Sceptical of Rotorua lives on a small lifestyle block just out of the city.  He’s totally content with his rural life and says there’s hardly been an alien abduction since he moved in, nor have there been any crop circles.

But there are dogs.  And what’s sometimes worse, their owners.

Nestled amongst other lifestylers surrounding a sheep and beef farm, Sceptical gets on very well with the local farmer.  He and his wife stroll over the farm and can even harvest fallen trees for firewood. 

The problem began when a new lifestyler moved in, fresh from town.  And she brought a dog with her.

It is, he says, a lovely dog but before long it was being taken for walks on the farm – off the leash, running free.  Which never impresses stock or, more importantly, the up-till-now friendly farmer.

“People don’t understand that a dog has an instinctive propensity to harass or maul stock.  And it’s worse if that animal has been tied up for most of the day and is then allowed to roam about.”

The newcomer also took it upon herself to interfere in the management of the farm. 

“One time, she opened gates to let weaned calves back in with their mothers, because she thought it was cruel to keep them apart.”

This kind of thing, he points out, fails to endear lifestylers to commercial-scale farmers (or other lifestylers), and just makes things tricky, if not downright unpleasant.

The question is – how to inform newcomers of their responsibilities in a way that will allow them to acclimatise in a harmonious way, and nip potential trouble in the bud.  It’s all about communication. 

Managing conflict

Mary Simpson is a lecturer at Waikato University’s Management School, where for the past five years she has taught conflict management.  She was also a health social worker for 20 years. She lives on a lifestyle block on the Hauraki Plains and, a former city dweller, understands some of the complications of moving to the country.

There are a number of things to keep in mind with this situation, she says.  The first is the innate politeness that New Zealanders are well known for.   “We tend to be quite reserved at approaching a conflict situation and indirect in our communication. Some people are so accommodating and bottle things up that when they snap they lose it!”

Conflict is a normal part of being human, she says.  “It becomes a problem when it escalates: the trick is to manage different points of view to achieve agreement on a mutual goal.”

As a given, it’s a fair assumption that everyone in this situation wants to get on with everyone else.

“There are certain expectations.  We expect the farmer to manage his stock in an efficient way, so they don’t stray on to others’ property for instance.  And those living in the area also have responsibilities to limit their impacts on those around them.”

In general, it might be a good idea to invite all newcomers to meet the neighbours over a relaxing cup of coffee or home brew.

“This could be an opportunity to talk about some basics on what living in the area entails.  And people should most definitely share stories about the mistakes they made when they first came - because we all make them.”

Martha the problem pig

Mary admits to making one or two herself, such as her kunekune Martha, who was an outstanding example of ‘pighood’. 

“She was just gorgeous, friendly and very intelligent. My mother would turn up in her car and feed Martha food scraps from it – very soon Martha was jumping up and trying to get into the car - not good.  Then she went on heat and would just set off, roaming around the area looking for a mate – my husband found her once on a neighbour’s front lawn, and him somewhat bemused.”

Martha was just being a pig.  “We’d inadvertently brought this upon ourselves by the way we’d trained her up.  I realised that while the neighbour had been very good humoured about it, his goodwill may have run out if it continued. And we would’ve been in real trouble if she’d caused a car accident.” 

It’s also worthwhile to keep in mind that some people have a blind spot when it comes to their pets.  And are quick to defend them.

“You may hear someone say ‘my dog wouldn’t chase sheep’ – but if dogs are left to run wild and get into packs, there’s a chance that they will chase and harass stock.”

The nitty gritty

So it’s all about managing differences to prevent situations from escalating - “Because things can get worse, and quite quickly.”

One process for approaching this uses a tool from the Conflict Resolution Network, Mapping the Conflict.

This focuses on working out the needs of all concerned.  Once a problem has been identified, the first step is to write the issue in a sentence: “People walking their dogs on the farm are not leaving the gates as they find them” or “People walking their dogs are letting them run free on the farm”. If all the parties are present, the second step is for each party to identify their needs and fears about the issue. For example:

Farmer -
Needs:  to keep stock safe; trust people on his or her farm;
Fears: will be liable if stock get out and cause car accidents; stock will get hurt of killed by dogs.

Dog walker -
Needs: to exercise the dogs, to get on with neighbours;
Fears: Will be stopped from walking on the farm;

Sceptical -
Needs: to get on with Farmer and other neighbours;
Fears: that the Farmer will stop him and others walking on the farm

The third step is to ask: What areas to we have in common?

The fourth step is to ask: What are the options?

“People may find they have more in common than first thought. Once common ground has been established, finding solutions to the problem becomes possible.”

How to begin?

Mary suggests inviting the dog owner somewhere for a cup of coffee.  Neutral territory is a good idea.

“And then talk over the concerns – there’s a chance the dog owner is unaware of the problem you see.  It’s not just talking things over, it’s how you talk that matters sometimes. If she denies there’s a problem, another strategy is to try to see it from her point of view.”

In a process based on author Dr Tom Rusk’s ideas, you leave your agenda aside for the moment, and really try to understand the other perspective.

“You’d then say something like ‘this is my understanding – and relay it back until she says that yes, you’ve got it.  Then, and only then, can you ask her to listen to your point of view - ‘now, this is my situation.’  And they also have to be able to relay it back to show they understand it.”

By this time, both parties should have not merely listened to the other’s point of view, but hopefully have actually understood it. Then, the last question is what can be done about it to solve the problem.

Tom Rusk lists the steps as:

  • Exploring the other person’s viewpoint
  • Explaining your viewpoint
  • Creating solutions

“And solutions can nearly always be found.  Because we all have that fundamental need to fit in and be accepted within a community.  It just takes a while sometimes.”

If this doesn’t work, there’s always formal mediation, she adds.  “But you could save time and money and relationships by using these processes earlier rather than later.  And keep in mind that all of this is character building and can be used in other similar situations to good effect.”

© Annette Taylor