Well, it sure has been a long haul with this pandemic, hasn’t it?
I wonder what the world is going to look like in six months. Will we all remember how to socialize in real life once we re-emerge from these cycles of lockdowns and semi-lockdowns? Will we regain ground on the mental health front? Will public discourse start to improve?
One blessing for me has been the conversations I’ve had with readers over the winter and early spring. It’s not really a substitute for talking in person but it has been rewarding. We’ve set up an editorial board for the magazine comprising people (mostly producers) from across the country, and I was blown away by the insight and nuance everyone brought to the first conversations. I’ve also had some interesting conversations with readers and felt like I’d learned something by the close of each of those chats. I’m always glad when people care enough about the magazine to contact me, even if it’s with a criticism of an opinion or story in the magazine. Often what starts with a criticism turns into a great conversation.
It’s not always acknowledged or obvious to outsiders, but there is diversity built into our industry. It’s something that’s come to the forefront in the conversations I’ve had with producers and others in the industry lately. There’s a diversity of opinions on everything from American and Canadian politics to approaches to production. There is also diversity in our experiences; much of my experience as an elder millennial woman in ag media will not be the same as a Gen-X male journalist, nor will it be the same as a female reporter 15 years younger than me, or even necessarily as someone the same age. The same goes for beef producers of different ages, from different regions, of different genders or sexual orientations, etc.… Then we can get into people into regenerative, holistic, organic, or, for lack of a better word, “regular” beef production. And then we have people in different breed camps, and so forth. If we expand this into other parts of the industry, such as the people conducting research, running or working in meat plants, administering check-off funded programs and so forth, we’ll find much more diversity.
With all these differences, it’s no wonder we don’t always see eye to eye in this fascinating industry. Conflict is often viewed as unhealthy and undesirable, and we’ve sure seen some examples of that in the last year. But it’s also true that if managed well, it can lead to growth, to new and better ideas and ways of doing things. Imagine where we would be today if, 100 years ago, everyone had decided the way they were doing things was just fine and didn’t need to change at all. Some pressure is a good thing.
But I will also admit freely that I don’t really like conflict and am not especially good at handling it. I am perhaps marginally better than I was 15 years ago, though. I’ve learned there are options other than “winning” the argument or avoiding the subject completely. I think it helps to hang around a few people who are good at handling conflict and watch what they do, but there are good books on the subject, too. I also think it’s just one of the things in life most of us aren’t great at to start with, but all of us can get better at it if we try. Maybe, eventually, it becomes like muscle memory.
Back in March, Dr. Jody Carrington addressed attendees of the Alberta Farm Animal Care Conference. Carrington is a psychologist in the Olds, Alberta area. She has a very memorable coffee mug that she will slyly display during virtual talks and a wicked sense of humor. She is also, in my opinion, excellent at unpacking concepts around mental and social well-being in an engaging way.
Carrington told us that day that acknowledgment was the one concept we should tuck into our Carhartts and take home. That can mean a tip of the hat to someone who’s done well, or recognition that someone has been hurt. It can also mean acknowledging your appreciation of someone else, remembering birthdays (something I’m personally not great at), etc.…
One important thing to keep in mind is that an acknowledgment is not a one-and-done-type deal. Carrington used the example of telling your spouse you love them on your wedding day, and never saying it again — not an effective way to build a lasting relationship.
The idea of acknowledgment carries into other situations, too. The B.C. Agriculture Council has created a communications workshop for producers who want to engage with the public. Part of that workshop includes a strategy to avoid becoming defensive or offended during conversations, an approach they’ve named CHAT. CHAT stands for: Check your reactions; Hear what they are really saying; Acknowledge and ask questions; Tell your story. I have to think this same approach would serve us well in many situations outside the “talking to consumers” context. Imagine using it at least to some extent on boards, within families or at the workplace.
I will acknowledge that there are a few situations where a softer approach isn’t preferable. For example, a few years back, I was a witness for the Crown in a trial at the local Legion. For the most part, it bore little resemblance to Law and Order. But just as you’d see on TV, the cross-examination was designed to poke holes in my testimony. The lawyer for the defence was definitely not following the CHAT approach and was certainly not trying to acknowledge my experience. So acknowledging another point of view is not necessarily going to be productive in a courtroom or perhaps other similar settings, where each side is trying to win an argument. I also doubt there’s much point in employing it during a debate with an animal rights activist who is against raising livestock for food, as there likely aren’t enough shared values on that topic (but perhaps someone will prove me wrong one day).
There are also people who love a good debate, who will play devil’s advocate just for fun. I am one of those people, to a certain extent. But I can also tell you that being cross-examined did not win me over to the defence’s side, so there is little point in taking a debate that far in most real-life situations. Plus, real life is not a courtroom, and people generally don’t have to put up with an argumentative approach outside of the legal system. Know your audience.
I am also going to point out that you always have the option to walk away from someone who is cross-examining you (unless you’re on the stand). Good fences make good neighbours, they say, and a good fence is just another word for a boundary.
But I think we need to remember that diversity of experience and opinion can be a very good thing for our farms and ranches, our industry and our society as a whole. If we want to make that work for us, we need to drop the “win the argument” mentality more often and start by acknowledging those different viewpoints.