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How family members can have tough conversations and still like each other.

Tim Schaefer, Founder

January 29, 2020

5 Min Read

Conflict is often viewed as negative but not having the right kind of conflict, often leads to bad conflict later.

In an earlier article, we discussed the importance of having trust amount your leadership and owner team. Your farm team may be open and honest with each other, trusting, but do you talk about tough issues or dodge them? What will happen if the issues never get resolved because no one wants to tackle the tough topic? Can the farm move ahead without dealing with the sticky issues?  

Many farms do not tackle the tough topics. Instead, farms often have some sort of artificial harmony. Everything is good. Everyone is good. We all get along all the time. We all agree on all things.


In Minnesota, we have taken artificial harmony to new heights and have even named it. We call it Minnesota Nice and it usually creates problems by masking issues.

Let’s look at a typical farm and how artificial harmony is rooted in a fear of conflict. Now before we go much farther, what do I mean by the ability to conflict?

Mastering conflict is the ability to have tough conservations and solve controversial challenges without destroying personal relationships and losing momentum.

Unfortunately, mastering conflict is hard and sometimes lacking in the family-owned business. Instead, a similar scenario sometimes plays out.

The son, father, and uncle all farm together. They are in the steady growth mode and the farm is going to be passed onto the nephew someday. The son and his wife would like to know how this transition will happen but don’t feel entitled to bring it up. They built a shop and the most logical place to put the new shop was near the machine shed on the main farm where nephew lives.

However, Uncle wanted the shop near his house so he could walk there. Uncle and Dad got into an argument and since Uncle yelled the loudest, the shop was built near his house.

They have been having meetings off and on (mostly off) but the son isn’t comfortable and tries to find an excuse to miss or leave the meetings early. The meetings don’t cover anything important because no one wants to talk about certain tough topics, such as transition planning. The topics were brought up once but it didn’t go well so no one wants to open that can of worms.

The farm is stuck because they haven’t mastered conflict around important topics.

What are some common symptoms to look for unhealthy conflict? Here are a few.

  • Making political decisions (like where to put the shop)

  • Masking true thoughts with sarcasm

  • Beating around the bush with tough topics

  • Silence at meetings or not showing up for meetings

  • Too much time managing egos instead of solving problems

  • Quiet tension at meetings

  • Infrequent meetings where topics are tabled indefinitely.

Whether a farm is large or whether it is small, changing how a family and farm deals with conflict is never easy. Old habits and traits are hard to break.

Yet, it is possible to break the mold.

The cure to mastering conflict

  1. Build trust – If your team isn’t able to trust enough to be genuine and open with each other on unimportant topics, build trust first. Here’s how.

  2. Emotions - Deals with emotional issues before the emotions become THE issue and the real issue is impossible to solve.

  3. Root issues - Focuses on the root issue, not the symptoms. For example, when the son doesn’t show up for meetings that is a symptom, not the root problem. The root issue could be several things such as his immaturity in dealing with conflict, a low threshold for conflict, he is not skilled at communicating his thoughts, or that he feels threatened by uncles' personality.

  4. Consistent meetings – Most farmers dislike meetings and for good reason. They often run too long, with too many topics. Scheduling short but consistent meetings with one or two topics are paramount to working through tough issues. Long meetings that occur haphazardly are seldom the answer.

  5. Agree you will disagree – It sounds simple and it is. Before an issue arises, agree that your owner/leadership team is going to disagree. You will disagree and that’s a good thing because you don’t want to get stuck with taboo topics. In a sense, you will agree that you will at times disagree but never ignore tough topics.

  6. Look for trouble – Don’t assume that just because no one is visibly upset everything is fine. Don’t fear to ask others what they are thinking, what’s going through their minds, how they are holding up, etc. People that ask input build trust and it takes trust to solve tough topics.

Solving tough topics is, well, tough. It isn’t easy and many farms stay stuck, unable to move ahead and unable to maintain the status quo. I believe many farms don’t have hard conversations because they haven’t first built enough trust. But for those farms that have tough conversations, solve problems, all while still maintaining friendly relations; it is an advantage that will flow to the bottom line year after year. 

The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or Farm Progress. 

About the Author(s)

Tim Schaefer

Founder, Encore Wealth Advisors

Tim Schaefer guides large, successful farm operations, helping them get and keep a competitive edge. His tools are peer groups via the Encore Executive Farmer Network, transition planning, business growth planning, and executive coaching. His print column, Transitions & Strategies, appears regularly in Farm Futures and online at He is a Certified Family Business Advisor, Certified Business Coach and Certified Financial Planner. Raised on a successful family farm, his first business venture was selling sweet corn door to door with an Oliver 70.

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