Giving advice to farmers is an essential daily part of a farm vet’s job. Preferably, this is not unsolicited advice; it is always better to have the farmer actively seek your help (ask for it). This is more likely if you can conduct the right kind of conversation, and make yourself very approachable and open.

Sometimes, though, it is necessary to give unsolicited advice. This can be done, but an essential rule is to ask permission before doing so. This is polite and also less likely to fall on deaf (defensive) ears. It is highly unlikely that you will be refused permission.

I have written this blog to share some of the secrets I have learnt over the years about giving advice and positioning yourself so your advice is most likely to be received favourably.

CHER

Though never a fan of this “Goddess of Pop”, I do find her name is a handy acronym to help remember some important communication values, particularly when delivering some tough love:

Clarity

Honesty

Empathy

Respect

Clarity

On a simple level, clarity can mean not beating around the bush: say it how it is using language which can be understood. However, clarity of message also means you need to check understanding. It is human nature, isn’t it, that we often hear what we want to hear, not what someone has just said to us? And different people perceive different realities from the same basic facts. So always ask reflective questions to see whether you and your farmer are vaguely on the same page. Some examples might be:

“What do you think you might do with that information?”

“What’s your next steps?”

“What are your thoughts on what we have just discussed?”

“How would you feel about explaining that to your staff?”

 

Avoid:

“Did you understand that?”

“Is that OK?”

These latter closed questions (yes or no responses) are less likely to elicit a truthful response or allow your farmer to elaborate on their understanding than the former open questions (which can’t be answered by yes or no).

As well as asking for a bit of reflection from your farmer, do some reflecting of your own. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has found myself completely misunderstanding a farmer’s concern? Check out this example:

Farmer: “My vet bill is going through the roof at the moment. I’m not happy.”

There are various responses you could offer here. Though tempting, it probably wouldn’t be good to ignore the farmer’s concerns and switch the conversation to football or local gossip. Nor would it be a good idea to go on the defensive or attack.

It isn’t actually clear why the farmer is not happy. You might assume it is because he thinks you are charging too much, when in fact he’s fed up that he’s having too much mastitis, for example, and would welcome your help to solve it.

A good reflective response is not necessarily to ask a further question, but to take a punt at what you think he means, paraphrasing what he’s said in your own words:

Vet: “Our prices are certainly pretty high. I’ll have a word with my boss – see if we can’t get you some extra drug discount”

or, much better (recommended):

Vet: “You’ve had a lot of trouble recently; you are spending a lot on mastitis drugs which is very demoralising”.

The trick is that by reflecting what you think the farmer is saying, he will hopefully agree if you are right, and almost certainly put you right if you misunderstood him. You can also use reflection to angle for the most positive and progressive outcome, which is why the second response above is better than the first.

Clarity runs both ways, therefore. It isn’t easy to always get right, but making sure that all conversations are two-way and never taking understanding for granted are the key things.

Honesty

Again, a bit of honesty might include not beating about the bush and telling it as it is. But that can be difficult, particularly if we want to be liked, and retain a client, right? Something which is particularly difficult with being honest is if you have ignored a problem previously. For example, the following conversation would be a pretty tough message to deliver:

Vet: “You know Tony, your cows are always so lame and skinny because your farm is always in such a mess. There is slurry everywhere, you run around like a lunatic because you are chronically understaffed and you don’t prioritise what is important. You either need to sort things out with a roots up review of your business and cow health, or sell up and get out of farming altogether.”

You might be thinking this. But how can your honesty be used to benefit the cows and farmer here? Something I regret in the past is shying away from difficult (honest) answers when I had the opportunity to give them. The most important time for honesty is particularly when your opinion is being sought.

You should try to position yourself to give honest responses, which means you must give the farmer the right opportunities to seek your opinion. In a situation like above, starting a conversation and asking the farmer his own thoughts would be a good start:

Vet: “Tony, a lot of our farmers (clients) are finding it pretty tough at the moment, and you seem to be in a tougher position than most. How do you feel about the level of lameness going on here?”

It is still not an easy opener, but it makes a start and can lead to a whole different conversation which you might otherwise have dodged. 

Honesty also means recognising your own limitations. Sticking to the example above, you’d be foolish to take on responsibility for sorting out the whole predicament yourself. It is good to acknowledge your limitations clearly.

Tony: “I know I’m in a mess. I can’t afford an extra man so I’m struggling just to keep ahead of milking and feeding. That leaves me no extra time for things like foot trimming. I know it isn’t perfect, but hopefully the milk price will improve soon. What do you think I can do?”

Vet: “I understand your situation and it is difficult. If that’s how it is though, you need some good business advice to make a plan to move forwards. I’d be out of my depth if I tried giving you financial advice. However, I want to help you and I can do that by looking at any proposals to see if they look realistic from a herd health point of view.”

Honesty also means letting your guard down a bit; being brave enough to disclose some of your own short-comings. Personal disclosure engenders trust and trust is the bedrock of teamwork. The great thing is that your honesty (disclosure) will almost certainly be rewarded by reciprocal disclosure. For example:

Vet: “I’m really awkward when it comes to discussing personal finances; it’s a real weak spot of mine. How would you feel, Tony, about discussing your options with a farm business adviser?”

Tony: “I have no problem with all that; I have to discuss my intimate finances pretty regularly with my bank manager anyway. What concerns me more is the possibility of letting down my children, if any of them should want to milk cows in the future.”

So, here we are – a bit of honesty from the vet rewarded with some personal disclosure from the farmer, which gives a better understanding of what makes Tony tick and what might be important influencing his future decisions.

Empathy

You might be cringing inside now. You might not find the above conversation easy for you. But if it is difficult for you, how do you think Tony finds it?

Here is where empathy fits in. Empathy, not to be confused with sympathy, is all about putting yourself in the shoes of your farmer, and trying to see things from their perspective. It certainly isn’t the same as agreeing with your farmer. In fact, it is when you disagree that it is most important to have empathy, because this is the only way you are likely to understand why you disagree.

Take the following example:

Tony: “None of my cows are lame. The odd one doesn’t walk that well, but that’s no different from people. If you went into town right now and looked at all the shoppers walking by, you’d see more people struggling to walk than cows in my herd. Some of them will even be in wheelchairs for goodness sake! You’d probably have me shoot all my old girls – try telling that to the old folk who need walking sticks to get about!”

Now, if you haven’t heard this response yet from a farmer, I’d think you probably haven’t had enough conversations about lameness. It is an old chestnut, and one which some farmers like to voice. I don’t agree one bit with the sentiments, which are that lameness in cows is acceptable, that lameness in cows is similar to mobility difficulties in old age pensioners and the disabled, that the only lame cows are the old ones, or that all the lame cows need shooting. However, it helps to have some empathy with the farmer. From his perspective, he doesn’t see the difference between his herd and people on the high-street; presumably, he doesn’t think he has too many lame cows; he doesn’t think there is anything wrong with them walking with difficulty; he doesn’t see the alternatives to shooting them, and he doesn’t recognise how lameness might be affecting his business, his reputation, his farm’s viability, or how it is perfectly possible (and preferable) to farm without having lame cows. These are pretty important truths to see if you have any chance of helping him.

Azjen’s theory of planned behaviour is a valuable tool to understand what is required here (Azjen, 1991). In short, for someone to intend to make a change, he/she must believe that they will benefit from the change (or that the status quo is not good for them); believe that the change is in-keeping with what everyone else is doing (social norms), and, thirdly, believe that the change is within their own control.

So for Tony to decide to reduce his lameness (and, let’s face it, the decision is his and his alone), he has to:

  • believe that he has lame cows and that they are somehow not good for his business and/or they are suffering because they are in pain
  • believe that his lameness levels are not “normal”, for example as compared to other dairy farms
  • have some understanding of what he can do to alter things; some “tools” to reduce lameness levels

It is firmly in the power of you, the vet, to provide these three keys to help unlock Tony’s intention to make some changes for the better. Arranging an independent herd mobility score (by an accredited scorer), examining some feet together and enrolling the farm on the AHDB Healthy Feet Programme will all do the trick. But to be successful, it must all be done with empathy along the way, understanding what Tony’s particular barriers and perspectives are.

Respect

Tony is in a tricky spot, by your observation and by his own admission. He’s shared with you one of his concerns, that he feels somehow responsible to keep the farm going for his children. He has indicated that he has a different perspective than you over lameness. Although we don’t know for sure, it is likely that he is in fairly dire financial straits.

But respect to the guy! He struggles on and continues to work like a demon. He also hasn’t chucked you off his farm yet for daring to have some difficult conversions. Could you be doing what he is doing?

How do you therefore show your respect? On the face of it, it is probably fairly simple: by having the courtesy to listen to his concerns and his perspectives, and then acknowledging them. And being polite when you give your alternative perspectives. We all respond better when we are shown respect. It is quite a hard thing to fake, or, put another way, easy to tell when someone’s respect for us is not genuine. That is because respect is more than words. It is when one is viewed as a human being with an equal value. We might not be in the same places financially, or within a business hierarchy, or in terms of age and seniority, but we can all still show each other respect by our attitude towards each other.

There is a common axiom that communication is 7% words, 38% tone of voice and 55% body language. This is none-truer than when showing respect, and a few polite words will not disguise a disrespectful attitude. Pay attention to your posture, your open-ness of body language, your eye contact and the amount of time you spend listening (and hearing!). And most of all, pay attention to what your real attitude is. If you feel respect, chances are you’ll show it. If you don’t feel it – then are you in the best place to offer your advice?

Talk less, smile more

Anyone who has seen the hip-hop musical, Hamilton, will be familiar with this line. It was some sage advice given to the young over-enthusiastic revolutionary,  Alexander Hamilton, who later became one of the Founding Fathers of the United States after the American Revolutionary War of the 18th Century. 

Many of us are guilty of a bit too much enthusiastic talking and imposing our own ideas on others. When it comes to successful communication, however, it has to be a two-way street. When giving advice, if you want it to result in change, time spent listening is just as valuable as time spent talking. Moreover, the smiling part! It is a rare person who accepts advice from a po-faced orator, or even enjoys having a conversation with them.

Empathy, respect and honesty have less to do with what you say than what you feel. They cannot easily be faked. And that can lead to a problem. Because, if you don’t feel these things towards your client, it probably doesn’t matter what you say: it is unlikely to have a beneficial effect. On the plus side, however, you don’t have to think too hard about your words if you do feel empathy and respect, and if you are being open and honest. Because, then it is likely that genuine and meaningful conversions with your farmer will naturally flow; you are more likely to have their trust and you are more likely to be working together as a team towards a common goal. The only part about your words is that they must be clear – and that’s easy to check because you simply ask!

Sometimes you will recognise that you aren’t feeling the love today. That’s fine, you are human after-all. In which case, just do the immediate job in front of you and walk away. But try to find enough empathy and respect within yourself, and come back another day with some honesty and clarity to finish your work.

Conclusion

When helping others, there is also a need to attend to yourself. This includes being clear in what you can offer as a facilitator of change in terms of time, knowledge and skills. However, it also includes a more spiritual aspect: understanding one’s own identity and integrity in order to draw upon personal feelings to make sense of what might be going on with other people.

This article has looked at a few secrets for success in advising farmers. Most farm vets enjoy talking to farmers, or else the job’s no fun. Next time you are on farm, try practicing some different styles of communication and see how you find it. Concentrate too on how you are feeling towards your client. That way, your job might become even better.

(If you enjoy this aspect of your job, or you’d simply like to learn more about communicating more effectively with your farm clients, there are some useful resources in the Knowledge Bank – see website homepage).