to be more tolerant and more forgiving. Urban people go and brood with their little groups. In small towns, there are no groups."

"I handle conflict with kid gloves. You have to be a real diplomat. Be understanding first. You don't have to agree with them. Bring in another point of view.

"Just visiting with them beforehand before it becomes a real problem helps. Show a little interest. It's when you ignore them that the problem keeps boiling.

"If someone is angry with me, I go and take my beating. I don't hold a grudge. If we don't talk, it will fester in both of us. I value their opinions. There is a healing process.

"If I've hurt someone's feelings, I go to him and take care of it. There will be future projects. We need everybody."

"I respect the local pecking order. I go through the chain of command. I try not to step on local toes."

"It's not a personal thing. The next day is a new day. I don't begrudge the guy. Argument and discussion are good. They help you do a better job. With each new issue, I start from scratch. Life is too short to carry grudges."

"These small towns are so hurting that the only way we are going to get anywhere is by sticking together. If there is a problem, we are quick to go on peace-keeping missions."

"It helps to have a sense of humor. A man opposed a project. He lost. He even came and helped with it. We teased him afterwards and informally named the project in his honor."

"I poke fun at myself ... my own lead balloons. Around here, we forgive and forget pretty easy."

On heading off confrontations.

"Go to the source. Confront them in a non-threatening way. Don't let the controversy get into a public meeting where the anger and the side-taking become entrenched.

"Public meetings are on your turf - the formal table, allies, body language, the distance between you and them, all the rest of the trappings. If it gets to that point, they feel they have to attack to make their point."

"I use my network of friends and allies to find out if they know what is going on. I give them a call. I am not afraid to ask. Sometimes I go to the person directly to find out what the problem is.

"I try to find common ground ahead of time. If we can't, we agree to disagree. If nothing else, doing this defuses the emotions."

"I try to stay neutral as long as possible. I don't become directly involved in the issue. As long as I don't get pushed into taking a moral stand, I can be a problem-solver and try to seek a common solution."

"Be prepared. Do your homework on controversial issues. Your opponents may not like it but you'll win their respect. They have to admit you know what you are talking about.

"I brief my allies on my position. I offer a solution that meets our needs. It channels some of the opponent's energy into our solution instead of a flood of anger trying to break down the wall."

On making tough decisions.

"I'm prepared to take the heat, to take criticism for unpopular decisions."

"I take a stand. It costs me. I haven't seen some customers in five years. I follow my conscious."

"It takes a lot of nerve (or stupidity) to make decisions for other people. Some people aren't bashful."

The community comes first.

"Be willing to do what you expect others to do. You have to shovel manure with the rest of them. You can't get away with being a prima donna in a small town. You work for the good of the community, not for your own benefit."

"The pitfall, as I see it, with state and nationally elected officials, is that they stop serving the people. They say, ‘The people and God put me here. I'll make my own decisions. To heck with you.’ The closer you are to local government, it doesn't happen that way."

"We champion local causes. We fight the good fight against the encroachments of big and wasteful government."

"We try to involve the community. We give information about what we are trying to accomplish. It works when the majority of the community are behind it."

"If you ask, they will help."

"There is a core group of movers and shakers that get involved in everything. There is another group that get involved in selective causes. There is a third group that don't get involved. They don't bother me. The group that bothers me is the people who are negative without a positive purpose. They don't have a cause. They don't look for solutions."