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When silent nights don’t bring peace to your farm

Elaine Froese Published on 01 December 2014

When I was a very small farm girl, dressed in my homemade red velvet jumper, I looked forward to “Edie” Christmas on Boxing Day with my cousins. I recall my great-grandmother singing “Silent Night” to us in German.

Little did I know then I would marry into a family whose first language was German. I don’t know how to sing “Stille Nacht,” but I do know that the approach of Christmas brings good memories for some farm families – and fear for others.

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Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.” Not for those who are longing for emotional peace on their farms. These farmers have just recovered from the long intense harvest of 2014, yet they still feel wiped out.

They are “walking on eggshells” with their families since they rarely converse. The periods of extended silence are growing longer instead of shorter. The calm on their farms may be a gorgeous starry night, but inside the family dynamic, the silence is killing them.

Silence is a form of communication manipulation. It can be good or bad.

For some people who are given very little airtime, silence is an opportunity for them to gather their thoughts and then they can speak. Silence, according to author Susan Scott in Fierce Conversations, is the way to “do the heaving lifting” in courageous conversations.

When I am facilitating a family meeting, I use my Beanie Baby bull as a talking stick to let each person have a chance to speak. Sometimes the years of hurt and frustration erupt into tense sharing, but that is the exact moment that creates breakthroughs in understanding, tears and a way to move to deeper clarity and change.

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Silence is bad when used as a form of revenge, inflicting purposeful hurt and stopping the flow of talking and listening. Silence should not be a form of violence.

As a coach, I tell my farm families that the silence needs to be broken or I will not work with them. People shut up for many reasons. To open them up, you need to ask questions about their “why” and come from curiosity.

“I am curious why you cannot tell me what is bothering you.”

“What would you like me to do differently in order to re-boot our conversations?”

“I am sorry for the hurt I have caused you. Let me know now what I need to do to make amends and have meaningful talks with you.”

I once sat in a family meeting where the father was notorious for “shutting down” and cutting himself off from the communication of the family. He was refusing to be part of the coaching process, so I stopped and said: “Your sons are trying to be part of the legacy of this farm.

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Today is the day for action. If you choose to continue to block this process, you are going to lose your family and your farm. Choose now. If you do not speak, I will leave now, as I cannot work with people who use silence as a weapon.”

I love books. The best book for ending the silence and violence on your farm is Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler.

The authors encourage us to “start with the heart, stay focused on what you really want.”

What do you want for Christmas?

“Elaine, I want a happy family. I don’t care what this farm is worth; I just want everyone to come home to share turkey and make great memories.”

“I want my in-laws to understand that I don’t feel accepted in this family. I have shut down because I am so tired of trying to have my voice heard.”

“I just want my folks to quit changing their minds about the future. We need some firm written agreements and no more empty promises for change.”

There is a hope for your farm ahead. All can be calm and bright.

1. Stop your all-or-nothing thinking. These are polarities, issues that need to be managed. Start saying, “This is why I want this, and for me this would be the solution. What do you think?”

2. Make it safe to share in your presence. Buy or find a soft toy to use as a talking stick. Write out some guidelines for your family code of conduct. “In this family, we use respectful tones, don’t swear and stay in the conversation.” Avoidance is no longer a behavioural option. You always get to choose your response.

3. Hire an outside facilitator or coach to navigate the tension, teach you how to use a flipchart and help you learn to paraphrase what you are really saying. Some people find it helpful to do the meeting in a neutral space like a hotel meeting room. Canadian Association of Farm Advisors to find a coach familiar with agriculture near you.

4. Pray about how you are going to apologize for past hurt. The message of Christmas is that the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, was born to reconcile man to God. If you are not a Christian, you still operate with a model of forgiveness. If you don’t have any model for extending an “olive branch,” you better get one fast.

5. Share your intentions. The classic slide I share in almost every presentation is Intent > Action > Effect. Why are you doing what you are doing? What actions and words are causing hurt?

Do you know what effect your words or silence are having on the rest of your farm team? Ask. Your actions are given meaning by others, and sometimes that is the result of observations mixed with assumptions. Find out what is being assumed and talk about your intentions.

6. Share your emotional story briefly. Most farmers I know are very uncomfortable with sharing feelings, but they really get the facts. Your story is important, and you’ll likely get more traction in the dialogue by sharing the facts. “By January 2015, you promised that you would sign the transfer agreements. We are about to enter 2015, and nothing has been signed; that’s why I am so distraught, Dad.”

7. Agree on the points that you can agree on and then build from there. Do you agree that you want to be a family? Some people I coach are so angry with the family they are not willing to even talk about family issues until the business conflicts and agreements are solved first.

8. Celebrate Christmas and Boxing Day. Schedule a family meeting after Dec. 25, not on Christmas Day. Find the words to “Silent Night” or “Stille Nacht” on youtube.com and sing it together.  PD

Elaine Froese, CSP, CAFA, CHICoach farms in southwestern Manitoba and speaks across North America. Like “Farm Family Coach” on Facebook. Email her and share your story.

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