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Family Business Matters       03/13 08:28

   When Both Sides Are Right

   Family businesses are no stranger to conflict. It is bound to happen with 
the different roles people play, the history of family relationships, the 
transitions family members go through at various life stages and the 
uncertainty of work in an ag environment. Empathy is a powerful tool to help 
understand another's actions.

By Lance Woodbury
DTN Farm Business Adviser

   I remember a situation many years ago in which a son told his "retired" 
father to stop interfering in the business, and he threatened to call the 
sheriff the next time Dad set foot on the ranch. Calling law enforcement? That 
sounded so extreme, I thought. But then I came to see the reasons why the son 
might resort to such alarming talk. 

   Even though the retirement transition had occurred some years ago, the son 
felt that Dad would not let go, that the farm's performance was always being 
scrutinized and judged. Dad's interference and seeming criticism was, he felt, 
another significant stressor at a time when crop and livestock prices, weather 
and interest rates were all working against him. He wanted to run the business 
on his own, to show he was indeed capable of making good decisions and could 
succeed without help.


   However, as I considered Dad's perspective, I could understand his behavior, 
too. Dad was stronger financially and thought he could help during a tough 
economic time by being an extra, no-cost set of eyes, ears and hands in the 
operation. He even gave the employees some extra cash as a bonus to encourage 
them to work hard. And, his years of farming and livestock wisdom, he thought, 
could be valuable as his son navigated difficult circumstances. How could this 
helpful approach undermine his son, he wondered? He had the best of intentions.

   Dad and son both wanted the best for the farm and probably even agreed on 
many of the goals. Yet, their patterns of communication and behavioral choices 
produced significant conflict. In many respects, they were both right and both 
wrong. What they wanted and how they acted were simultaneously justified and 

   Family businesses are no stranger to this kind of conflict. It is bound to 
happen with the different roles people play, the history of family 
relationships, the transitions family members go through at various life stages 
and the uncertainty of work in an agricultural environment. The complexity of 
these intermingling dynamics creates multiple prospects for misunderstanding.


   A significant step in reducing the impact of such conflicts is to have a 
sense of empathy for other family members. Empathy is defined as the ability to 
understand another's feelings, to comprehend their perspective. It is the 
ability to see the world from their eyes, and it allows us to build and restore 
relationships with others. In recent years, an increasing number of researchers 
and authors point to empathy as one of the most important skills in business.

   Particularly in a family business, one must use empathy to see why someone 
might have chosen a particular course of behavior. That is, amid being 
offended, can you identify with the other person's feelings, understand the 
assumptions they made and see why they chose to behave a certain way? Surely, 
this must be one of the most difficult yet important skills required of a 
family business partner.

   Understanding the behavior of someone is not the same as forgiving the 
behavior. Having empathy for another is not to excuse their actions. They (or 
you) may still need to apologize or make amends, admit wrongdoing and commit to 
different communication strategies.

   But understanding why your loved one made the choices they did opens the 
opportunity for dialogue. It demonstrates care for the other person. In a way, 
it sets the table for a discussion, and that discussion can, in turn, lead to a 
renewed chance to work together. 

   The next time you find yourself in a difficult family business situation, 
consider your ability to empathize with the other. 

   Empathy alone does not resolve a conflict, but it paves the road for 


   Editor's Note: Lance Woodbury is a Garden City, Kansas, author, consultant 
and professional mediator with more than 20 years' experience specializing in 
agriculture and closely held businesses. Email questions for this column to 
Lance@agprogress.com. For more on this topic, see DTN's Minding Ag's Business 
blog. Find Woodbury's past columns online at 


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