Family Business Matters 03/13 08:28
When Both Sides Are Right
Family businesses are no stranger to conflict. It is bound to happen with
the different roles people play, the history of family relationships, the
transitions family members go through at various life stages and the
uncertainty of work in an ag environment. Empathy is a powerful tool to help
understand another's actions.
By Lance Woodbury
DTN Farm Business Adviser
I remember a situation many years ago in which a son told his "retired"
father to stop interfering in the business, and he threatened to call the
sheriff the next time Dad set foot on the ranch. Calling law enforcement? That
sounded so extreme, I thought. But then I came to see the reasons why the son
might resort to such alarming talk.
Even though the retirement transition had occurred some years ago, the son
felt that Dad would not let go, that the farm's performance was always being
scrutinized and judged. Dad's interference and seeming criticism was, he felt,
another significant stressor at a time when crop and livestock prices, weather
and interest rates were all working against him. He wanted to run the business
on his own, to show he was indeed capable of making good decisions and could
succeed without help.
However, as I considered Dad's perspective, I could understand his behavior,
too. Dad was stronger financially and thought he could help during a tough
economic time by being an extra, no-cost set of eyes, ears and hands in the
operation. He even gave the employees some extra cash as a bonus to encourage
them to work hard. And, his years of farming and livestock wisdom, he thought,
could be valuable as his son navigated difficult circumstances. How could this
helpful approach undermine his son, he wondered? He had the best of intentions.
Dad and son both wanted the best for the farm and probably even agreed on
many of the goals. Yet, their patterns of communication and behavioral choices
produced significant conflict. In many respects, they were both right and both
wrong. What they wanted and how they acted were simultaneously justified and
Family businesses are no stranger to this kind of conflict. It is bound to
happen with the different roles people play, the history of family
relationships, the transitions family members go through at various life stages
and the uncertainty of work in an agricultural environment. The complexity of
these intermingling dynamics creates multiple prospects for misunderstanding.
WALK IN THE OTHER'S SHOES
A significant step in reducing the impact of such conflicts is to have a
sense of empathy for other family members. Empathy is defined as the ability to
understand another's feelings, to comprehend their perspective. It is the
ability to see the world from their eyes, and it allows us to build and restore
relationships with others. In recent years, an increasing number of researchers
and authors point to empathy as one of the most important skills in business.
Particularly in a family business, one must use empathy to see why someone
might have chosen a particular course of behavior. That is, amid being
offended, can you identify with the other person's feelings, understand the
assumptions they made and see why they chose to behave a certain way? Surely,
this must be one of the most difficult yet important skills required of a
family business partner.
Understanding the behavior of someone is not the same as forgiving the
behavior. Having empathy for another is not to excuse their actions. They (or
you) may still need to apologize or make amends, admit wrongdoing and commit to
different communication strategies.
But understanding why your loved one made the choices they did opens the
opportunity for dialogue. It demonstrates care for the other person. In a way,
it sets the table for a discussion, and that discussion can, in turn, lead to a
renewed chance to work together.
The next time you find yourself in a difficult family business situation,
consider your ability to empathize with the other.
Empathy alone does not resolve a conflict, but it paves the road for
Editor's Note: Lance Woodbury is a Garden City, Kansas, author, consultant
and professional mediator with more than 20 years' experience specializing in
agriculture and closely held businesses. Email questions for this column to
Lance@agprogress.com. For more on this topic, see DTN's Minding Ag's Business
blog. Find Woodbury's past columns online at
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