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Communicate through the daughter-in-law barrier

Elaine Froese Published on 10 October 2013
Women and child in field

Sometimes a short conversation lights a huge fire of controversy, and this article may create a few sparks, so please read carefully all the way to the end.

A farm family with a very strong-willed daughter-in-law asks their business planner how to make progress with decision-making since the “in-law” seems to have an opinion about every farm-business decision made.

The planner advised the farm team to consider farm-business and shareholder decisions as their “territory,” making it clear that the spouse (i.e., daughter-in-law) was not part of that decision group.

What would you advise for conflict resolution?

Everyone has an opinion, so let’s dig deeper and figure out what a daughter-in-law might need:

Perspective. She has been raised in a paycheque family, so she is used to a quick, consistent cash flow, benefits and paid vacation. Can you explain to her that the farm cash flow works differently?

The capital reserves for large purchases take a few months or years to pay off to zero. Explain that decisions are made to find assets that generate revenue.

A house is not typically a revenue generator on the farm … so be careful with those farm-home expenses. Keep good track of family living costs. On dairy farms, there are fights if compensation is the same for unequal labour input or excessive family-living draws.

Patience. The succession planning process takes a long time to work through. I just heard from a farmer that I worked with 16 years ago, and they are just nicely finishing up all the details.

What attitude are you bringing home to the family unit from your business meetings? Are you frustrated? Does your spouse realize that there are always many sides to a story?

People connection. Young mothers of your grandchildren are doing their level best to raise happy and healthy kids, stay married to your son and still have friendships beyond the family.

Your daughter-in-law may need more social time than you do – although you might want to explain the weather, cropping issues and time pressures of the dairy.

If you don’t need people to get energy, but your daughter-in-law does, as an introvert you may never understand her needs as an extrovert. If you aren’t happy with her social life, is it really any of your business? Does it affect your ability to manage the farm? Or are you just upset that her life looks better than yours?

Picture-perfect house. The home-design channels don’t favour delayed gratification in renovation of the farmhouse. Stories still abound about the mother-in-law who can’t accept the new paint colour on the wall of her former home.

I also met a farmer who was exasperated that his daughter-in-law never ever wanted to live on the main yard. He was hoping for a new location, and she was not interested in leaving the city.

What is this conflict really about? Do you have the courage to call a family council and talk about your future farm vision, your values and cherished beliefs? Expectations are the shortcut to discontent, so maybe it is time to clarify some expectations about lifestyle choices and residence.

Predictable family time. Many young farmers tell me they are not willing to work as hard or as long hours as their parents. They want a “life.” Work-life balance is not balance; it is more like buoyancy, keeping your head above water and pausing for family time with some predictability.

We all work long and hard when the pressure is on, but for some workaholic families, the pressure cooker is never released with fun and friendship for the family.

A young dairy farmer solved this problem by joining ventures with his new business partner, his best friend, so that both families have guaranteed family weekend time on alternate weekends. What new business model are you considering in order to keep your family harmony healthy?

Please and thank you. Many new family members are just looking for common courtesy and grace that you extend to the feed guy or fuel supplier.

Lack of appreciation is one of the barriers to succession planning. Practice being more gracious to all farm team members and their spouses.

I know a young farm wife who is horrified that her mother-in-law does not have the common decency to open the gifts the young woman presents to her. Her husband is not protecting her or helping his mother understand that Mom is seeding the divorce cloud.

Pretending everything is just fine. Peacekeeping by avoiding conflict serves no one.

Courageous conversations need to happen to change promises into written agreements, produce a family code of conduct or develop job descriptions for the farm policy manual.

I am curious why many young women who come from a totally different conflict-style family are not given the chance to express their concerns and issues in a forum that is respectful.

You allow the accountant and financial planner to look at the numbers, but are you being honest about the tension and poor family dynamic that will blow apart the best-laid plan?

If you can’t resolve conflict, gain some skill in this area by taking a conflict-resolution course, hiring a facilitator-mediator or get some phone coaching. Unresolved conflict grows ugly as time goes on when there are fewer options to resolve a fight that was really very fixable in the early stages of the conflict.

Privacy with respect. Your son and daughter-in-law may now occupy the main-yard home residence. You are used to being on-site to lend a hand and be the “hired help.” Your intent to help out may be misinterpreted as “interference,” not helpfulness.

Try saying this helpful line: “I was just curious … am I doing things that are irritating you? My intent is to be helpful like my mother-in-law was.

Just checking.” Respect of all members of your farm team will be helpful and pay huge dividends in the emotional bank account of your farm family.

I would recommend honest, open communication to iron out those irritants that are interfering with your decision-making process. Ask yourself: “What do I need, and what is it that she needs that she is not getting?” Then ask her.

All the best with your courageous conversations; you’ll be glad you broke the barrier early in the battle. PD

Elaine Froese is a certified coach and member of the Canadian Association of Farm Advisors. She is offering an in-law tele-coaching course. Sign-up at www.elainefroese.com. It starts Oct. 15 and will give you practical tools for getting along with in-laws.

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