Family Communication

Posted on: September 25th, 2015 by Richard Cressman

Gone are the days when a farmer can work in isolation. Smartphones, text messages, e-mail, put many farmers in positions where they are required to communicate regularly with people all day long. Using technology to communicate with business colleagues is simple and easy compared to maintaining an effective communication dialogue with family – the people you love and care about.

Some days it can be almost impossible for farm family members to talk with each other without yelling.

Over the past few years, I have been privileged to work with farm family businesses that have wanted to improve their communication patterns. More bluntly put: these families were tired of the yelling, the slamming doors, the pouting, the cold shoulder treatment, and the awkward silence that prevailed at mealtimes and family get-togethers. I frequently heard comments like, “we can’t agree on things anymore, we don’t seem to like or even respect each other anymore. Are we the only family with these problems?” If you are reading this and are thinking, “ this sounds like us” rest assured you are normal. Working with the ones you are supposed to love is a daunting challenge.

Managing a farm today presents unique challenges compared to most other businesses as the labour pool and management are usually one and the same. To further complicate things, everyone usually lives on the job site.

The communication dilemmas most frequently experienced on farms are firstly, the father’s inability to communicate with his children (usually his sons), and secondly lack of communication between siblings.

A classic example of ineffective communication is illustrated in the following story.

Friday evening Father was in the milking parlor finishing the milking when his newly licensed 17-year-old son came rushing into the barn to ask for the farm pickup to go into town with his buddies. Father being a somewhat quiet fellow, had his head half buried under a cow’s belly. As he listened to his son’s request he rolled his eyes skyward and let out a grunt. Pulling his head out from under the cow to address his son’s request, he turned to see the milkhouse door slamming shut as the youngster ran for the house. Five minutes later while washing the milking equipment, Father looks out the window to see the tailgate of the new diesel pickup truck disappear down the laneway in a cloud of dust—the son had obviously interpreted the grunt to mean “yes”.

Father was still fuming and muttering as he stomped in the back door of the house. Upon seeing his wife he bellered, “that kid of yours just took the pickup without asking for my permission”. Mother using her carefully honed maternal skills asked father what actually had happened. Questioned and prodded, Father reluctantly admitted that he had not said yes or no, but had in fact just uttered a grunt. The mother knew their son had learned how to take advantage of his father’s communication weaknesses. Farm women seem blessed with the ability to know what is going on between their husband and sons without actually being present at times of disagreement.

To be an effective communicator takes practice and patience. It is vitally important to listen to every member of the family so that when you do speak others will understand what you are saying and not tune you out. Old communication habits die slowly but they can be improved. Searching out more productive ways to communicate with family members has immediate benefits. Reduced stress levels and happier people can frequently translate into a more profitable business.

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