Dealing With Difficult People

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The Community Association business is a people business. My many years of experience in the industry as a management professional have brought me into contact with a number of great people, some of whom have become friends. But, as in any large group of people, there will always be those who are difficult.

A Community Association is like a small government. It has a Board of Directors (the leaders), and a group of homeowners (the populace) governed by the Board of Directors. Having served on the board of my own Homeowners’ Association, I know what a thankless job it is. Most board members serve out of a feeling of obligation, although a few serve simply for the power it gives them over their neighbors, or for an attempted personal benefit. Some board members can be difficult. These people are a problem.

Most board members have a good sense of their responsibilities. They understand that they may have to make decisions that will be unpopular – maybe even ones they don’t like themselves. But ultimately, the board members’ obligation is to serve the community as a whole, not to serve his or her own needs and not to serve the needs of a small section of the membership. These board members may likely encounter difficult people amongst their constituents. The question then becomes, how does one deal with difficult people?

Here are some helpful tips for dealing with difficult people:

1) Try not to take things personally. It has been said that all politics are local and all politics are personal. Nowhere is that more evident than in a Community Association. On the national stage we are presently observing some of the most strident rhetoric ever seen. But on the Community Association level this gets much more personal, because both the group of members and the geographic area are much smaller. When somebody gets personal, they are right in your face. This can make you want to respond in the same manner as the person attacking you – with a corresponding personal attack. Don’t do it. It will just make things worse. Control your emotions.

2) Listen. It’s often difficult when a person is on a rant, losing control in your face. But this is precisely when you really need to listen, so you can try to understand what is driving the emotions.

3) Demonstrate empathy. Try to put yourself in the other person’s position to understand where he or she is coming from.

4) Ask questions. Making statements in a confrontational situation does nothing to help resolve the issue. It is perceived by the other side as being an aggressive position. Instead, ask questions. Often you can back people into a corner by asking questions to demonstrate why the positions they’re representing are illogical, or even completely impossible. You should avoid the “why” questions or going too deep with them, however, as this can be construed as being accusatory.

5) Manage your attitude. Make sure that you’re not coming across as aggressive to the other person.

6) Find a point of agreement. Build on that point of agreement to diffuse the confrontation.

7) Use appropriate phrases to clarify positions. A simple “That’s not what I said”, followed by a restatement, prevents someone else from twisting your words.

8) Stay focused on the issue. Don’t allow the conversation to go off-track, as it will not only waste time but may also create additional issues.

9) Separate the issue from the person. Use “I” or “we” rather than “you.” When one uses the term “you”, it can be interpreted as an accusatory statement. For example, take the comment “You never sent me that e-mail” versus “I never received that e-mail.” The “you” statement is offensive; the “I” statement is neutral.

10) Be assertive but do not be obnoxious.

11) Turn the tables. Aggressive individuals try to put you on the defensive. One of the best ways to deflect this is to ask them questions that place them on the defensive.

12) Express appreciation. The last thing difficult people expect from you is for you to express appreciation for their comments or points of view. But it needs to be real.

Anyone who has worked in the Community Association industry has dealt with difficult people. This fact is not going to go away. It is always going to be with us simply because people are people. It’s good to have discourse; it’s good to have challenge; but it’s not good to be disagreeable in the process.

When someone becomes difficult in an open meeting, try to practice the tips above, with the goal of converting that difficult person into a reasonable homeowner. Sometimes you have to overlook your own need to be right and recognize that there is an issue that needs to be discussed.

Few people can pull off a healthy disagreement and still remain on good terms. However, I want to relate the story of one board meeting I attended that I will always remember. This Association had 11 board members, one representing each of the 10 phases. We were at the organizational meeting of the newly elected Board of Directors. I had come to know several of these people over the few months that I had been working with this Association on a consulting basis. Two individuals stood out. Mike was a retired Marine Corps colonel. Jerry was a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer. Both were the type of individuals that were used to issuing orders and expecting them to be carried out. Both were leaders.

Mike was elected president of the Board and proceeded to conduct the meeting. A point of disagreement arose between several members of the Board. It soon became obvious that the primary confrontation was clearly between Mike and Jerry. The conversation became so heated that the tension was virtually invisible in the air. I was concerned that they might come to blows, although they didn’t.

The matter was eventually settled in Mike’s favor. Several other matters were discussed, after which Mike called for a recess to allow members to relax for a few moments and grab refreshments. He then walked from the front of the room to the back, where Jerry sat. I was sitting very close to Jerry. Mike simply asked, “Jerry, are you guys come over to the house for the BBQ this afternoon?” Jerry responded, “Of course.” It wasn’t until that moment that I realized these two men were friends. While they felt very strongly about the positions on which they were voting, it never became personal.

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