Fall 1985 // Volume 23 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA5

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It's Not All Peaceful in the Country

Communication skills to deal with farm stress.

Roger T. Williams
Associate Professor, Health Education
University of Wisconsin - Madison

More than 2,000 family farms disappeared in Wisconsin in 1984.1 They disappeared for a number of reasons, but farm stress and the ability of farm families to communicate with each other about these stressors were significant contributing factors.

Farm Stressors

External Farm Stressors

The farm family of today faces a whole range of stressors not experienced by most people in other occupations. The big two are: (1) the capital intensive nature of farming (high debt load, high cost of financing, profits plowed back into the farm operation, lack of a regular cash flow) and (2) the uncertainty of farming (disease, crop failure, farm prices, government subsidy programs, and the weather).

These conditions are compounded by the stress of meeting seasonal deadlines (planting, harvesting), the danger of farm accidents, the tension of working side-by-side with family members, the tensions of dealing with farm and off-farm work, the difficulty of finding time for family vacations, and the incredible difficulties associated with intergenerational farm transfers.

Interpersonal Farm Stressors

A major problem is the stress created by communication difficulties. If communication difficulties exist within the farm family or between the families involved in a partnership or corporation, it can intensify the other stressors and lead to a break-up of the farm business. Intergenerational (typically father-son) arrangements are especially vulnerable-there's often a history of repressed conflicts or tensions and anger may be close to the surface, just waiting to find an emotional outlet.

These intergenerational communication problems frequently emerge because the father in a father-son partnership continues to treat the son as a child long after the son has reached adulthood. The father may take sole responsibility for decision making, barking orders to the son, rather than conferring with him on an adult-to-adult basis. As a result, the son feels put down and diminished, clearly aware that he isn't a full-fledged partner in the partnership arrangement.

When this parent-child style of communication continues over an extended period of time, the son becomes resentful and angry. The resentment begins to emerge in small, subtle ways: sarcasm, nit-picking, criticism, the stoney glare. If these early warning signals aren't heeded, tension can escalate to the point of outright conflict. Somewhere along the way, the father and son become "fixated on the negative." Each comes to see only the negative qualities in the other person-these become exag gerated way out of proportion, while the positive qualities are almost totally overlooked. If conflict reaches this stage, the farm business is almost certainly doomed to failure.

Helping Farm Families Communicate

Through educational workshops and on-farm consultations, Extension agents can help farm families communicate more effectively. This can result in: (1) more problem solving to deal with farm stressors and (2) less conflict and, as a result, fewer farm break-ups due to non-financial reasons.

Communication can be improved if farm families understand a basic concept analogous to their work: interpersonal issues are like weeds–they don't go away unless you cultivate or spray them and, if left alone, they can choke out the crop. Beyond this understanding are specific communication skills that can be encouraged, taught, and modeled. The ones listed below grew out of two seminars offered by the University of Wisconsin Dairy Science Department-held in January, 1985–and attended by nearly 200 Wisconsin farm family members.

Extension agents can incorporate these concepts as a major component of farm stress workshops or more generalized programs offered in their counties. The concepts can also be discussed as part of newly initiated farm and family financial counseling efforts, such as Wisconsin's Strategies on Survival Program.

  • Encourage farm families to watch for early warning signals that conflict is just around the corner.2

    External signals include sarcasm, teasing, nit-picking, criticism, yelling, avoidance, and the stoney, silent glare. Internal signals include accelerated heart rate, faster and shallower breathing, increased muscle tension, butterflies in the stomach, and cold, clammy hands. These internal signals indicate that the body is under stress. Extension agents can help farm families recognize these early warning signals, pay attention to them, and take some action to head off future conflict.

  • Urge families to look deep inside to find what they're thinking, feeling, wanting, and doing.3

    These four dimensions of personality frequently become buried, and then individuals become resentful or angry that their personal needs aren't being met. The Extension agent can help farm family members get in touch with each of these dimensions as soon as they sense they're involved in conflict with another member of the farm team. Questions can be used to focus the issue: What thoughts are going through your mind right now? What feelings are you experiencing? What is it that you want in this situation? What are you willing to do to resolve the situation?

  • Encourage individuals in farm families to share something of themselves - to disclose what they're sensing, thinking, feeling, wanting, and doing.4

    One of the biggest problems in communication is not knowing what the other person is feeling, what that person wants, or what that person's willing to do to resolve the situation. The "wanting" and "doing" are especially important because they suggest constructive action. The Extension agent can help farm families express these things by encouraging the use of such phrases as "I sense that we're in conflict over this issue." "I'm concerned (or worried, anxious, afraid) about it." "Here's what I'm thinking about the issue." "What would make me happy is ______. " "I will do ______ to resolve this issue."

  • Promote the use of active listening in farm families.5

    Active listening involves paraphrasing or restating the other person's ideas and feelings in the listener's own words. It's a way of drawing out the other person and checking on whether the listener really heard what the speaker was saying. The active listener avoids evaluating what the other person has said and refrains from blaming, interpreting, persuading, or giving advice to the other person. He or she simply feeds the message back in a caring way that encourages a response. Extension agents can help families develop active listening skills by urging the use of such phrases as "I hear you saying ______" "It sounds like you ______." "You seem to be feeling ______."

  • Encourage families to transform negative self-talk into positive self-talk.6

    People undergoing stress often talk to themselves in negative ways. They may even catastrophize about the situation: "I'm going to lose the farm and everything else-my life is all washed up"' When one hears such negative chatter going on inside, it's important to turn the self-talk around and use more nurturing and empowering phrases. An example is: "I'm experiencing a great deal of stress right now, but I can handle it. I just need to take it one step at a time." Extension agents can help farm families understand that negative self-talk intensifies the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, while positive self-talk can empower people and lead them to take appropriate actions.

  • When individuals are experiencing anger, urge them to count to 10. . . or 50. . . or 1,000, and then report this anger to the other person.7

    The two most common forms of dealing with anger - burying it and exploding at others - aren't very effective. Burying it hurts the individual who's angry and exploding at others hurts those other people. By stopping for a moment (or a few hours), the individual who's angry can get on top of his or her feelings and then reportthis anger to other people in ways that encourage a positive response. The Extension agent can help by suggesting words that allow others to respond: "John, I was angry at you when you ______. I don't like feeling that way. What can we do to resolve this issue?"

  • Advocate using one-minute criticisms as a way of expressing interpersonal gripes in farm families.8

    One-minute criticisms (delivered in a minute or less) allow individuals to surface their concerns and feelings without demeaning or demoralizing the other person. Extension agents should emphasize the following guidelines for using one-minute criticisms: (1) focus on the other person's behavior (what's bugging you), (2) do it soon, (3) express your true feelings (if angry or resentful, say so), (4) stop for a moment of silence, (5) emphasize that you value the other person, (6) give support through touch, (7) allow time for the other person to respond, and (8) recognize that the criticism is over.

  • Promote the use of one-minute praisings as a way of demonstrating support and caring in families.9

    A supportive, caring family will be in a much better position to deal with conflict when it does arise. One-minute praisings provide other people with positive feedback on something they've done-it's one of the best tools for strengthening an individual's self-concept and for creating a supportive climate within the farm family. Guidelines to be kept in mind for one-minute praisings are: (1) focus on the other person's behavior (what you liked or appreciated); (2) do it soon, (3) express your true feelings (if happy, say so!), (4) stop for a moment of silence, (5) emphasize that you value the other person, (6) give support through touch, and (7) encourage more of the same behavior.

  • Promote adult-to-adult problem solving in farm businesses that involve intergenerational arrangements.10

    Significant problems arise when a parent treats a son or daughter as a child when that person is an adult. As Extension agents, you can discourage such parent-type actions as finger pointing, head shaking, and use of such evaluative words as "always," "never," "remember," "you ought to know better," and "if I were you." You can also urge both parties in the relationship to treat each other as adults and to enter into a mutual problem-solving process that involves: (1) a clear definition of the problem, (2) a look at what options are available, and (3) the choice of a specific course of action.

    Address Conflict Head On

    One important principle should be kept in mind when dealing with farm family communication: minor issues can escalate into major conflicts within a short period of time. Thus, it's important to encourage farm families to deal with issues when they first arise-when there's: (1) a low level of emotions, (2) little distortion of the other person's position, (3) a reasonable level of trust between the individuals, (4) a willingness to listen, and (5) a commitment to resolve differences and maintain the relationship.

    If conflict reaches the stage where there's a high level of emotions and distortion of the other's position, a low level of trust, and a desire to win, to get even, or to hurt the other person, then there's little hope of resolving the issue. If Extension agents can help farm families communicate more effectively, they can help keep farm families intact and farm businesses afloat.

    Think about the urgency of this issue and then ask yourself: "What can I, as an Extension agent, do to foster better communication among farm families?"


    1. David Blaska, "Why Is It We Didn't Notice 2,000 Farms Went Under in 1984?" The Capital Times [Madison, Wisconsin], January 18, 1985, p. 13.
    2. Sherod Miller and others, Straight Talk: A New Way To Get Closer to Others by Saying What You Really Mean (New York: Rawson, Wade Publishers, 1981).
    3. Ibid.
    4. Sidney Jourard, The Transparent Self (New York: D. Van Nostrand Company, 1971).
    5. Miller and others, Straight Talk.
    6. Charles Zastrow, Talk to Yourself: Using the Power of Self-Talk (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: PrenticeHall, 1979).
    7. Carol Tavris, Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982).
    8. Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, The One-Minute Manager (New York: Berkley Books, 1981).
    9. Ibid.
    10. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk (New York: Avon Books, 1980).