As seen in the Tried & True Winter 2022 issue

For new farmers looking to invest in land, the task can feel daunting. Pressures abound, like finding the perfect plot, the purchase price, competing with those who have deeper pockets in a volatile market, There are a million ways to invest in the family farm, whether it’s technology, machinery, or staff. But there’s one way that doesn’t cost a dime, and pays out dividends for years to come: listening. It’s an art that most people haven’t mastered, yet is essential for a healthy farm and family. 


Most people believe they’re decent listeners. Maybe not the best, but they literally hear what people are saying and try not to ignore them. However, it turns out that truly good listening skills aren’t practiced by most people. There’s a huge chasm between hearing the words people say and listening to what they’re saying in order to fully understand them. 

One of the main reasons is that human brains process thoughts at a rate far greater than people speak. So even while hearing the words at a normal speed, the brain is doing countless other things because it has the time and capacity to do so. It’s easy to get distracted by other concerns, get too focused on one thing the other person said or start crafting a story to tell once someone else is finished. 

Or take things from the other side of the coin. When asked to think about the last time they felt really, truly heard many people would go blank. It’s a rare occurrence for someone to not just hear the words to them, but echo them back, ask specific questions, and communicate that they understood. Which means when it does happen, it means the world. 


Farms, especially family farms, mean a lot of verbal, informal communication. It’s easy for the lines to be blurred between work and family life, and it can feel like there’s mutual understanding between family members even when things aren’t directly spoken.

The downside is that the same lack of separation between work and home means that tensions from work spill into family life and vice versa. Plus, when family members have different roles within a family corporation, there can be a lot of unspoken conflict around roles and responsibilities. 

That makes communication — and especially listening — critical to running a successful farm and ensuring everyone’s on the same page. 


So what does it mean to listen well? 

Active listening means focusing on what the person is saying, and then restating what they just said through repetition or paraphrasing. It may feel unusual or uncomfortable at first, but it’s incredibly effective at making them feel heard. It’s important to do so without putting additional judgements or interpretations onto what they said. 

Remember that the brain is moving faster than the conversation. Though at first that fact can be a detriment to a conversation, when wielded to listen better it can provide a huge advantage to the listener. Rather than using that space to think about other things, that additional space can be used to go beyond just hearing the facts to understanding where they’re coming from, the bigger ideas they’re trying to convey, and what questions come up along the way. It’s work at first, but becomes second-nature with enough practice. 


Aside from simply listening better, there are many helpful ways of encouraging good communication around the family farm.

  1. Say it Out Loud

Whether it’s something someone did well, or a concern about someone’s work, it’s far better to say it out loud rather than keep hidden. People want to hear the good things people are thinking about them. And burying a conflict only leads to resentment. 

  1. Schedule Meetings

It may seem unnecessary to hold formal meetings on a close-knit farm, but it’s essential to making sure everyone is on the same page. Discuss what’s happening that week, give updates on progress, and resolve issues that come up. 

  1. Write it Down

Verbal communication works for a lot of things. But for the most important policies, plans, and procedures, make sure it’s written down and accessible to everyone. It makes sure everyone is explicitly informed and avoids arguments down the road. 

  1. Make Time for Being Together

Especially during busy seasons, don’t forget the importance of making time to simply enjoy one another as family. Have dinner once a week and try as much as possible to forget about the daily stressors of the farm. 

  1. Talk Adult-to-Adult

It’s easy to fall into the role of parent, child or sibling when interacting with family. But it’s critical to treat each other as adults first when a problem arises. The last thing that will help is bringing family roles and conflicts into the mix.

The benefits of active listening and good communication go well beyond interpersonal relationships. Productivity, efficiency, problem solving, and conflict resolution will all benefit well into the future when everyone commits to really hearing what others have to say. 

Sources: Family Farms Group, Michigan State University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, AgriLegacy, The Life Adventure and Harvard Business Review