Being in business is tough. Being in business with family members is even tougher. Family and business roles sometimes get confused. Words can be misinterpreted.
Tempers can flare. Farm families sometimes find themselves embroiled in bitter disputes or harboring deep unspoken resentments.
The causes can vary. One person may continually leave the barn door open or the tractor grimy and out of gas. One brother may be paid more or put in more hours than the other. Mom and Dad may do the books and refuse to let their son see them. A budget may have been agreed on and two weeks later Dad shows up with a new Pick up he got “great deal” on. Two brothers may be discussing buying a new tractor and one may go out and buy the one he wants.
Regardless of the cause, resolving disagreements is essential to the well-being of the business and family relations. Suppose you’ve tried everything you can think of and are still deadlocked. What should you do? Stop. Stand to the side, and analyze what’s going on. Make sure you’re not engaged in a power struggle or struggling with the past.
Farm families often get mired in old issues. Disagreements often have more to do with past events, resentment, one-upmanship, guilt, control, jealousy, insecurity, disappointment, and unmet needs than the current issue.
For example, a sibling might be resentful because his brother got a costlier pony than he did when they were children. Sometimes the stated issue is a facade for some other frustration. A wife may complain that her husband is always late for meals; he may counter that she’s haranguing him. In reality, she may simply want him to say he notices and appreciates her efforts and vice versa.
If it appears that “old garbage” or “emotional baggage” is preventing you from moving ahead, you may want to do some baggage sorting exercises. Find out how people feel. Find out what’s really bugging them or why they feel hurt. Find out what they’re afraid of or worried about.
Look at family roles and expectations. Family members often get locked into roles. They may feel they must be “the strong, silent Dad,” “the sounding board Mom,” or “the rebellious child.” They’re immobilized by family values and expectations.
Defining family values and expectations is an exercise that may yield some surprising insights. Get each family member to write answers to the following questions on a piece of paper: What is the purpose of the family business? What does the family stand for? What do you expect the farm to give you? What does the family expect of you? How are we supposed to treat each other? Then discuss the answers.
Having each family member list their goals and priorities can prove equally revealing. When other family members explain their feelings, don’t judge them or defend yourself. Just listen. Often, all they need is to unload. In any discussions, it’s vital that people truly listen to each other. Intimates often believe they “know” each other’s thoughts. Not so when evidenced by the resulting disagreements. One way of ensuring that all parties are understood and understand each other is to play parrot. Just sum up what the other person has said. Doing this validates their feelings and assures them that they have been heard and understood.
Try to turn negative complaints into positive requests. For example, if Mom is going on with Dad about spending money without telling her, he could sum up by saying ‘you need me to tell you what checks I’ve written so you can balance the book at the end of the month.’ Frequent parrot practice is advised. Active, empathic listening shortens and prevents arguments.
Make sure everybody gets equal air time when discussing business and family issues. If one person dominates the conversation or keeps interrupting others, try the ten button technique. Give everybody ten buttons. When a person speaks he must put down a button. When he has used all his buttons, he must button up.
Once you’ve addressed the past and people’s feelings, address the problem. While it’s important to talk about the past and process feelings, it’s equally important to get beyond the past. Once people have vented their frustrations, move on. Focus on the present and future and solving the problem. But be sure to separate the people.”
This article was prepared for Enterprising Rural Families TM newsletter, an instrument of the Enterprising Rural Families: Making It Work program of University of Wyoming Extension. For further information concerning the Enterprising Rural Families program or online course, please contact information@eRuralFamilies.org or go to http://eRuralFamilies.org/.information.