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Published March 04, 2013, 09:42 AM

Managing conflict among farm families

Conflict is common among siblings who farm together and can be difficult to resolve.

By: Mike Rosmann, Agweek

Conflict is common among siblings who farm together and can be difficult to resolve.

Generally, strife among same-gender siblings who work in the same agricultural operation is more serious than among those who farm separately but live near each other or between different-gender siblings. Quarreling can occur among any family members who get entangled in intense competition.

Why are people involved in farming competitive? An inherited drive called the agrarian imperative inclines us to acquire the best farmland and to be the most successful agricultural producers. In other words, our genes program us to compete for opportunities to farm.

Today’s farmers are the survivors of multiple generations of selection of the fittest. Psychological research shows that the traits most highly associated with success in farming include tolerance for adversity, willingness to take chances, capacity to work alone and to trust oneself. In short, successful farmers tend to be competitive.

Predecessors who were less industrious, inventive, competitive and lucky usually were less able to pass along opportunities to own land to their successors, making it harder for their children to continue an agrarian way of life.

How can children who want to farm handle competition and resentment? It takes humility and character. When helping farm families settle disputes, I frequently hear one sibling say about another, “I’m a better farmer than he is,” “He doesn’t work as hard as I do,” “Dad feels sorry for him” or “Mom likes her better.”

Usually, parents avoid making comparative judgments and recognize such statements fuel resentment and drive wedges in family relationships. Children are prone to draw their own comparisons anyhow. Whenever a parent or child verbalizes comparisons, usually one person feels hurt while the other feels superior. Verbalizing comparisons, even if accurate, almost always is unproductive. It’s best to keep impressions to ourselves.

Sometimes, one or both parents clearly favor one child or one child is a better farmer. It often is easier to settle family disputes when the resentments are out in the open because we all know what needs to be resolved.

Siblings who inherit this situation must be understanding toward the one getting the short end of the stick. Generosity toward that person wins respect and builds personal happiness.

We have to reach deep within ourselves to diminish our wish to compete, to recognize the strengths of our competitive siblings and to avoid hurting them, even when angry.

It takes sensitive understanding of our motives. It is easy to say or act out how we feel without considering the effects of our statements on the recipients.

It’s hard to be respectful when we argue, but when we follow guidelines for managing competitive urges, we can resolve differences with our siblings.

Resolving conflict

Here are guidelines for managing competitiveness that I have found useful in farm family situations:

•Admit you need to learn more during family discussions.

•Restrain from one-upping others in the family.

•If upset, ask for time to sort out your thoughts, but always come back to continue discussions.

•Find areas of personal interest that do not compete with your siblings, even if it means attending different social functions and engaging in different activities and friendships.

•Continue to honor family events such as weddings, holiday gatherings, birthdays and family traditions and behave civilly when together.

•When farming together, conduct business meetings regularly that follow rules of decorum.

•Recognize your sibling’s strengths and compliment him or her. Having siblings in the farm operation with diverse strengths can advance its overall success.

•Forming separate farming operations is an option if all else fails.

Eventually, competition dissolves and siblings can become friends who respect each other’s differences.

Editor’s Note: Rosmann is a clinical psychologist who manages a family farm near Harlan, Iowa.