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Your Ability to have a Critical Conversation is Important to Your Long Term Farm Business Success

By Don Nitchie, Extension Educator

Successful farm management today, often depends on your ability to discuss important items “beyond and between the numbers”, in a constructive way.  Often these discussions are about pivotal points in history for your farm business or careers.  Sometimes you may be struggling with or even attempting to have a badly needed “critical conversation” about a significant decision that has to be made or implemented.  This maybe with a business partner, spouse, other family members, a landlord, son or daughter.

While many Minnesota farms are on average holding up well financially in these tight profit margin times—there are some stress points on some farms. Some critical conversations are necessary on the best of farms  for example if;  liquidity is weakening more than average the last few years and profitability has been weak across enterprises and the whole farm for the last few years. This probably has resulted in a weakening of Net Worth and maybe over-expenditure on family living in some cases.  If this situation is not being acknowledged-a discussion of the impact of continued current trends plus ways to improve the situation needs to occur-soon. The farm manager should ideally seek out discussion and consultation before they are forced to by someone else such as their lender.

For pivotal business decision-making that is dependent on or involves others, you need to assess what you need to do to make the impending “critical discussion” productive and hopefully successful.  You may have been avoiding discussion because it will not be a comfortable situation-or you may have to deliver bad news in the process.  Whatever the case, you probably realize procrastinating will only make it worse.  Examples of critical conversations can be; informing others (partners, family or banker) of farm financial conditions; rental discussions with landlords; farm transition needs/realities with family members—as well as many others.

There are several books and self-help guides probably written on this topic.  Many guidelines and tips are very good but, often easier said than done.  I will offer some here that I have found to be helpful to me personally and professionally.  This is after attending numerous trainings myself as well as working with many students, producers and employees over the years.  I hope you find some of these helpful.  I am not an expert in this area but, have some practical experience.

  1. Try to minimize the emotion in the conversation. Talk to a neutral 3rd party in confidence first if you feel a lot of stored up anger, regret, disappointment or you feel taken advantage of. Work out some of your emotions first.  When you meet, it certainly would be accurate to let the other party know how you have felt but, doing it under control will likely lead to better outcomes for you and all concerned.  If someone does get emotional—let it happen as those feelings are probably very real, acknowledge their feeling for what they are—then attempt to bring it back to the real decision at hand.  Set the tone by using a calm and quiet voice.
  2. Try to pick the right time for the conversation—maybe let them know ahead of time or even schedule it in advance.  It is maybe OK to let them know a general topic but, save the real content for the actual conversation.  Don’t procrastinate though, just because you anticipate the conversation will be uncomfortable—or someone will get emotional.
  3. Make a very brief list of your expectations of necessary items to discuss before you meet. When you meet ask the other conversation participant to state their expectations for the discussion—then list yours.  Ask if you both agree these are the correct topics.  Set a tone for mutual respect.
  4. Prepare yourself to be satisfied with shorter term or interim discussion points—where you can maybe more easily find common ground or understanding. “Don’t try to solve world peace in one meeting”.
  5. At the end of discussions, affirm what you have heard, as a way to conclude. So, what I heard is “we both agree on……. But, we disagree on……….”.  Be careful to not put words in someone else’s mouth.  It is OK to ask the other party to clarify a point you may not agree with by asking; “Could you help me understand…or could you clarify….”? You may find out you may not have understood their reasoning; there may be information you were not aware of or, their information maybe primarily a feeling versus fact.

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