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Five important concepts for effective family communication

Progressive Dairyman Editor Emily Gwin Published on 15 December 2016

Research reveals that families tend to postpone difficult communication, particularly topics that involve multiple generations of a family, like caregiving. This delay of tough discussion often leads to poor decision-making, especially during times of crisis.

At the 2016 Pennsylvania Women in Dairy Conference held Nov. 2 in Harrisburg, Penn State professor Matt Kaplan presented tips for facilitating farm succession discussions. Kaplan specializes in intergenerational programs and aging in the department of agricultural economics, sociology and education.

Kaplan said family members should develop five concepts for effective communication:

1. Frequent

Kaplan recommended dairy producers set aside a specific day and time on a regular basis to discuss issues related to passing on the family business. They should document decisions and unresolved issues.

“Some families do this weekly as part of a family meal,” Kaplan said.

2. Ongoing

Kaplan said it’s important to start these meetings as early as possible and keep having them until all issues have been resolved and a written plan has been completed.

“It may take several meetings – even years in some cases – to accomplish this,” Kaplan said. “Stay with it until you have a plan.”

3. Participatory

Even family members as young as 10 years old should be allowed to participate in these meetings, Kaplan said. And everyone should be allowed to express opinions and expectations.

“We’re not talking about equal partners here,” Kaplan explained. “We’re talking about junior partners.”

He asked the audience at what age children should be allowed to participate in meetings.

“From birth,” replied one dairywoman. “We encourage the children to be at these meetings. Even while they’re playing, they recognize the importance of the family getting together to discuss these issues.”

4. Explicit

It’s vital that everyone is able to express their feelings and expectations clearly, Kaplan said.

“Don’t assume others know what you mean or want,” he said. “These are hard conversations to have but key to making sure everyone is on the same page.”

5. Concrete

Kaplan urged that decisions should be put down on paper so everyone can read through and decide whether or not they agree. Examples of concrete documents include wills, estate plans, financial documents, organizational charts and job descriptions.

Kaplan said with more communication and shared decision-making comes less conflict and greater cohesion among the family members. Families also report less stress and more satisfaction with their farm lives and relationships.  end mark

Matt Kaplan can be contacted via email, and more information about Penn State’s intergenerational programs is available at the Penn State Extension website.

Emily Gwin
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