“During the farm transition process, we can feel frustrated, feel like we’re grasping at straws to find solutions. We also become suspicious of other people. Sometimes we make negative assumptions about other people’s motives. We start to experience a downward spiral. We feel stuck. This is how everyone reacts when there is a conflict,” Claudia Kenny said during a recent NOFA-NY conference.

Kenny is the co-director of the New York State Agricultural Mediation Program. At the conference, she discussed techniques to improve communication during a farm transition.

Clarifying Decision Making

“A lot of conflicts come in the door because decision making is unclear and creates a lot of tension,” Kenny said.

It may be possible to prevent conflicts if the stakeholders discuss ahead of time which type of decision making will be used in various situations. There are four types of decision making (consultative, democratic, consensus and delegatory) and it’s common for all types to be used during a farm transition.

In consultative decision making, a decision is made by one person after the group has discussed ideas and potential solutions. In a democratic process, the whole group discusses, and then there’s a vote and majority rules.

Consensus decision making requires that the entire group agrees, whereas in delegatory decision making one person makes the decision for the whole group.

In a farm transition, the senior generation may go through a process where they consult the junior generations, taking into account everyone’s preferences and opinions about the farm’s future. They have decided to use a consultative process, but the junior generation may be unaware of this and assume it will be a consensus decision.

This leads to a lack of clarity in who gets to decide and may result in a conflict. “Getting clarity about how decisions will be made and how people will be involved can help avoid misunderstandings and conflict from the get-go,” Kenny said.

Listening to Understand

Kenny said one of the most effective ways to prepare for a farm transition conversation is to become a skillful listener. To Kenny, this means bringing the full self – eyes, ears, hearts and undivided attention – to the person speaking.

It also means setting aside personal concerns and prerogatives while someone is talking. The listener should strive to listen for new information with curiosity and to withhold judgment.

When it’s the listener’s turn to respond, Kenny suggested they strive to rephrase and reflect back to the speaker their words and their perspective. An attempt should be made to use the speaker’s exact words to make sure the listener is understanding the speaker’s point of view. This is an important communication tool because more often than not, the listener’s perceptions are incorrect.

Kenny also discussed the “Iceberg Theory” of negotiation. In a farm transition conversation, a person’s stance can be thought of as the part of the iceberg sticking out of the water. Underneath this figurative iceberg, however, are the unseen hopes, fears, desires, expectations and concerns that are often left unarticulated. A listener should be aware of and seek to understand this “below the line” subtext.

“The goal about listening is not to be perfect in every conversation. We all respond in unhelpful ways at times. We jump in and tell our own story. We refute what someone’s saying. We offer advice instead of listening,” Kenny said. “The goal is not to do those things but to know the difference between skillful listening, so you can refocus when you start responding in unhelpful ways.”

Asking Curious Questions

Asking open-ended questions is a technique that can be used to understand some of the “below the line” subtext. Open-ended questions invite people to reflect and share their ideas in more depth. Using them also demonstrates a sincere interest in understanding others’ needs and creates a sense of validation for the speaker’s opinions.

Kenny suggested using short, concise questions – no more than seven words – such as “What’s really important to you about this?” and “What matters most to you about this?”

“The questions are direct. They’re not too complex. The idea is that they are invitations, not probes,” Kenny said.

By using this type of questioning, farm families can seek to better understand each other’s perspectives. According to Kenny, the human mind is hardwired to egocentric thinking, creating a barrier to understanding another person’s perspective.

“Recognizing someone else’s point of view is not simple. It’s not intuitive. It takes a little bit of intention. It takes hard work and practice,” she said. “If you put in the effort, it’s a skill that anyone can learn.”

This conscious attempt to understand another’s point of view is worth the effort in Kenny’s opinion. It can create real learning and reshape interactions and relationships.

Finding Support

If a farm family is struggling to communicate during a farm transition, Kenny recommended getting support from a mediator. Mediation and arbitration should not be confused. A mediator is a neutral party who helps to create dialogue and promote understanding between the participants; they are not decision makers. An arbitrator acts more like a judge, handing down a decision after listening to the positions.

Mediation is voluntary, with all participants agreeing to participate. A mediator works for all of the parties involved, helping each person to be heard. They offer a neutral process so everyone gets the time they need to bring up the points important to them.

People can call upon the mediation process at any point of a farm transition. “People reach out for mediation when they want support in promoting understanding, preserving relationships and coming up with creative solutions. So, usually it seems like there is no solution and there is no way forward. People are often at an impasse when they come to mediation. Sometimes they’re looking to make clear agreements and to prevent future disputes,” Kenny said.

There are 44 mediation programs in the U.S. funded by the Farm Bill. In 2018, ag mediation programs were authorized to offer services to farms in transition. These programs are free or low-cost and may be conducted in person or virtually.

Producers can reach out to one of the programs and discuss if the situation is appropriate for the mediation process. If so, all participants go through an initial interview. In some situations, conflict coaching is used before the initial interview to help participants gain clarity about what they hope to achieve before sitting down as a group.

“People usually reach out for mediation after a specific situation has escalated,” Kenny said. “It’s fine to reach out before a situation escalates as well. Really, any time a supportive dialogue would help create a safe space is a good time to get some help.”

by Sonja Heyck-Merlin