As agricultural and rural community professionals, it is important to understand how to effectively communicate with farmers and family members who face highly stressful situations. Based on cited research and interactions with thousands of farmers and ranchers throughout the US, ten key suggestions have been developed.
Understand the basic physical, chemical and physiological workings of the stress thermostat, including the effects of cortisol (and other chemicals) on thinking, memory, distractibility, health, communications and relationships.
Help others regain a sense of control by seeing their situation concretely and realistically. Write down (or encourage them to write down) numbers, goals, next steps, timelines and resources to contact. Know that if you only talk about concepts and ideas in an abstract way and rely on memory, little will happen.
Encourage others so THEY set goals and action steps on paper. Your clients should participate and then write down goals, ideally following the SMART goal framework*:
Have patience as you walk through decisions and plans with your clients. LISTEN. You may have a grasp on the objective reality of a situation, but because of the real and measurable impacts of stress on our perceptions, your client will likely not see the situation as clearly.
Help others tap into and fully use the social support systems around them. These systems could include Extension, technical colleges, churches, schools, trusted and experienced advisors, and elders in the community. It’s also very helpful when farmers can reach out to and learn from other farmers. Peer learning and support is enormously helpful as people share concerns, accomplishments, and solutions.
Know that all healing takes time. Many people may need to simultaneously focus on physical and mental wellbeing. Making changes and looking toward the future takes physical energy.
Know that some individuals and families might choose to focus on things that you may not see as the highest priority. Or worse, you might view their number-one concern as irrelevant. Do not
dismiss their concerns, as they might be overwhelming the emotions of your client. Be patient, listen, and help them focus.
Dealing with stress requires a holistic approach, meaning a team is needed. Make sure to involve people with appropriate expertise who can consider issues of finance, production, and other technical specialties. Do not overlook the roles of health professionals, including mental health. Technical skills are important, but so is the ability to empathetically listen.
Help others see their stress response as a call to action. In her popular TED Talk, ** Dr. Kelly McGonigal says, “Stress gives us access to our hearts. The compassionate heart that finds joy and meaning in connecting with others…your pounding physical heart, working so hard to give you strength and energy. And when you choose to view stress in this way, you’re not just getting
better at stress, you’re actually making a pretty profound statement. You’re saying that you can trust yourself to handle life’s challenges. And you’re remembering that you don’t have to face
Follow up with clientele in a pre-planned, scheduled manner. We all need support, and regular check-ins create a sense of reliability and help others achieve goals they’ve set. Be positive. Recognize and celebrate progress. Listen. Be patient. It might take multiple tries to make significant progress. All forward progress is good progress. And slippage backward, when properly framed, is a great learning opportunity.
Take care of yourself. For professionals, this heavy-duty work can sap energy, and for many it can be just as stressful of an experience as it is for those whom you are serving. Get support from others doing similar work. Listen with the intent to connect. Seek help and lean on other team members. Take time away. And know when you need a break.
Download as PDF
*SMART Goals are based in part on original work by:
Doran, G. T. (1981). “There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives”. Management Review.
AMA FORUM. 70 (11): 35–36.
**Dr. Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. She is also the author of the book cited below.
McGonigal, K. (2016). The upside of stress: Why stress is good for you, and how to get good at it. London, United Kingdom: Penguin.
Thumbnail image: Minerva Studio/Shutterstock.com