Influencing farmer behaviour - Veterinary Practice
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Influencing farmer behaviour

At the BCVA Congress, Helen Higgins asked if vets could do better at communicating with farmers

Helen Higgins, from the University of Liverpool, spoke in the business stream of the BCVA’s October congress about the role vets play in influencing farmer behaviour. She spoke about common mistakes and made suggestions to enhance the chances of veterinary advice being taken on board at the farm level.

“There’s a big difference between knowing what we should be doing and doing it in reality,” Helen began, noting that there is a gap between knowledge and implementation. Farmers are often very knowledgeable, just as most of the British population are aware that they should eat a healthier diet and drink less alcohol, but for many this knowledge doesn’t translate into change.

Helen suspects she isn’t alone in feeling frustration having given farmers advice, and realising that the farmers haven’t taken it.

To help tackle this issue, she described a framework – a stage model – that is adapted to a farm context. The model was designed to help vets recognise the various stages that form the pathway to change.

The pathway to change

At the starting point, the farmer has absolutely no intention of making any changes. Through the first stage, they can be guided to a point where they genuinely want to start trying to do something. At the second stage, they must make a start. And at the third stage, they must keep on acting over time. “The factors that come into play are different at different stages,” explained Helen. “Some things will be important throughout, like excellent communication skills, but there are specific things that are more important at different points.”

Assuming that farmers are at the point of genuinely wanting to do something when in fact they are at stage one is a common mistake. Helen recalled going onto a farm and seeing a problem; she would report that to the farmer and have a lot of discussion about it. Assuming the farmer knew they had a problem and wanted to do something about it, she would come up with a plan of action, work out the costs, report it to the farmer and have numerous conversations with them about the cost benefit.

If the cost benefit was overwhelmingly in favour of acting and that farmer didn’t act, Helen would start to believe they were behaving irrationally and become frustrated. She explained her train of thought: “If the economic argument is so overwhelmingly in favour of change and that doesn’t motivate them, nothing will.” So, she would give up on the active approach.

But, she explained, she now realises that she was making lots of assumptions – “Just because you’ve told somebody they’ve got a problem doesn’t mean to say that they’ve perceived that problem in the same way that you do… Do not underestimate the power of the human mind – if you don’t want to hear something, you won’t hear it.”

Involve farmers in the process

The ownership of change is about creating opportunities for farmers to explore and realise their problem, and allowing them to be a partner in generating ideas for possible solutions. Allow them to be part of the process rather than just telling them what the answer is, Helen advised, particularly when they haven’t asked for your advice in the first place. “Asking open questions is very key – you’re forcing farmers to think about it – the pros and cons of the situation, what the issues are, how much of an economic impact it might be having,” she said.

“Even if you have a farmer who truly perceives the case in the same was as you, they won’t always automatically want to do something about it”, Helen said. She listed some potential reasons – perhaps they don’t feel it’s their responsibility, or there isn’t enough social pressure on them: “If everybody has the same problem and nobody else is doing anything about it, why should I?” Or they perceive the problem, but they don’t think they can change anything.

Vets can be part of the problem

Drawing from personal experiences, Helen highlighted that vets can become part of the problem: “We build up impressions of farmers over time and get frustrated; we believe they’re never going to change and label them as a ‘difficult’ farmer.”

She highlighted the issue of ‘leakage’ – a term used to describe the influence body language can have if it doesn’t match up with what a person is saying: “You may be subconsciously giving them signals that you don’t really think they can do this… As a starting point for implementing changes on-farm, you’ve got to go onto the farm with a fresh, open mind, believing in what they can do.”

Farmers should also be given all the options – be aware that you may subconsciously be withholding options because you don’t believe the farmer will be interested in them. Farmers should be given the option to work toward new goals they may never have thought about before, Helen said. When explaining the options, avoid making assumptions and always ask the farmer questions.

Disappointment can be avoided by managing expectations; if the action is going to take more
time, have an honest, frank discussion about it

A final point close to Helen’s heart was not to bias veterinary colleagues. “Don’t talk negatively about your clients to colleagues; language is important,” she stated, noting that new graduates particularly can be very impressionable. “Just because you have a bad relationship with a client doesn’t mean your colleagues will too,” she said; new colleagues with a fresh outlook can be in a good position to initiate change.

If it’s easy to do, get it done

At the second stage, money may come into the equation, but it depends on what is motivating the farmer. Helen highlighted the hassle factor – get things that are easy to do done: “Put yourself in [the farmer’s] shoes and think how you can make the job as easy as it possibly can be.”

Disappointment can be avoided by managing expectations; if the action is going to take more time, have an honest, frank discussion about it. Helen noted that it is crucial to follow things through and be eyes-on to make sure the action is successful. If the farmer tries to make the change and it fails, they may just assume it will never work. Don’t give up; try to find out why it didn’t work.

Keep an open mind

It’s essential to believe people can change and remember that how receptive a farmer is to changing may change over time with their situation. Helen’s take-home message was a simple one – keep an open mind and assume nothing.

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