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How emotions affect farm and ranch succession

Tough Decisions: When communication or negotiations break down, think about the five emotional 'blockages.'

October 28, 2019

3 Min Read
Farmland with silos in the background
EMOTIONS RUN HIGH: Emotions can run high during discussions about farm and ranch estate planning. If things go wrong and people become upset, they likely will withdraw from the dialogue.Tyler Harris

By Allan Vyhnalek

Whenever a family has a discussion about agricultural estate planning, conversations can become emotionally charged. If things go wrong and people are upset, they likely will withdraw from the dialogue or leave the gathering altogether.

When communication or negotiations break down, one way to help is to think about the five emotional "blockages." These are appreciation, affiliation, autonomy, status and role.

Let's examine each to see how these emotions can interfere with a family moving forward:

Appreciation. All people really want is to be appreciated. Always ask yourself, "Are you really listening?" Seek first to understand, before you can be understood. That is easy to say but harder to live. If participants are not being listened to, they feel undervalued and left out of the conversation. Be sure to listen to understand. Do not listen just to criticize what the other party is saying.

And do not listen while thinking about what you are going to say next. Find merit with the other party's position, and prove you are listening and understanding what they are trying to say. Ask clarifying questions to improve your understanding of the information that you are receiving.

Affiliation. When there is a conversation, are all parties in the conversation being treated as colleagues or as family? Or are we treating them like adversaries? Many of us learned how to negotiate from our parents, believing we have to "win" while the other party loses. These learned techniques came from buying machinery, purchasing livestock and other inputs for the operation.

There are several examples of farmers who keep negotiating on a piece of machinery, working over the salesperson until they "win." These learned techniques probably are not the best strategies for dealing with family. Do you need to win? That means someone else may feel as though they lost. When dealing with family, do not treat them as adversaries. Treat them as you'd want to be treated — as family. That approach will require a different mindset.

Autonomy. Are you free to make decisions or are you being blocked? Be careful to say that someone is in charge, only to criticize or undermine decisions they have made. Sometimes autonomy is blocked by accident. This failure usually goes back to poor or failed communication. Autonomy is a two-way street, lined with respect and good communication.

Status. Are all participants being treated as equals? If there are participants feeling as if they do not have equal status, then their attitude and participation may be affected. It makes some feel inferior and can affect self-esteem. Treat everyone with respect. Be courteous to all participants. Don't get caught up with the social status of participants.

Role. All participants should be satisfied with the role that they have within the business. A fulfilling role has three qualities: a clear purpose, it is personally meaningful, and it is not a pretense. If there are participants who do not have a fulfilling role, they will not feel as though they can make an effective contribution.

For the emotions of autonomy, status and role, women and the younger generation may feel as if they have been disenfranchised from the process because they are not being treated fairly. When families meet, the younger generations and the women need to be fairly included in the conversation and negotiation.

It is hard in some cases to have families positively work on farm and ranch succession plans.  When there is trouble, review the five potential blockages that, if not considered properly, can be the reason that emotions derail progress for the family to succeed in its operation.

Vyhnalek is a Nebraska Extension farm succession educator.

The article is adapted from the book, "Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate," by Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro, published by Penguin Books in 2006.

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