As farmers we are masters of the quick fix. We are good at mending fences on the fly and cobbling together a piece of broken equipment to finish the job before the day ends. Farm conflict, whether with family members, coworkers, employees, or even neighbors, is like any other problem we solve. Having a plan, some awareness, and a few tools can help out with the short term fixes you need to get through the day.
Conflict is a normal part of any farm business. Conflicts come often when people have different values, goals, and perspectives. Conflict can be a positive force on the farm, if we manage it well. Conflict can create energy, focus and change. It can also cause us to revisit a decision and consider it more carefully. Conflict can help us understand what is important to us and to others. The way we manage conflict means the difference between the conflict becoming a negative or positive experience.
Fight, Flight, Freeze
Most of us are not at our best during a conflict. We say things we don’t really mean, make accusations, and refuse to hear what the other person is saying. We get locked in a narrow mindset feeling like one way is the right way and the only way. There is a biological reason for this “my way or the highway” attitude!
According to neuroscience, we actually don’t have our full capacity to see multiple perspectives or make complex decisions, when we are “triggered”, or in fight, flight, freeze mode. When we are “triggered,” stress hormones flood our body and then neural pathways to the prefrontal cortex, shut down. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that helps us sort conflicting thoughts and right from wrong. This is a big deal! We feel tense, irritated and unable to stop thinking in a loop.
Below are a few techniques to help you manage conflict on the farm:
- Notice when you are triggered and take a break
Noticing you are triggered helps you begin to shift from reactivity to managing your conflicts productively. Cool off and do nothing for a little while.
Make a practice of noticing when you are triggered and in “fight, flight or freeze”. Name it. Just noticing can help you shift from being triggered. Since we don’t have access to our full capacity when we a triggered, building awareness will help you know when to take a break during a conflict instead of engaging.
Reflect on the situation. Review your observations. What happened, what did you see or hear, what words were said? (think of what a video camera can see or record- just the observables). We often mix observations with evaluations and you will want to try to separate evaluations from your observations.
Evaluative Observation: “She angrily dropped her hoe and stormed up to the barn”
Observation: “She dropped her hoe and went to the barn.”
Reflect on self. What feelings do we experience as a result of the data we observe? Usually there are a range of feelings. “I feel angry and disappointed and frustrated and most of all just really tired of the tension.” What are the needs or values that relate to those feelings? For instance, if you are feeling angry it is easy to think it is because someone did something that really pissed you off. But we are the only ones who create our response. No one can really make us angry. What is it that you were really wanting, is there a value you care about? (ex. if you are really tired of the tension you might really value and want ease and peace etc).
Reflect on the other. How might the other person be feeling in relation to the observable data? What are the needs and values they might be holding that relate to those feelings? Try to put yourself in their shoes and understand the situation from their perspective.
3. Talk about it
Sometimes we learn something about ourselves in the reflective process and don’t need to talk about anything. If you decide a conversation is the next step here are a few tips.
Listen first. Focus carefully on what is said and reflect back the information and opinions. You don’t have to remember every detail but try to get the gist of the story. Use their words and phrasing rather than your own interpretation. You don’t have to agree with what they are saying. Check to find out if you are hearing them in the way they want to be heard.
Avoid reflecting back judgments. For example “Jon is a jerk” might be reflected back as “you are thinking Jon is a jerk.” If the story is very long interrupt and reflect back in chunks rather than at the end. Interrupt by saying something like, “Let me see if I am understanding what you are saying so far is…”
Then check to see if you understand their feelings. Asking instead of telling someone how they feel is most effective. “So I am wondering if this is really frustrating for you?” If your guess is wrong the person will give you more information. “I am not frustrated, I am mad.”
Reflect back what is most important to the person. Make a guess? “So are you really wanting _______?” (ex: things to run efficiently on the farm? )
When you feel the person has said everything that they wanted to be heard about see if they are willing to hear about your experience.
Share your experience. Share your observations, and the feelings that came up for you. Share what you care about now in relation to the conflict and what is most important to you? Focus on the problem or the issue and not the person.
4. Find Solutions
Make requests (not demands); accept a “NO” and be prepared with a second request. If you are not really willing to hear a no you are most likely making a demand and not a request.
You may want to propose “experiments” to test potential solutions.
5. Know when to get help
If you try these things and realize you are in over your head with a situation consider “borrowing” the skills of a mediator just in the same way you might “borrow’ the skills of an accountant to help you figure out how to manage a tight financial spell. Mediators are third party neutrals trained in communication who can offer individuals conflict coaching or can offer two or more parties mediation.
Even the best fences need maintenance and repairs. If a broken fence is not repaired there are going to be problems. It is not the broken fence that determines the outcome but how quickly we notice and how we choose to respond. Same with our relationships to people and conflict. When we notice a conflict, and how we choose to respond or manage a conflict, makes a difference to the outcome.
Claudia Kenny has managed Little Seed Gardens with her husband in Columbia County, NY since 1995. Learning to manage conflict constructively has been vital to their farm’s success which is dependent on webs of family, labor, community and business relationships. She has her masters degree in conflict analysis and engagement and is currently statewide director of New York State Agricultural Mediation Program (NYSAMP). NYSAMP offers confidential, low or no cost mediation to the agriculture community.