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Family Conversations on Succession: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

22 May 2013

It is important for farm families to begin communicating early - before a crisis occurs; communicate effectively with active listening skills, and communicate often, to avoid misunderstanding. That is the top tip offered by JoAnn Alumbaugh (Alumbaugh Communications, Linden, Iowa) to the 2013 Kansas Swine Profitability Conference.

Farm families risk losing their farms when estate and farm succession planning is nonexistent or stalled. Everyone has a plan, whether “default” or “intentional”. The default plan is designed by the state law where the farm family lives and the property is located. The intentional plan is one designed by farm families to carry out their wishes.

Often families avoid planning in order to avoid conflict or facing mortality. It is widely recognised, however, that serious problems can arise for both generations if transfer and succession processes never begin or are never finalised. Proper ownership and management can allow for growth and profitability. That is why communication between and among farm family members is so important. Identifying issues, developing a plan that is both fair and equitable, and employing the right team of professionals early on in the process can help families realise their goals.

There are “good” communication skills and principles that can be employed to help families resolve conflict and reach workable solutions. And there are “bad” communication pitfalls and ugly examples of situations individuals and families fall into that keep them from reaching resolution.

Communication, although essential, is rarely easy, and sometimes those closest to us are the most difficult with which to have meaningful conversations. Individual differences in personality, style, skill and varying expectations will impact discussions with family members directly or indirectly. And when property and other assets come into the picture, a whole new set of dynamics can affect farm family issues and outcomes.

Sometimes you will find it is best to let issues rest before trying to communicate. Other times, however, issues cannot be allowed to rest because lack of communication can interfere with daily living. After all, every family is a team, and this is particularly true of families with farms. They must communicate effectively in order to manage their farms effectively.

Just as every person communicates and negotiates with co-workers, employees and other people with whom we come in contact, so do we communicate with family members. Members of farm families, whether involved in the day-to-day activities of the farm or not, are directly or indirectly affected by farm-family issues and decisions. Successful families operate systematically, much as do successful farms.

Each family member plays different roles in the family and in the management of the family farm. Each of these roles carries with it different responsibilities and expectations. But sometimes one person sees his or her roles and responsibilities in one way, while others see them very differently. Different perceptions and expectations can lead to a great deal of confusion and frustration.

Communication allows for discussion and clarification of roles, responsibilities, and expectations that can lead to more effective, collaborative, and supportive relationships within the family. And, when the farm family functions effectively, the farm business functions effectively.

Effective Communication

So, what is effective communication? More than anything else, it involves the utilisation of active listening skills. Active listening encourages others to continue interacting. As an active listener, you demonstrate your interest in what is being said using both verbal and nonverbal communication techniques and you open the door for others to begin using the same techniques. The goal is to Guide the family from Positions to Solutions – a directional GPS, so to speak. Let’s consider 10 key elements of “good” or effective communication through active listening:

  1. The Conversation Booster – Encourage families to set the tone with a question or comment that has an important purpose with no hidden agenda. Examples: “So, where should we begin?” “What else?” “Tell me more.” The goal is to focus on what’s really important to someone else and why by encouraging people to elaborate, add additional details and express emotions.
  2. Acknowledging and Showing Appreciation – When someone is angry or worried or unhappy with a situation, reflect back on what you heard and acknowledge the emotion. Expressing appreciation for someone’s participation in a difficult conversation can help build trust and sets a tone of respect.
  3. Asking Clarifying Questions, Carefully – Getting a person to elaborate with details often helps uncover more information and emotions.
  4. Frequent Summarization – When conversations get bogged down, everyone feels “stuck.” By summarizing what you’ve heard, you give everyone a chance to hear their own statements so they know they’re understood. It provides for validation and clarification, and it opens the floor to new ideas.
  5. Reframing – Things can get intense in family discussions – accusations, blame, perceived motives and insults can take over the conversation. A reframe focuses on interests and turns down the heat by removing judgments and inflammatory statements. It requires you to look for the underlying concerns and values that may be driving someone to make a challenging or upsetting statement.
  6. Using Technology Wisely – Technology can be a double-edged sword. While it can make communication more efficient, it also can make it more complicated. Since you don’t have the additional help of voice intonation or visual perception, messages are often misinterpreted. And people use it in different ways – some people check messages daily, others weekly, some not at all. It’s important that family members discuss this and determine a workable and reliable system for communicating.
  7. Introducing Optimism to Move the Conversation Forward – When families are in conflict, they may begin to lose hope – they may have even given up on the possibility of ever resolving a dispute. Help them think about things they’ve done well together in the past – what shared struggles or successes have they experienced together? And bring them back to their common interests, which might include fairness, Mom and Dad’s financial security, or parents’ health concerns. Common interests can be a source of encouragement when the discussion gets bogged down.
  8. Using Transparency to Build Trust – Openness and sincerity shows your willingness to express difficult thoughts and feelings. It opens the door for others to do the same. As hard as it might be, transparency opens the door to thoughtful, meaningful conversation.
  9. Use “And” Instead of “But” – “But” negates any positive comment that might have preceded it. Think about, “I love you but…” “I think you’ve done a great job, but…” We’ve all done it, and we’ve all heard it, and all we can think about is what came after the “but,” not what was said before it. Using “and” in a reframed sentence still makes your point but doesn’t negate the acknowledgement.
  10. Avoiding Toxic Questions and Comments – Help families think about the way they say things. People who use words like “always” or “never” make it difficult to move forward. You will need to help them rephrase and clarify to reach a more specific statement that deals directly with the issue at hand, without passing judgment or assigning blame. Avoid focusing on the negative and help families refrain from fueling animosities.

Other key factors in effective communication include:

Interpersonal skills

Interpersonal skills enable us to interact with others. Effective interpersonal communication involves putting people at ease, respecting others’ opinions and capabilities, and encouraging the sharing of feelings and perceptions.


To develop rapport with others is to develop a connection, a relationship or an understanding with them. To do this, individuals learn to “signal” that they are open to the thoughts and opinions of others. They express an interest in what others have to say in a friendly and open manner.

Tone of voice

Your tone of voice can determine the effect of your message. For example, if you try to communicate your anger or unhappiness but do so in a light and jovial manner, your listener will miss your point. Your tone of voice should match the message you are trying to convey. Varying the pitch to demonstrate excitement or disappointment can help your listener to hear the intent of the message. And sincerity is important at all times.

Non-verbal cues

Just as what you say and how you say it are important to effective communication, non-verbal cues can add or detract from a message. For example, leaning toward the speaker, nodding and smiling all convey interest in and understanding of what is being said. In contrast, looking away, shuffling your feet, looking at a watch or clock or cell phone or turning away when someone is speaking can be perceived as lack of interest or uneasiness with the person or message.

Beyond effective communication

At times, even effective communication fails to achieve a desirable outcome. In those cases, outside help, guidance or support is necessary. Families may seek support through church, a community agency or close friend. However, factors such as individual personality, upbringing and culture can influence how comfortable families feel sharing private concerns with others. For families conditioned to believe that personal problems should remain private, seeking outside help may seem virtually impossible.

Sometimes, it can help to think about reaching out as strength. Consider how you would feel if someone reached out to you in need. Reaching out to others can be a real comfort and help when times are tough. Many families find it helpful to ask one of the advisors we mentioned to serve as a meeting facilitator. Although it may seem like all of the answers should emanate from within the family, unbiased and objective viewpoints provide much-needed perspective and help to neutralise conflict. In fact, of all the people the author has talked with in preparation for this presentation, everyone who had a good succession plan in place had used the services of an outside advisor. Non-partial objectivity is an important component in developing a fair, equitable succession plan. Be the catalyst that opens up people’s feelings and thoughts about their parents and their family.

One of the most important steps is getting the right group of interested parties around the table. Start by defining “family”. Does it include blood relatives only? In-laws? Consider what role step-children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, cousins and others currently have, may have, or want to have in the future. Then identify which family members actually want to be successors, with hands-on responsibility for the business. Not every family member will be equally interested or qualified, and family farms usually don’t provide opportunities that fit everyone’s strengths and interests.

The Bad

Ron Hanson, an agribusiness professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an expert on succession from one generation to the next. He tells of sitting around a kitchen table with siblings who will not talk to each other. He relates how a family of five brothers and sisters were joined at the table by seven lawyers. You can imagine how that meeting turned out.

Professor Hanson says he would never have become a college ag economics professor and an expert in succession management if there had not been such discourse between his parents and his grandparents. He would have been farming the Illinois land on which two generations before him could not peacefully co-exist.

Sometimes rather simple misunderstandings as well as the stress of daily life on a farm can quite easily damage the personal and working relationships between family members farming together. Too often the inability to openly share personal feelings and the failure to discuss expectations can ruin any family relationship. This is most often caused by an actual breakdown in communications between family members, especially during periods of stress (i.e. whether financial, work or even personal) when individuals withdraw or hide emotions from each other.

The three most common communication complaints Professor Hansen hears from family members farming together are: (1) "He/she won't discuss his/her feelings with me." (2) "He/she tunes me out most of the time." and (3) "He/she has time to talk with everyone but me."

He recommends farm families work to:

  • develop good listening skills to overcome breakdowns in communications
  • find or make time to talk
  • block out surrounding distractions
  • be sensitive to the feelings of others
  • clearly understand the situation or circumstances involved
  • maintain a level of respect for the opinions of others.

Especially farmers, who are independent by nature, have the attitude that “I have to find a way to work this out by myself. I can’t let anyone know I have a problem or I am having trouble dealing with stress”. Some individuals will even withdraw and actually hide their feelings from others. Even when someone asks "what’s wrong, you seem troubled" the common reply is "nothing for you to worry about." This sense of isolation in a family or a marriage solves nothing. And not allowing others to help or share those feelings only makes matters worse, and can even result is a state of mental depression. The inability to cope with stress effectively and keep problems in a proper perspective is a common mistake in many family farming situations.

The Ugly

“My grandfather passed away a few years ago. He didn’t have a life insurance policy and there wasn't a good farm succession plan. Because of this, there has been fighting between the siblings. Three of them agree with what to do and one does not. I have lost an aunt, an uncle and many cousins due to the feud.”

“My father has a good succession plan in place but I still worry about what will happen after he’s gone. One of my four sisters has already said she wants her money right away – if any of the others do, there’s no way I can keep my part of the farm. There are times when I think it would be better if we were left with nothing.”

“Our dad is getting older but I can’t get him to talk about what he wants to see happen to the farm after he’s gone. My sister and I have tried to talk with our brother about it but he doesn’t want to address the situation either. Something is going to happen someday and the state will decide what happens to the farm.”

“A woman moved into our dad’s farmhouse to help take care of him. At first, we thought this was a good thing – she did light housework and was a companion. Well, the relationship went to a new level, at least in her mind. After a few years, we started to get suspicious of some of the advice she was giving our dad – like buying a house that she could live in – we found out she had been married six times previously and the family of the last man she lived with had to pay her $20,000 to get her out of the house. We didn’t want our dad to be taken advantage of, but we didn’t want to hurt his feelings either. He moved in with my brother so she had to find another place to live, but we still feel badly – what if she really did care for him?”

These common barriers can lead to Ugly situations:

  • lack of trust
  • different perceptions of fairness
  • multiple issues
  • poor communication
  • geographic dispersions
  • entrenched patterns
  • current family relationships
  • wealth disparities
  • styles of dealing with conflict
  • personality changes
  • complicated role reversals
  • passivity
  • relying on faulty assumptions
  • historical Impasses
  • emotional triggers and their responses

These obstacles must be overcome for families to develop relationships that allow them to move forward.

In summary, it is important for farm families to begin communicating early – before a crisis occurs; communicate effectively with active listening skills and communicate often to avoid misunderstanding.

But let us be honest – even the best situations are going to have issues. Some kids care more than others. Some care more about the farm and some care more about mom and dad, while other kids just see the money. Family dynamics, birth order and life experiences all play key roles in how family members communicate with each other.

Everyone needs to have realistic expectations of the issues that may arise when family members are encouraged and expected to speak freely, openly and respectfully. If disputes over the future of the farm are allowed to simmer, family unity and the long-term success of the farm deteriorate. The importance of focusing on a positive attitude and keeping "family" as the top priority in any farming situation cannot ever be overstated. Farms can be replaced, and there is a life after farming. But when you lose a family relationship between brothers and sisters, or fathers and sons, or destroy a marriage between a husband and wife who once loved each other and shared a dream together, you do not always get a second chance.


  1. Pritchett, J. (2000) Farm & Family Connections: Communication in the Family • ID-239
  2. Thoughts on Relationship Management. Unpublished Paper.
  3. Rausch, A. (1999). Communication and Stress: Enhancing Communication Skills. Purdue Cooperative Extension Service.
  4. Kardasis, A., Larsen, R, Thorpe, C, Trippe, B. (2011). Mom Always Liked You Best. Elder Decisions, a division of Agreement Resources, LLC.
  5. Fisher, R., Ury, W. (1981). Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. New York: Penguin. 1981.
  6. Lazare, A. (2004). On Apology. New York: Oxford University Press. 2004.
  7. Stone, F., Patton, B., Heen, S. (1999). Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. New York: Viking Penguin. Iowa State University Extension video.

Further Reading

You can find other papers presented at the 2013 Kansas State University Swine Profitability Conference by clicking here.

May 2013

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