How to have difficult conversations with farm employees

farm workers

Within any farm business operation, whether composed solely of family members or a mix of family and nonfamily, there is a mix of personalities, behaviors and habits. Add to this mix the stresses of farming, the farm economy, the attention to detail needed for most farm jobs, and the myriad of ways to approach farm tasks and there are going to be disagreements, miscommunication, hurt feelings, conflicts and emotional/mental trauma.

A farm manager or owner has to keep the farm business moving forward and to maintain or create a healthier and more productive work environment. That often requires some difficult conversations.

I want to examine difficult conversations with persons who are under stress, communicating when there are disagreements/misunderstandings, and communicating when there are personal conflicts.

Understand stress

Chronic stress, that is, stress over prolonged periods, has negative impacts on emotional, mental and physical health.

Often, people under stress experience hindered thinking, especially with regard to problem-solving. People under stress may experience bouts of anger, guilt, and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. All of these things make conversations more difficult.

One approach to start these conversations is to let the person know you have observed symptoms of stress and that you care about them and are willing to listen.

These conversations are most productive when there is acceptance and respect for what that person is feeling, when there is some time each day to talk and listen, so that feelings and frustrations are not “bottled up” and when there is a period to cool off if the conversation becomes heated or too emotional.

Stages of stress

According to a North Carolina Extension publication, Family Communication During Times of Stress, it is important to recognize that there are four stages in the process of coping with stress, and good communication helps family members, or even farm employees, move through the stages.

Those stages are Shock: characterized by disbelief and denial; Recoil, characterized by anger, confusion, blaming and guilt; Depression, characterized by feelings of helplessness and hopelessness; and Reorganization, characterized by acceptance and recovery.

Can’t put it off

Other difficult conversations are those that handle misunderstandings, disagreements and personal conflicts.

An important step to resolution is to acknowledge and face these situations. Avoiding a misunderstanding or putting off facing the disagreement or personal conflict usually results in a buildup of tension and at some point the issue explodes.

Recognize and name the problem early on, and set a specific time and place to discuss the problem.

During the course of conversation, seek to discover the cause of the problem, come up with a list of possible solutions, select a best solution and discuss steps to take to put the solution into action, including check-in conversations.

Ask questions

It is much easier to list how to have a conversation than it is to actually hold that conversation. According to a Farm Journal Legacy Project article, a good way to start these types of conversations is to ask questions.

For example, what is going on? What is bothering you? Why aren’t we communicating better? How did you understand such and such conversation or situation?

After asking a question, you then have a responsibility to listen. Structure the conversation so both parties are on equal footing where the power difference between boss or manager/employee, parent/child, etc., is put aside, and not used as a club in the conversation.

Lay down some ground rules for the conversation. They can include honesty, no threat of negative repercussion for openness, no interrupting and maybe even things like, no shouting, and no cussing/foul language.

Another good question is this: What do we need to make things better? Why do we need to resolve this issue?

More tips

Here are some other practical and concrete steps to use during difficult conversations.

  • Be willing to listen to the other person’s point of view. Practice active listening. Active listening involves repeating back what you think you are hearing the other person say. Ask for clarification.
  • Especially when the conversations involve emotional or personal conflicts, try to separate the behavior from the person.
  • Avoid judging the person. Don’t attack a person’s character, make light of their feelings, or label them with a generalization.
  • Avoid name-calling.
  • Sometimes, and this is not easy, but when appropriate, say you are sorry, offer an apology and forgive the person.


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