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Corn+Soybean Digest

Mediation Matters

Conflict in your farm business is as predictable as tumbling crop prices following a Midwestern rain. It may be between you and an employee, a business partner, a supplier or within your family. But you know it's going to happen.

Unfortunately, your response is equally predictable. Every farm community has its stories of families who just don't get along. Wrenches get thrown. Pickups roar out of driveways. In worst-case scenarios, people play demolition derby with pickups and combines.

Faced with conflict, most of us choose either a "fight (meet force with force)" or "flight (try to escape)" posture, according to Dan Dana.

Dana is a professional mediator, consultant and author of the book, Managing Differences.

Cavemen survived if they chose the correct fight or flight option. But both choices are a lousy way to settle differences with co-workers or your family.

The best way to work out differences is to sit down and talk about them, a process Dana calls self-mediation. But the odds of doing it successfully are slim, unless you plan your approach in advance.

"You need to create a climate where both participants can express a shared interest in resolving the problem in a fair way," Dana says. "You need a shift in attitudes from you against me to us against the problem."

While Dana's book isn't written specifically for farmers, his approach to managing conflict works just as well in rural America as in the city.

The book outlines four basic steps to resolving conflict.

"It's a behavioral prescription that requires talking face-to-face about the issues on which you differ, without interruption, for as long as necessary to reach a breakthrough," Dana says.

* The first step is to set a time to talk about the issues causing conflict. "You need to have a conversation about having a conversation," he says. "Identify the subject that you want to talk about. Take care to state it in objective terms that don't imply blame or criticism." At the same time, establish when and where you will meet.

* The second step of Dana's self-mediation program is to plan the context, or the environment, of your meeting.

"You should plan the meeting in a private place that's free from interruptions such as phone calls, people walking by or even music playing," he says. "Discomforts can also distract. Set up your meeting in a place with comfortable furniture. You might want to have some non-alcoholic drinks available, but serving and eating food isn't a good idea.

"Farm businesses are less structured than most companies, so it's natural for the mediation steps to be less formal than in an office situation. You can approach it just as a way to have a conversation about a problem. The other person doesn't even need to know that it's a planned strategy."

* The third step is the most difficult one - talking out the problem. "Farmers typically are not a talking culture. The men want quick closure or answers," Dana says. "For the mediation process to work, you may have to stay in conversation longer than what's comfortable."

To get the conversation started, Dana suggests you state your appreciation for the other person's willingness to meet and express optimism for a solution. Then invite that person to tell his or her side of the conflict.

No one is comfortable about discussing conflicts. So it's easy to get sidetracked and avoid the real issue.

"Common lapses that can cause mediation to fail include talking about irrelevant subjects (the weather, crop prices, current events), talking about other people, telling jokes, giving up or simply falling silent and refusing to continue the discussion," Dana says. "If that happens, you have to redirect the conversation back to the conflict that needs to be resolved."

He suggests three negotiating skills that will make your discussion more likely to succeed. They are listening, negotiation and assertiveness.

"If talking and listening are the two acts of oral communication, listening is the nobler half. You need to keep steady eye contact, don't interrupt, don't give advice, summarize what you've heard and make reflective statements that show you understand how the other person feels.

"As you negotiate a solution, you need to: a) separate the person from the problem; b) discuss each other's interests in the conflict, not your positions; c) look for options with mutual gain and; d) look for objective criteria to use in solving the conflict.

"And third, be assertive. That's different from aggressive. Assertive behavior insists on your rights without violating the other person's rights."

It's not an easy process. "There are no smooth avenues of discussion in conflict," Dana says. "Just do your best with the skills you have gained in life."

* The fourth step of self-mediation is to cut a deal that will end the conflict.

"On occasion, you'll reach a deal that doesn't require concessions from either person involved," Dana says. "But, more likely, you'll need to look for a solution where each person has an incentive to do his or her part in the future. An unbalanced agreement is a short-lived agreement.

"When you have reached an agreement, it should include verifiable behavior changes, it should outline each person's responsibilities in solving the conflict and it should be written, with each person receiving a copy."

Dana's book covers all aspects of self-mediation in detail. You can get a copy by calling MTI Publications at 816-776-3006, or go online at

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